Burma: The Prison Without Bars

Burma’s non-violent revolution has seen thousands detained for their political activities. There are currently more than 2,100 political prisoners in Burma’s notorious jails. From the refugee camps and safe houses on the Thai-Burma border to those who have been resettled to third countries around the world, ‘The Prison Without Bars’ (an ongoing long term documentary project) follows the lives of Burma’s former political prisoners as they continue in the struggle to bring democracy to Burma as well as their own personal fight for freedom.

Photostories so far from the Thai-Burma border can be viewed by clicking here

Soe Lwin was arrested for handing out democracy pamphlets aged just 14.
He was sentenced to 29 years in prison and served more than 15 years behind bars.

Khun Saing spent more than 13 years in prison.
Whilst re-settled in the UK he is seperated from his wife and young child who remain in Umpiem refugee camp 

As a sideline the project will also involve video and multimedia to enable former political prisoners to help tell their stories. A clip from an interview with Tun Lin Kyaw, a former bodyguard of Aung San Suu Kyi can be viewed here

Video Copyright © Khun Saing and reproduced here with kind permission

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Al Jazeera TV: Former Political Prisoners Need Urgent UNHCR Action NOW.

As we have reported in previous posts here and here, once again the issue of the former political prisoners forced to live a perilous life as stateless people on the Thai-Burma border needs urgent attention from the UNHCR now more than ever before. We have been working with the former political prisoners on the border now for a long time on this issue and our close friends, Aye Min Soe and Thiha, have appeared in an interview on Al-Jazeera about this issue:

The Best Friend have recently posted some of the documentation made available by the former political prisoners on the Thai-Burma border to the public to highlight this issue – Please download it and help us with this urgent issue.

We will be meeting with a number of human rights organisations in the coming weeks to raise this issue and fight to ensure that no-one is sent home after this sham election is done with. The political landscape will not be conducive to closing the camps and sending people home. Not now, not after the election, not ever until this regime is dealt with. Rhetoric from ASEAN and Thailand in contrast to this fact is exactly that. Rhetoric.

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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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Burma’s Political Prisoners – THE BIG ISSUE

Burma’s political prisoners are officially The Big Issue. A great UK magazine (for what it stands for) has published a four page article featuring 10 portraits from the campaign and also the chance for all to see some that haven’t been seen before (I’m always trying to vary them as much as possible, but so far picture editors seem to be consistent in their choices to publish out of the 170 available!).

Unfortunately the magazine isn’t available online but you can view and download the article here:

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Thailand Day 19: Generation Wave “Never Give Up”

It’s May and the wet season is starting to close in with the first of the sporadic showers that break this oppressive heat of the last few weeks. I’m still here… no complaints at all as I could stay forever and never finish the work that  needs to be done, but today is the last day before heading back to Bangkok and the mayhem that awaits with the red shirt demonstrations. It’s getting tense in Bangkok now and it seems it’s only a matter of time before it erupts once and for all. Tomorrow I’m meeting up with Thar Nyunt Oo from VOA but before then we have a music video to shoot for Generation Wave for their latest single “Never Give Up”. It’s being directed by brilliant documentary film maker Mike Garrod who is over here working on a feature length documentary called “Beyond Section 10” about the lives of the soldiers in the KNLA and it’s excellent – you can see a clip here.

Click HERE to view all the images from the video.

Last night Mike shot the night scene in a quiet part of the backstreets of Mae Sot and with the many helping hands of fellow GW members holding smoke machines, revving bikes and shining spotlights, lead rappers 9KT and MK got the video got off to a great start. Today however was a different matter as trying to shoot in broad daylight without drawing too much attention to themselves would prove challenging – naturally they have to keep their identities hidden and wearing masks and covering up was tricky in the searing heat. We moved form the market and side streets to a set up at the AAPP office where they were filmed as political prisoners in the AAPP museum’s replica prison cell (there are 21 members of GW in prison at the moment). The final scenes were shot late into the night back at the safe house and the video was wrapped, full of political messages against the regime and reinforcing Generations Wave’s message to “Never Give Up”.

In between scenes I had to dash around not only saying my final goodbyes and making final plans but also managed one last portrait for the campaign – a brave man indeed and that’s all I can say about him. It’s hard to believe that six weeks or so have finally come to an end already but it’s been so successful and things are very nicely set up to make a big impact with Amnesty International back in the UK who are getting right behind this campaign in a big way. A final beer at Aiya with friends before leaving on the night bus to Bangkok and a chance meeting with Wai Moe who is in town – great to see him and to catch up. I feel sad to be leaving now but it’s a perfect sign to depart with because that’s exactly what this work is all about. Even though I’m leaving, in spirit I am not, for no matter where we are in the world “Though imprisoned they are everywhere with us”.

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Thailand Day 17: Portraits of a Generation

Click here to view the Generation Wave Portraits

Students have long played an important role over the past decades in shaping the struggle for democracy in Burma. Generation Wave are just another generation of those students that came before them, standing up for what they believe in, in spite of the severe repercussions they face – you can read more about Generation Wave here from a previous post on this blog from a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been staying here at the Generation Wave safe house with my little sister and the rest of GW for much of the past two weeks – it’s quiet, away from the prying eyes and I can get a lot of work done as well as relax and have some fun at the same time. Today we decided to do just that and tried some portraits – they were keen to try to include the style in my political prisoner portraits and it’s quite funny really when you think that their logo is also a hand, so I came up with an idea to use it to cover their faces in the portraits (they have to remain anonymous for obvious reasons).

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Thailand Day 15: Mae Sot

In trying to make the most of this extra time here on the border it just constantly seems that there is never enough time. Meetings that just never seem to happen meaning that my plans to get to Chiang Mai and catch up with Rachel, and friends at Chiang Mai and DVB are likely to be put on the back burner again and may not happen at all this time which is a shame. The week has been busy with re-editing and re-shooting mixed with plenty of “R ‘n’ R” mostly over at Generation Wave’s HQ where I’ve been staying for a bit. So far this week I’ve retaken a number of portraits and yesterday and today once again we managed to do U Sandawbartha (16 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons), Moe Myint (12 years in Insein prison on 4 occasions) and Dr Tun Thu (8 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons).

Dr Tun Thu

Unfortunately Dr Tun Thu has been suffering from what is possibly a serious case of post traumatic stress syndrome due to his time as a political prisoner. Last year when I met him he was fit and healthy and working as a doctor in the Mae Tao clinic. In the months in-between I was very sad to learn of his failing mental health and he appears to have suffered very badly indeed. But meeting him now it would actually appear that he is hopefully turning the corner. One can’t begin to imagine how the mind has suffered through years of torture and abuse as a political prisoner. The body can show you the scars of pain but it’s what’s inside that can so often be so much more painful. There is no support system for former political prisoners other than their friends and colleagues here on the border. But there is possibly hope that comes in the form of the ‘Borderline Project‘ for former political prisoners which is a proposal to form a safe house, training and rehabilitation project here in Mae Sot and is being set up by my friend Thiha and Markus Baude. It is an excellent proposal and I can only hope that they are successful in their search for funding… I know how difficult that is (not one penny funding received yet for this project – ed). Also I’ve been busy with more UNHCR work today and will continue tomorrow as well as interviews need translating and more need to be taken… but still no response to my requests for a meeting with the UNHCR office themselves.

Other news I learn today is about Human Rights Watch plans to step up their political prisoner campaign “2100 by 2010“. They will be holding an exhibition (installation) in Grand Central Station in New York in June possibly around Aung San Suu Kyi’s 65th birthday. It looks really impressive and will hopefully keep up the awareness in the public domain – it certainly should being in one of the worlds busiest train stations. They have arranged for one of the world’s top portrait photographers Platon to come and photograph former political prisoners to be part of this campaign. Nice idea… wonder where that came from? I had meetings with HRW back in December 2009 about my work linking with their campaign but despite initial meetings outlining how ideal it was unfortunately nothing came of it… and here they now have one of the world’s top portrait photographers instead. That’s just life, but I am more pleased that one of the worlds top photographers is showing an interest in Burma and in particular political prisoners. I for one can’t wait to see his pictures and I only hope he does my friends justice…

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Thailand Day 13: A Incident of Inspiration

Today I am inspired. In part obviously because of the superb article printed yesterday in The independent Magazine which provides a great platform to take things forward, but also because of an incident last night. Whilst out celebrating the publishing of the article we were unfortunately targeted in a case of mistaken identity… but maybe not mistaken, who knows. Either way it was unfortunate and resulted in an incident which has knocked some inspiration into me (as well as a few bruises). No harm done at all in reality and no need to waste any space here talking about it as I’m going to be busy re-editing 35 portraits I took last summer at the AAPP office. They’ve been bugging me for some time, I love most of them, but they have ended up as square portraits whereas all the others are now landscapes – which isn’t exactly traditional for a portrait but in my case it works for what I want to say and what these photographs portray. Anyway, all is now looking good as I’m inspired and have got the trick to re-work them… more work but so worthwhile.

Lae Lae

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Thailand Day 12: At Last The Moment of Truth

The build up to today really started last Thursday during Thingyan. As we were all out partying away in the Reggae bar my phone started beeping – incoming texts from Andy Buncombe in India… “Is it ok now to say you’ve just been to Burma? Looks like it is on the cover. Will know tonight”. One hour later and it was confirmed… “Am told Win Tin is going on the front! They are using 18 of the portraits! Full Colour too!”.

Today was the day that the world would finally get to see the one portrait we have had to keep under wraps for 9 long months – but now it’s the real birth of this campaign. I met U Win Tin in Rangoon during summer 2009 at the time of Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial – you can check back to the date on this blog by clicking here to read about it. To say it was a highlight is an understatement. He is an icon. My Hero. Meeting him was one of the greatest moments of my life. Naturally I can’t go into all the details of how, where and why, but to some it may be apparent anyway when you look at the photographs here. We spent about an hour chatting before I took his portrait – it was truely mesmerising, he really is a remarkable man. They say there are moments in life that change your way of thinking. This is a moment that simply changed my life. There were so many moments that linger long in my memory – but perhaps the funniest was when after an hour of talking suddenly someone appeared outside the large glass windows in front of where we were sitting, pretending to clean them but with eyes fixed firmly on me and U Win Tin. The thing that made me laugh was that we were 20 floors up and it was pouring with rain. Military Intelligence will stop at nothing!

The interview that I did with him was published in the Irrawaddy in August last year under one of my pseudonyms Tom Parry (one of many like James Mackay !) – you can read it here. At the time that we met it was a very different situation as Aung San Suu Kyi was about to sentenced and U Win Tin’s own personal safety was under threat of imminent re-arrest due to his continued outspokenness over the treatment of Daw Suu and the current situation. We were going to publish the photo on the morning of the verdict in Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial – it would have been front page in The Independent but also would definitely have seen U Win Tin returned straight to jail, most likely under the archaic Electronic Act. We had to pull the plug at the last moment and it was the right decision despite the risks we had taken to get the shot. I was sure the time would come again when it could be used in its own right and not off the back of another event in Burma and sure enough here it is. A feature article about Burma’s political prisoners lead by their most famous Uncle, Saya U Win Tin.

I owe a massive debt of gratitude to Andy Buncombe for his continued belief in this campaign and me – he was as determined as me that one day we would get the story out – but I could never have expected it to have been in this fashion and to have front cover and 5 full pages inside with 18 portraits is more than I could dream of – but it’s only any good if it does any good. We need to keep the issue of political prisoners firmly in the spotlight. Nothing less will do.

I spoke with U Win Tin this morning to share the wonderful feeling at seeing his image staring out proudly at the world with the name of Burma’s true leader marked clearly on his hand. He was delighted and excited that finally our moment from last year can be shared with the world. You won’t be buying this edition of The Independent anywhere in Burma, but be sure that he has his own copy. (We had spoken several times in the past few weeks to confirm he was 100% happy to go ahead with publishing the image despite the risks he may face and he was adamant it must be published. Above all else U Win Tin’s safety was considered more than anything – for me it was and still is the most important thing, but he was crystal clear in wanting this image to be shown to the world).

And under those orders, here it is. The image that will now go on to lead this campaign for Burma’s Political Prisoners in the build up to the elections later this year. You can expect some more very exciting big news soon..

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