Auf Weidersehen 2010 as Germany Brings the Year to an End

As the end of the year drew near and finally the airports re-opened after record snow falls across much of Europe we packed our bags for one final flying visit to bring 2010 to a close. But in keeping with our dramas of near misses with just about every mode of transport so far in 2 years of this project, yet again we nearly missed out. This time it was not a last minute dash or missed connection but more snow. Sixteen hours and a diverted landing later (as we were running low on fuel) we reached our destination despite the plane freezing as we sat waiting on a runway in Dusseldorf to re-fuel and a decision on whether we could go on.
Germany has just around 2,000 Burmese exiles but just a handful of former political prisoners. Unfortunately they live in different cities at other ends of the country and with the weather and time against us we were only able to make it to Cologne for what has been our quickest trip yet. Seeing this much snow reminded us of Norway even if the temperature was not quite as cold and the beauty of a white christmas, sledging and a snow ball fight on Christmas day coupled with meeting Aung Than Oo ‘Sonny’ and Aung Thu for this project meant the delays and dramas of transportation were worth it.
This trip had been organised with the great help of U Nwe Aung (NCUB) who has recently returned to his home in Cologne having worked in UK for the past few years. So now he was here we all arranged to meet for dinner (and whisky) at The Mandalay restaurant in Cologne (owned by Aung Thu’s brother Myint Swe). With a bit of thought and manouvering around the restaurant we managed to get pretty good portraits done – Aung Thu’s in the kitchen and in keeping with trying to show an ‘ordinary’ perspective to the work.

Aung Thu was jailed for 2 years in Insein prison

Aung Thu was arrested on 20th May 1990 and charged just one week later under sections 17/2 and 5J for attempting to disrupt the 1990 General Election. During the 1988 uprising he had worked closely with members of the ABFSU and soon after he was involved in setting up the ABSDF in Rangoon. It was his involvement in the ABSDF that caught the attention of Military Intelligence and that would eventually see him jailed in Insein prison for 2 years and 4 months. He was jailed in Insein with Aung Gyi, Thar Nyunt Oo and Aung Kyaw Soe (Ko Aung in the UK who is yet to be photographed for this project). After his release like so many his movements were monitored and he could not travel anywhere but it was links to helping his ABSDF colleague Win Naing Oo who wrote the book ‘Cries From Insein’ that was what proved the final straw that meant he had to flee Burma as MI came looking for Aung Thu once more. He fled to Germany on a tourist visa in 1996 and was able to claim political asylum soon after. He is now the President of the Burma Bureau Germany.

Aung Than Oo ‘Sonny’ was jailed in Insein prison for 4 years

Aung Than Oo or ‘Sonny’ as he is known, was just a 10th standard school boy when he first became political aware. He studied at Rangoon GTI Insein and soon became politically active growing up in the recent shadow of the 1962 student movement and subsequent incidents. Like many he was unable to finish his degree due to Universities constantly being closed down – in 1970 the Golden Jubilee of Rangoon University was celebrated but before the celebrations ended all the universities were closed down. Many students were imprisoned and some were expelled. In June 1974 a Labour Strike lead to further unrest and again students actively demonstrated, but it was the U Thant uprising in December 1974 at U Thant’s funeral that saw a mass crackdown by the regime with over 5,000 people arrested. Sonny could no longer risk staying in Rangoon due to his political activities and involvement in demonstrations so he fled to the Thai-Burma border. But there was little help to be found at this time and he could not risk going back to Rangoon so he stayed in the Moulmein area. Universities were opened once again on 5th May 1975 so he returned to Rangoon to meet with his colleagues once more, including Tin Maung Oo. They planned to start their movement again and waited until the anniversary of the June 1974 uprising. On 6th June 1975 the students and workers held a commemoration ceremony. From then onwards there were strikes and over 250 were detained. From middle school students up to university students were sentenced to imprisonment of 4 to 9 years under military tribunals. Sonny was arrested with his colleagues at Shwedagon Pagoda and was sentenced to 7 years in prison. He was jailed for 4 years in Insein prison. In 1987 as student uprisings started again he fled Burma to Germany where has lived ever since. He is an executive committee member of the Burma Bureau Germany.

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No Change in Policy or Defiance as DVB’s Sithu Zeya is Sentenced

With the welcome news last week that 16 political prisoners have been released including 3 members of the ABFSU (Lwin Ko Latt, Han Win Aung & Kyaw Kyaw) comes the usual twist of fate for others less fortunate. Welcome news indeed, but it was no amnesty or relaxing in policy by the regime as yesterday it was confirmed that Sithu Zeya has been sentenced to 8 years in prison under Burma’s draconian laws – 3 years under section 13/20 The Immigration Act and 5 years under section 17/1 The Unlawful Association Act. It is likely this will be increased as we await further news over charges under the infamous Electronic Act that could add a further 20 years to his already unjust sentence.

Along with his father Maung Maung Zeya, he was arrested for the crime of photographing the aftermath of the bombing scene at Kandawgyi Lake in Rangoon during the Thingyan festival in April earlier this year. But it was whilst under interrogation by military intelligence that brutal torture he endured lead to his confession that he was a journalist for Democratic Voice of Burma and so was his father. This was his real crime, being one of the brave undercover journalists who risk everything to expose the reality of the SPDC’s crimes. The young 21 year old man now faces a life of continued torture in Burma’s dark prisons along with 17 other DVB journalists. Deputy Director of DVB, Khin Maung Win, confirmed that authorities had offered to free Maung Maung Zeya if he divulged the names of other undercover DVB reporters – the regime have made targeting the undercover VJs of DVB and other exiled media organisations a number one priority. But it is a policy doomed to failure and is as futile as that which the world continues to adopt in ‘waiting and seeing’ as an ever patient nation grows tired of it’s meglomaniac rulers and more people than ever before are willing to take the risks to expose the regime by becoming VJs themselves and joining the ranks of the many hundreds already at work undercover throughout Burma. In a small part of the world far from the darkness of Insein a candle will be lit tonight to honour Sithu Zeya and all 22 journalists jailed in Burma.

Defiance comes in all shapes and sizes and without the likes of Sithu and Maung Maung Zeya willing to take the risks involved the outside world would have even less knowledge of life behind this iron curtain. Whilst the numbers of political prisoners rise and fall in equal measures there will be no let up in the undercover journalists’ and activists’ quest to tell the truth no matter what the consequences. As Han Win Aung said on his release last Friday, “It doesn’t matter for how long they’ve detained us … how brutal they were, we will never be broken in spirit. Our beliefs are unshakeable. We will flourish under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership for the sake of democracy and political freedom.”

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Jumping for Burma’s Political Prisoners

Today, Waihnin Pwint Thon, daughter of jailed 88 Generation Student leader Ko Mya Aye and leading campaigner and activist in her own right, jumped higher and further than most to raise awareness for Burma’s political prisoners. Spurred on by a number of close friends and colleagues, she leapt from a crane 150ft above south-east London with nothing more than a large elasticated rope tied to her legs to raise awareness for Burma’s Political Prisoners. She also raised an awful lot of sponsorship money (you can still sponsor her here) which will not only go towards Burma Campaign UK and their campaign work for Burma’s political prisoners but also at Waihnin’s request a large percentage of money raised is going direct to the former political prisoners who have been forced to flee Burma and now live a stateless and perilous existence on the Thai-Burma border in the refugee camps of Umpiem Mai and Nupo and also in safe houses in Mae Sot and the surrounding border areas. There, their lives are in grave danger and today Waihnin played a small part that she was able to try to help them.

Below is a short video message to those former political prisoners from Waihnin and Khun Saing issued at her request.

As DVB VJs we were hard at work today and here’s one cut of the days events – the other cut will be broadcast on DVB TV channel soon.

On the Thai-Burma border the former political prisoners have no status for they are not recognised as refugees and face the very real threat of imminent return to Burma at any moment. There is no protection by the UNHCR. There is no work, no right to be there, no life. They have left Burma with nothing and often also leaving their families behind. The money raised today by Waihnin will go a very long way in helping them.

You can read a great recent interview with Waihnin here at The Irrawaddy where she explains her reasons for this jump as well as her recent work.

“I think your personal conviction is more important than which organization you are working for. For me, I wish to work in the struggle for human rights. I wish to see the people of Burma and all countries enjoying human rights and freedom. Since I believe that I am working for the good of the Burmese people, I have no special attachment to any particular organization.”

Her father would be proud of her efforts today in once again further highlighting the issue of Burma’s political prisoners. In doing this jump today she has raised a huge amount of money that will go a long way to helping the people of Burma and it’s current and former political prisoners.

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Norway Day 1: Norway & Nobel – A Perfect Blend

After a summer recess longer than even the politicians can manage, we are finally back on the road. A great feeling. Back doing what we do best. Not that we’ve just been sitting around enjoying the sun – far from it in fact, as the last few months have seen Amnesty International launch a major campaign for political prisoners using our work and saw us photograph the British Deputy Prime Minister. But all this time the really important work has been continuing in the background – can’t reveal what yet but one day we will. Justice will prevail.

The Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) in Oslo, Norway

An early start as we’re Oslo bound (again) for a catch up with friends plus meetings at DVB before flying to Bergen on Saturday to meet with Ma Kaythi Aye, Ko Cho Cho Tun and the many other former political prisoners living there. A quick three day trip before the election to keep the pressure up and it started in the usual rush of near missed buses, trains and flights but we got here in the end. The only major hiccup was whisky. Not the blend – just too much whisky. But this time not a drop was drunk and my over exuberance got the better of me and as I strolled through customs in Oslo airport I was pulled aside and asked to explain what I was doing with 4 bottles of whisky? The simple answer “I’m Burmese” didn’t wash. A £100 fine and 3 bottles confiscated was not the start I was looking for. Now how are we going to celebrate winning the Nobel Peace Prize tomorrow?

DVB broadcasts TV and radio programmes back into Burma

We finally made it to the office and it was great to see everyone again. An afternoon chatting and planning and the usual friendly family atmosphere and just time for some relaxed shots around the office as the day unfolds – no portraits or work documenting today as we’ve already photographed the former political prisoners here in Oslo and at DVB last year. A relaxed evening spent with friends at Ma Thida’s apartment and her kind hospitality ahead of the big announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize tomorrow – another reason why we are here. DVB are one of the main contenders if the stories are to be believed and 19 years after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded hers it couldn’t come too soon for DVB. Naturally I am biased but it would be an extraordinarily worthwhile victory if it was to be awarded to them – a timely victory at the very least as the elections are now exactly 1 month away. I am lucky to be here and even luckier to be able to work with them. Keep your fingers crossed and tune in to the announcement live as a webcast on the Nobel website.

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Political Activist and Former Political Prisoner Speaking Tour to New Zealand

My good friend and former political prisoner Aung Khaing Min who works at the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, will be visiting New Zealand on a 10 day tour giving a first-hand account of his own experiences as an activist and political prisoner in Burma and the personal struggles the people of Burma face. He was just 14 years old when he first stood up to the regime in 1988 and has spent 5 years in prison for his political activities. Aung Khaing Min will also be asking the New Zealand Government what they are doing for the people of Burma. His visit from October 10th-20th is part of Amnesty International’s Freedom campaign.

For full details of his trip please visit Amnesty New Zealand

Aung Khaing Min was jailed for 5 years in Insein and Taungoo prisons


His brother’s name ‘Chit Ko Lin’ is written on his hand.
Chit Ko Lin is serving a 7 year sentence in Pakokku prison

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The Faces Behind The Names Behind The Scenes…Taking Action

Please join these two leading Burmese activists and take your portrait in solidarity with Burma’s Political Prisoners and submit it to Amnesty’s campaign

With the Amnesty International campaign now in full swing I can finally release these portraits of two of the people involved in this project, both joining in and taking action to stand along side Burma’s political prisoners (not my portrait of course – the most likely time you’ll get to see that will be if I ever get caught). With the public now submitting their own portraits by the hundreds as we speak, I am still continuing my work taking portraits of former political prisoners all over the world – that’s my role and my work, but what I ask of you is that you take your portrait like my two colleagues have done here.

As most of you will know if you’ve been reading any of the blog entries from around the world, there is one person who is fundamental to this project, traveling by my side, assisting in all aspects and without her help and involvement this campaign would not be where it is today.

Jacquelin San taking action for fellow Zoology student Mie Mie and Burma’s Political Prisoners
outside Number 10 Downing Street in London

Jacquelin San, affectionately named the Secretary General by our good friend Ko Than Win Htut at DVB, is pictured here joining in the public campaign and adding her voice to the hundreds who have already taken part in the past few days since the campaign was launched. She fled Burma in 2000 after the student demonstrations in Rangoon in the late 1990s where she was a second year Zoology student at RC1 and sat demonstrating with hundreds of her colleagues in the road at Hledan junction in December 1996. The portrait is taken outside Number 10 Downing Street in London, the home of the British Prime Minister. Taking this campaign message about Burma’s political prisoners to the front door of the man holding power in the UK is an extraordinary achievement. Mr Cameron you are next so please open the door.

Waihnin Pwint Thon takes action in the House of Commons with her
father’s name written on her hand

Another person who has played a hugely significant part in this campaign is Waihnin Pwint Thon, daughter of 88 Generation Student leader Ko Mya Aye who is currently jailed in Taunggyi prison in Shan State where he is suffering from extreme ill health. he is serving a 65 year sentence plus six months for his role in peaceful demonstrations in 2007. Waihnin has not only been involved in helping me with my work in many ways, but she is also a leading campaigner for Burma and political prisoners in the UK where she works for both Amnesty International and Burma Campaign UK. Above all else she is an inspiration to me. She speaks with courage and determination and her father whom she has not seen for over half of her life would be incredibly proud of her. By taking part in this campaign she is making a stand not just for her father but for all of her fathers colleagues and all of the people of Burma.

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From Rangoon to London. One Underground to Another.

Picking up from where we left off with Zaw Zaw Aung the other day we continued with shooting in London’s famously fashionable Shoreditch district, although this time we went underground. After all that is where political prisoners roots are and none more so than my friend Aung Gyi who it was a great pleasure to catch up with and take his portrait. Special thanks as always to DVB for filming and Jacqueline San for making this happen.

In 1988 Aung Gyi was a high school student at BEHS3 in South Okkalapa township in Rangoon. He was Secretary of the South Okkalapa division of the student organization the “Democratic Front” and was heavily involved in organizing and carrying out actions aagainst the regime such as leafleting and dropping pamphlets, putting up posters and banners and graffiti on walls in busy areas. Along with most of the colleagues in his group he was arrested at home one evening in August 1990 and ended up being charged under section 5J and was sentenced to 5 years in prison.  He spent two years in Insein and Taungoo prisons before being released in August 1992.

DVB VJ ‘Sam’ films whilst Jackie writes the name of a
Shwebo prison cellmate on Aung Gyi’s palm

After his release he rejoined his colleagues in the movement for underground activities. He was involved in the 1996 student demonstrations but he managed to escape being caught by the authorities, unlike many of his colleagues who were returned to prison. He spent 3 years in hiding in a poultry farm in an area just outside of Rangoon. Whilst he was in hiding he got married – a quiet, secretive wedding ceremony in a small monastery. In 2001 he started working as a reporter for a Rangoon sports journal “First Eleven”. He worked with Zaw Thet Htwe who was chief editor at that time. In 2003 Zaw Thet Htwe was arrested for an article that had been written about alleged corruption in the Burmese football association abusing money given to them by the world football governing body FIFA. Zaw Htet Thwe was arrested and sentenced to death and Aung Gyi was also arrested but this time was released after interrogation. In 2005 he was contacted again by some of his former collegues who had now been released from prison with the aim of starting up a network of undercover journalists inside the country and the first DVB networks were established. Aung Gyi left his sports journal job and set up his own advertising and film editing company, again helping to provide a cover for his secret activities now as an undercover video journalist.
In 2007 he was involved in the Saffron Revolution and with the footage that the world would see provided by the network of Burma VJs the authorities were hot on his trail and he was arrested again in November 2007. His arrest was a farcical story, but I cannot share that with you here. He was detained for a year before being sentenced to 2 years in prison. He was released in September 2009 from Shwebo prison. It was now too dangerous for him to stay in the country anymore and with his wife and young child he fled Burma on 1st January 2010.  He has now been resettled to the UK but like so many former political activists who flee, he is left waiting for his family to join him.

One has to spare a thought and thank Than Shwe for disbanding Burma’s once famed intelligence network in 2004 which lead to the jailing of hundreds of intelligence officers (two of whom Aung Gyi was jailed with in Shwebo prison) and the detention of General Khin Nyunt under house arrest. If the intelligence services had been left with their previous powers then not only would Aung Gyi still be in prison today, but so would so many of his colleagues and no-one would have known anything about the ‘Saffron Revolution’.

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Zarganar Protests Planned for Edinburgh Festival

Article in the Democratic Voice of Burma about the huge amount of campaigning we will be doing at Edinburgh Festival in particular highlighting Zarganar/

Read the article on the DVB website

Htein Lin, artist and close friend of Zarganar, spent more than 6 years in prison. he has the name of his friend written on the palm of his hand.

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BURMA’S POLITICAL PRISONERS CAMPAIGN LAUNCH “Freedom In Your Hands”

“Freedom is in your hands – Use it for Burma’s political prisoners”

Take action NOW at the Amnesty UK website to demand their immediate release.

Finally, after many months hard work behind the scenes with Amnesty International as well as two years hard work on the road, today this project is officially becoming part of a major campaign action by Amnesty International to demand the immediate and unconditional release of all Burma’s political prisoners. This is a campaign action that YOU can be part of. TAKE ACTION, stand with Burma’s former political prisoners and demand the release of ALL of their colleagues who remain in jail today.

This campaign film is being used to launch the start of this major campaign by Amnesty International UK and we need you to play your part in placing insurmountable pressure on world leaders and the UN to bring about the release of Burma’s political prisoners. The campaign is being lead by the former political prisoners themselves but WE NEED YOU to stand with them. With this campaign we aim to collect thousands of portraits from people all over the world and put pressure on world leaders at the EU-Asia summit in October just days before the elections will be held in Burma.

Please visit the Amnesty UK website for full details.

It has taken almost two years of hard work by many people to get to this stage, but there is much, much more to do. This is just the start. This film requires some special thanks to the following people (in no particular order) for their hard work:
Everyone at AAPP and DVB and others who’s names I cannot mention; Jackie San (for filming everything); Verity & Laura at Amnesty UK; Paul & Tim at Handcrafted Films; but most importantly of all, I would like to thank the former political prisoners themselves who have taken part and those who I am yet to meet. Without you there is nothing, but with you there is everything. I will not stop until your colleagues are free.

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The Cobbled Streets of London Hide 10 Years In Hell

Dateline London once again and despite knowing Ko Zaw Zaw Aung for some time, finally we manage to meet to chat and take his portrait. That’s the problem with constantly being on the move. Zaw Zaw Aung was a Rangoon University student when he was first arrested in March 1988 at the Phone Maw incident when he was detained for one week. Along with his colleagues, Htay Kywe, Min Zeya and others from the 88 Generation Students they re-formed the outlawed ‘BaKaTha’ student movement in the build up to the 1988 mass uprisings – and now it’s re-forming saw the birth of the ABFSU with Min Ko Naing installed as it’s president. The ABFSU or BaKaTha was formed in the 1920s and subsequently led by General Aung San. It has been at the forefront of the independence and pro-democracy struggles in Burma.

Zaw Zaw Aung

Along with his colleagues as one of the students leading the demonstrations he was arrested on 27th July 1989 and under sections 5(J) and 17(1) he was sentenced to 10 years in prison on 5th November 1989. He spent 2 years in Insein prison before being transferred to Tharawaddy prison where he served his full 10 year sentence before being released in November 1999.

After his release from prison all he knew about were his previous political activities, but continuing them was virtually impossible due to constant surveillance and harassment from MI. He started working with his colleagues doing welfare, health and social programmes for political prisoners’ families. He was a founder of Pyinnyar Ahlin Yaung school in 17th District in South Dagon which provided education and welfare to 400 students including 150 orphans. In 2004 when Min Ko Naing and other student leaders from the 1988 movement were released he was able to join up with his colleagues in forming the 88 Generation Students which was officially formed in 2006. He worked alongside Ma Phyu Phyu Tin (NLD) providing care and assistance to HIV sufferers for more than 18 months. But faced with the ever-growing threat of being arrested once again he was forced to flee Burma – having already spent 10 years in jail he couldn’t face suffering the torture, abuse and mental and physical suffering he previously endured in jail so was forced to flee to the Thai-Burma border in November 2005. Like so many before him and so many still today, the inhumane treatment of political prisoners by the SPDC is in clear breach of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights in so many ways. Article 9 clearly states that “No-one shall be subjected to arbitrary detention, arrest or exile.” Yet again the case of Zaw Zaw Aung shows clear abuse of his human rights for all of these three things.

At Mae Sot he worked at AAPP before applying to join the UNHCR re-settlement programme. He spent over 1 year in Nupo refugee camp before being re-settled to the UK on 19th October 2007.

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