Thailand Day 9: Generation Wave

In a safe house in Mae Sot, we sit chatting and laughing about an extraordinary incident that happened in Burma just last week. I was there on a flying visit, working undercover on this campaign but not even in my wildest dreams could I have expected it to happen. Playing tourist for the moment, but still very clearly being watched, I stood away from most prying eyes in a far corner of the concourse that surrounds Shwedagon Pagoda going through the motions of taking photographs of the beauty around me. I turned around and was immediately frozen to the spot. There sitting right in front of me was Kyaw Oo, a member of Generation Wave who I had been with in Mae Sot just days before arriving in Burma. A casual glance to each other but no more, as this was most certainly not the time or place to continue where we had left off just days earlier! I think winning the lottery would have been more likely than this – even writing about it now I still can’t quite believe it happened… but i believe it was a good omen because my trip was successful and so to was his and here we are both now sitting in the evening heat of Mae Sot laughing about it.

In the aftermath of the Saffron Revolution a new youthful student force was born. Five former high school friends galvanised by the demonstrations that they took part in and the events on the streets of Rangoon that shocked the world started their own underground organisation. Generation Wave was founded on 9th October 2007 by Zay Yar Thaw, Aung Zay Phyo, Nyein Nwae, Moe Thway and Min Yan Naing all of whom were actively involved in the students demonstrations in 1996 and 1998. Over the last two years they have carried out a number of high profile campaigns inside Burma – including pamphleting, grafitti, daring protests outside Insein prison and distributing CDs of their music in tea shops. But at some price. There are currently 21 members of the group in jail in Burma including Zayar Thaw, Arkar Bo, Aung Zay Phyo and Thiha Win Tin. Two thirds of their members are behind bars for promoting democracy in their country. It’s made even worse when you consider their age.

For the full picture on Generation Wave please read this in-depth interview with them here in this great article by my friend Joseph Allchin from DVB.

There are currently only a handful of GW members living in exile here in Mae Sot (obviously names and details can’t be divulged for security reasons), including one, let’s call her ‘Nyi Ma’, a very old friend of Jackie’s when she was living in Rangoon. They had not seen each other for more than 10 years and we all met in complete surprise for the first time since then during the AAPP tenth anniversary last month. With that first coincidental meeting with a member of GW I suppose I really shouldn’t have been surprised when I bumped in to Kyaw Oo in Rangoon! So other than just enjoying spending time with friends at Generation Wave HQ, I’m also here to take the portrait of the only member of GW who is a former political prisoner.

Kyaw Oo has been jailed twice for his political activities – in 1989 for 4 years and again in 2008 for 1 year – both times in Insein prison. He was released in the General Amnesty on September 19th 2009 and now lives in exile here in Thailand. You can see the portrait we took here on the main website. I have been lucky enough to spend a lot of time with Generation Wave over the past few weeks (often just having a break from what I’m doing and hanging out with my little sister and co has provided me with the space to find new ideas and inspirations). And it has proved so very inspiring to spend time with them. In fact I’ve got some ideas for some portraits for them all so we’ll have some fun next week for sure. Despite being too old to be a member I have been given the great honour of having my own numbered mug (the only non-member with an official place in the dishrack!) – so if you’re ever at their house and you see number 10 left lieing around half filled with unfinished coffee you’ll know it’s me! The Student movement has long played the decisive role in shaping the fight against the military regime and like so many that came before them, they are the new generation of students, still fighting for their country, but a long long way from home.

Copyright © ENIGMA IMAGES and not to be reproduced without permission.
All Rights Reserved

Thailand Day 7: Mae Sot – On Becoming an IDP

I am officially a refugee. Or maybe more of an IDP. I was supposed to be leaving Thailand in 3 days… not anymore. Late last week a volcano erupted again in Iceland sending plumes of volcanic ash into the sky and bringing a halt to all flights in Europe. It first erupted on March 21st having been dormant for more than 200 years but now it had got angry and has brought Europe to a grinding halt which means I’m not going anywhere fast. After spending 3 hours trying to get through to Emirates office in Bangkok I finally managed to re-schedule my flight – for Monday 2nd March!! A 10 day extension to this trip is obviously very welcome as there is plenty to do but it throws a few spanners in the works (quite literally with work in the UK). But its settled for me and now I can carry on with all the blog writing I’ve been busy doing last week and also with the editing of thousands of photographs. So what was going to be a frantic last few days here in Mae Sot has now turned in to a much more enjoyable timescale allowing me to hot-desk from my work places at AAPP to DVB to GW and back again as much of the background work can be completed at a more relaxed and obviously enjoyable pace. With any luck we’ll get the chance to take a few more portraits as well!

Copyright © ENIGMA IMAGES and not to be reproduced without permission.
All Rights Reserved

Thailand Day 6: Umpiem Mai – Back Once Again

Yesterday was another day off as slowly the wheels start to get back in motion for a potentially hectic few days before leaving Thailand next Thursday. But that may now be in serious doubt as an earthquake has erupted in Iceland and it’s closed all airspace over Europe in the past few days meaning no flights from anywhere in the world. Looks like I might be here for a bit longer yet… no complaints form me, but there’ll be plenty from others I’m sure! Can’t do anything until tomorrow anyway as we are back off to Umpiem Mai camp today to photograph a few of those former political prisoners who weren’t available when we were there a couple of weeks ago. We miss the first line car as it leaves 30 minutes early so an unfortunate delay means we get down to Umpiem with even less time now than we had hoped – it’s only a one day trip so time is tight. Again unfortunately none of the Karen former political prisoners are available as they are not in the camp. It’s a real disappointment as it’s equally as important to show the wide ranging scale of political prisoners across all ethnicities in Burma. No matter though as we make our way back up the hill to Section 16 – I’m pretty sure I could do this trip blindfolded now. Again a warm welcome and its great to see everyone again. It’s a really hot day today and bright sunshine meaning photographing people isn’t easy but we only have 3 people today but again we have to find locations in this small area that we haven’t used before… some serious artistic license required!

Zaw Moe Myint

Tint Lwin @ Theing Gi Aung

Naing Min Htwe

Today we photographed the above 3 former political prisoners in Umpiem camp: Zaw Moe Myint was arrested after student demonstrations at Hleddan junction in 1998 and spent 4 years in prison. Tint Lwin @ Thein Gi Aung was arrested in 1990 and spent 8 years in prison. He fled after being involved in the Saffron Revolution in 2007 and after MI arrested him in 2009 in regards to action against the election in 2010. Naing Min Htwe was involved in student demonstrations in 1996 and spent 6 years in jail. He fled in 2009 at the time of Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial after a threat of arrest from the authorities. We barely had time to do more than take the portraits, enjoy a quick cup of tea and a chat with everyone before having to head back to the market gate to catch the last line car back to Mae Sot. Luckily we were offered a lift from one of the Thai camp guards who was on his way into Mae Sot, so once again like before we climbed aboard saving an indefinite wait for a further line car that may not even turn up.

Back in Mae Sot and we lined up one further shoot before calling it a day. I had met Daw Htay Htay Win during Thingyan and she was now available for a portrait so we met up at Aiya, moved a few photos around and tried to work with the failing light to get something to work. Daw Htay Htay Win was first jailed aged 15 during the U Thant uprising in 1974. She spent 3 years in prison… as a 7th standard student. She fled to Thailand in 2005 but returned to Burma in 2007 and participated in the Saffron Revolution. Once again she fled back to Thailand to evade arrest. when Cyclone Nargis struck in May 2008 she once again returned to Burma to visit her fathers tomb in the Delta. On her return to Thailand she was caught in Myawaddy and sentenced to 2 years in prison under 13(1).

Daw Htay Htay Win

Copyright © ENIGMA IMAGES and not to be reproduced without permission.
All Rights Reserved

Thailand Day 4: Mae Sot & The Party Goes On

Three days of partying are starting to take their toll – thank God today is the last day of Thingyan! Yesterday afternoon a bomb went off in Rangoon and it wasn’t really until later into the evening that we had a clearer picture of casualties. Jackie had called me in the afternoon as her sister had been down there – thankfully she was fine, but many others weren’t – it seems 5 or so people have died. The bizarre thing is if I had stayed on in Rangoon I would have been in the exact area where the bomb went off… plus it was the exact location where I had bumped in to a General and his entourage on Monday afternoon. coincidence?… definitely food for thought in my book. Also last night I got the final confirmation from Andy Buncombe at The Independent that the big article about my work would run in the magazine next saturday on 24th April – plus U Win Tin on the cover (read more here). So there was a reason to really let the hair down last night and it went on late as usual… Aiya, Reggae bar, Khungs… all the usual places and all the usual fun with my little sister Nyi Ma Ei Ei and all her crew. So the final day of partying away at Aiya with everyone. I wish Jackie was here to enjoy it but we will have to make sure its on our schedule to be here next year if we can’t all be back in Burma to experience it for real. A quiet end to the evening with dinner in the night market with Thar Gyi and Aung Khaing Min. It’s been a well earned week of relaxation (with a splattering of work at times during the day… can’t keep the camera down for too long!) but it’s back to work on Sunday as we’re heading back to Umpiem Mai camp once more.

Copyright © ENIGMA IMAGES and not to be reproduced without permission.
All Rights Reserved

Thailand Day 2: Happy New Year

Yesterday in Bangkok was very surreal – for a city that is vibrantly hectic 24 hours a day it was serene and silent as Thai New Year festivals got underway. Songkran’ in Thailand or ‘Thingyan’ in Burma is like no ordinary new year celebration where people just get drunk and party for one night. This is four days of hedonism and celebration all round and this is my first taste of it. But Bangkok was experiencing an altogether different sort of shutdown as the red shirt demonstrations seemed to have turned a different corner in the few days that I was out of the country. With tyre barricades now erected behind lines of bamboo poles I was glad to be heading out of Bangkok and back to Mae Sot where I could party with friends. Getting a bus was of course another trial altogether but so typical of Thailand… when i got to the counter at Mo Chit terminal there were no VIP bus seats left. No problem I’ll travel first or second… “one seat left in first” I was told. Ok… i’ll take it but how much? “No room now” I was told… “you go second class”… No point in arguing, even though the screen showed an empty first class bus – I just want to get out of this city as soon as possible. Thankfully I got the ‘last’ in second class (of course at the back right above the engine!!

Anyway those were the trials and tribulations of dealing with  Bangkok yesterday and now back here in Mae Sot it’s time to put my feet up for a few days and enjoy Thingyan with everyone else. Apart from a few hours work in the morning just catching up with some writing, emails and some images to be sent to certain people, the laptop and cameras stayed firmly in their bags – just as well as you cant walk more than 10 yards without having a bucket of water thrown over you! Headed down to Aiya in the mid afternoon to see who’s there and met up with Ei Ei and spend the rest of the day and evening partying away with Generation Wave and what felt like about a hundred other people packed into the bar – water everywhere – music pumping and beer almost cold. Happy New Year to one and all.

Copyright © ENIGMA IMAGES and not to be reproduced without permission.
All Rights Reserved

Thailand Day 11: Mae Sot Over & Out… for now

The end is in sight… well, for me the end of the first of many phases of this trip as I’ll be back here in Mae Sot in a couple of weeks, but for Jackie it’s the final day of her first time to Mae Sot and more importantly the first time back within touching distance of her homeland (you can read more on previous post here). As I said before, I cant begin to imagine what that must feel like, not just for the thousands who are living here who have fled but also for those who come here for the first time, often opening up old wounds from many years ago. A somewhat more relaxed day today as I made the decision during yesterday that I can re-shoot people when I return in a couple of weeks time – so we spend today just wandering around and doing some shopping in the market and also down at the Rim Moei market down at the border.

One day this will be us back home in Rangoon

But I can’t keep my camera locked up for long and whilst stopping off at AAPP to collect some books I decide to re-shoot Aung Khaing Min and also by complete chance I bump into a friend of Moe Maung Maung (from Norway) – he had told me about Aung Kyaw Oo (not the Aung Kyaw Oo who works at AAPP) and by chance here he was in the AAPP office! So we snap away and get two portraits for the price of one – done using the backdrop of the huge poster of my project thats on the wall in the office.

Aung Kyaw Oo

Aung Khaing Min

Aung Kyaw Oo was jailed twice for a total of 5 years – first time in 1988 (4 years) and then again in 2008 (1 year). He was a member of the All Burma Student Demo Movement Organisation & All Burma Student Union re-establishment committee. Aung Khaing Min was jailed in 1996 for 5 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons. The name on his hand is his brother Chit Ko Lin who is serving a 7 year sentence in Pakokku prison.

Throughout the week we have been having a number of secret meetings about my forthcoming trip to Burma – naturally I can’t talk about anything here but it’s all set now and this is where I am heading next (after a holiday on the beach with my beautiful assistant!!).  We spend the remainder of the afternoon with our little sister Nyi Ma Ei Ei before heading back to the AAPP office for a leaving party for Aung Kyaw Oo, his wife Florence and their beautiful little daughter Louanne as they set off to France for several months – it’s sure to be a very special time for Aung Kyaw Oo considering he has spent 15 years in prison and now is setting off on a whole new life adventure. It’s sad to be leaving Mae Sot and all my friends (and many new ones) once again and we get carried away enjoying the company too much as always and before we know it we have about 5 minutes to get to the bus station!! We race back to collect our bags and luckily pick up Thiha and Aye Min Soe on the way past Aiya – we jump on the back of their bikes and race to the bus station, getting there at 9.30 with 30 seconds to spare… or so I thought until we checked the tickets and our bus was the 9.15 and had left!! It was like Japan all over again – why do we always have last minute dramas trying to leave somewhere!! Thankfully there was a final bus leaving that had space so we climbed aboard bidding a fond farewell to all. An incredible trip, but now it starts to take on a whole new meaning…

Copyright © ENIGMA IMAGES and not to be reproduced without permission.
All Rights Reserved

Thailand Day 10: Joining The NLD On The Day They Said ‘NO’

Back in Mae Sot after the hectic weekend touring the camps down south but there’s no time to put the feet up and rest. We have to leave on Wednesday evening back to Bangkok and have a lot to cover back here in town before we go. So another early start but perhaps too rushed as over a breakfast planning meeting a jug of milk goes over my laptop… ‘no use crying over spilt milk’ couldn’t be more appropriate and thankfully everything is ok (good old macs!!). Last year we shot more than 30 former political prisoners in one session at the AAPP office. It was great but now there is the opportunity to take many of those portraits again to get different backgrounds adding diversity to the numbers of portraits we now have. We have managed some last week but the next few days we can concentrate on photographing those who are around in town. In fact we get a surprise call and a former political prisoner not yet photographed is in town at an ABSDF meeting, so we jump on the bikes and head of to the location to meet Myo Min Tun. He was jailed for 1 year in Insein and Maubin prisons and was cellmates with Dr Aye Chan (from Tokyo) and also Aung Din (executive director and co-founder of the US Campaign for Burma).

Myo Min Tun

Possibly the most important part of today is the fact that the NLD are due to make their announcement about whether or not they will be taking part in the election. A foregone conclusion as we all know the result already, but who better to spend the morning with discussing the future for the NLD, the election and even the forthcoming football world cup, than an NLD Member of Parliament. Khun Myint Tun was elected MP for Thaton Constituency in Mon State. He was arrested in 1996 and charged with high treason along with hundreds of other members of the NLD. I first met Khun Myint Tun last summer and took his portrait but the chance to meet again was obviously too good to miss out – especially to be spending time with him on the day that his party are about to announce that they are not taking part in the election… an incredible moment to experience. We spent ages chatting and took his portrait in his house – it’s one of the best so far no doubt about it and it carries such meaning as it was taken on the day they said they wont take part in the sham election – as though it was another act of defiance taking this photo. Khun Myint Tun (a member of parliament don’t forget) was jailed for 7 years in 6 different prisons.

Khun Myint Tun – NLD MP for Thaton Township

A few hours after leaving Khun Myint Tun’s house the announcement was made official – the National League for Democracy would not be taking part in the forthcoming sham elections in Burma. It was very surreal but a total honour to have spent time with an NLD MP discussing all of this just hours before this historic announcement was made. It of course the only decision they could have made under the extreme conditions they were under from the SPDC.  So on May 7th the NLD as we know and love it will no longer cease to exist…
Back to Thiha’s house to re-group and also an opportunity to re-shoot U Zawana as the one we shot week the before last was too hurried on the day of the 10th anniversary. He is an incredible man having spent 16 years in prison and was only too happy to have his portrait taken again and thankfully this time we got an absolute beauty. You can note in the photo below the iPhone coming in to play again – not only saved the day at Umpiem camp the other day but its also the personal log book with all the info and details i need – a crucial device for the modern day activist/photographer!!

Thiha, U Zawana and Jacqueline San

The day ends meeting up with Aye Min Soe and he joins us at the tea shop (where else!). Aye Min Soe is a DVB video journalist who worked undercover during the Saffron Revolution. He escaped to Thailand with Thiha when Thiha was released from prison after 17 years inside. They are both now my very good friends and I’m working closely with them on the issue of former political prisoner refugees and the UNHCR issues. We take their portraits again in the market area – Thiha’s being a moment of genius (and luck) as I get a monk in the background and the shot looks as though its inside Burma – highly symbolic I hope. We continue on to dinner at the night market and enjoy the evening relaxing after another long day.

Copyright © ENIGMA IMAGES and not to be reproduced without permission.
All Rights Reserved

You Are NOT a Refugee… You Are a Political Prisoner

Possibly the biggest issue as well as danger faced by former political prisoners when they flee Burma and arrive in Mae Sot on the Thai-Burma border is that they are not recognised as a refugee. In essence this means that they are not safe and their lives are in great danger as they can be returned to Burma at any moment if caught by the Thai authorities. With many Burmese agents, informers and spies on the border area there is a very clear and present danger for all those who arrive here. Having spent years in prison for their political beliefs and activities, they manage to flee the country at great risk, arrive in the assumed free outside world where they are not free or safe. They become stateless people. They are still prisoners.

Throughout our time here on the Thai-Burma border we have been documenting the lives, current situations and dangers that the former political prisoners face upon fleeing Burma and arriving here in Thailand. Some make their way into either Umpiem Mai or Nupo refugee camps – not through official channels of course because you see these people aren’t seen as refugees and therefore can’t be given the protection that the camps have to offer (they have to make their own way there… you work it out). Others are left to survive in safe houses with colleagues who have also made the treacherous journey in fleeing Burma over the past years. The UNHCR of course state that their hands are tied by Thailand’s own policy on refugees because it hasn’t signed up to the 1951 Geneva Refugee convention (see below). Unfortunately they wouldn’t answer my calls to meet to discuss this issue. But when you can prove that you have been in prison for your political activities because not only do you have your release card from jail but also your ICRC certificate from when they visited you in prison and documented you and gave you a ‘Special Detainee’ number, when you can prove without doubt your past background as an activist, the torture you have suffered at the hands of the military regime, the years you have spent in Burma’s gulags and therefore without doubt the very real threat to your safety if you are returned to Burma then surely you are a refugee? Clearly the UNHCR and Thailand think differently as more than 100 former political prisoners are living in fear each day that they may be returned at any moment to the SPDC who you can be damned sure know exactly who these people are. It’s why they jailed them in the first place. And what of the third countries that are waiting to take these people who wish to resettle? The USA is leading the way… that was until they put all cases on hold.

Take this for an example (a very brief summary and you can read more on a previous post of Nupo refugee camp). A former MP for the National League for Democracy who spent 2 years in Insein prison in 1990 having been charged with high treason. He meets a US diplomat in Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound with her in 1995. He flees Burma to Thailand. He later meets the same US diplomat when he is working for the NCUB. People therefore know who this man is – he is an MP from the NLD who was jailed because of exactly that reason. His health is failing due to the torture he suffered when he was being interrogated in Burma. He has to stop working. His son flees Burma to be with him. They make their way into Nupo refugee camp to try to get resettlement to a third country – he is fast tracked by the UNHCR (probably because no-one wants to have the death of someone of his stature on their hands). But then the US Department of Homeland Security decides to put his case on hold. No-one knows why. In the meantime in a bizarre twist of fate, his perfectly healthy son is resettled to the USA. He is still in Nupo refugee camp some 2 years later – still on hold and unable to re-apply to another country until the US decides his fate. There can surely be no doubt whatsoever as to who he is because after all one of their diplomats met him with Aung San Suu Kyi? Then there’s the story of the former political prisoner resettled to the UK yet his wife and young child are still stuck in a refugee camp waiting and praying that one day they will be able to join him and start to live their life… but she is being refused resettlement. Then there is the story of the former political prisoner in a refugee camp who complained about the amount of food rations he and his colleagues were receiving. He was taken away at night into the forest to be shot. Thankfully his colleagues found out in time and he was returned to camp. These are just some of the stories and unfortunately there are hundreds more.

So the question is what’s going on… not just with these cases but with policy in general with regards to political refugees fleeing Burma?

We are busy working with NGO’s and other contacts on highlighting the situation faced by former political prisoners upon fleeing Burma and will report back soon as our work progresses. We hope to be able to present our findings to the British Government.

The 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention is the foundation of international protection of refugees. It defines a refugee as someone outside their own country unable or unwilling to return owning to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. It sets out the kind of legal protection, other assistance and social rights a refugee should receive from the 141 states that are now party to the Convention. It was the first international agreement that spelled out a set of basic human rights that should be at least equivalent to freedoms enjoyed by foreign nationals living legally in a given country and, in many cases, those of citizens of that state. These include freedom of religion and movement, and the right to work, education and accessibility to travel documents. A key provision stipulates that refugees should not be returned to a country where they fear persecution. It also spells out people or groups of people who are not covered by the Convention. For more information, see www.unhcr.ch/1951convention/51qanda.html

As Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention on Refugees they are able to implement their own criteria for assessing if someone is in genuine need of protection. To date the guidelines that have been used have been very narrow and only include fleeing fighting. The argument put forward by the Thai authorities for not accepting new arrivals is that the people who are seeking shelter are not fleeing fighting but looking for resettlement opportunities.

Copyright © ENIGMA IMAGES and not to be reproduced without permission.
All Rights Reserved

Thailand Day 6: Old Memories and New Arrivals

Tomorrow we leave for a flying visit to both Umpiem Mai and Nupo refugee camps where over 40 former political prisoners are ready and waiting. It’s going to be very hard work and based on previous experiences it’s a frantic race against the clock – but more about all that over the coming days as we re-experience it. Today we finally get to put our feet up for a few hours as we have fairly comprehensively photographed Mae Sot’s contingent in the last 48 hours.

(Myawaddy as seen from the banks of the Moei river)

With the main focus with the political prisoner issue naturally revolving around the reasons of arrest and subsequent treatment in prison, another major element lurking in the background is that so many are forced to flee – leave their home, their country. This is the same for so many people in Burma – there are 160,000 people just sitting in the camps that litter the border – all waiting to go home, some having been here almost 20 years, others it’s all they’ve ever known. I took Jackie down to the Friendship bridge that links Thailand to Burma and for the first time in 10 years she was able to see her homeland – albeit Myawaddy. But imagination is more important than knowledge and in opening your mind and seeing beyond the Dawna mountain range I can only imagine how many people might stand here and dream if only for a second about what once was and what hopefully will be again. I can only imagine what those feelings must be like to see your homeland so near but yet in reality so far.

We got a call from Thiha early in the evening, a former political prisoner had literally just arrived from across the border in Burma in the early hours of the morning and we had to go and meet him, confirming the news that we had heard just yesterday that someone was waiting in Myawaddy to cross over. We headed back into town and went to meet Kyaw Thu Htike in a safe house in the back streets of Mae Sot. This was the first time I had met someone who had literally just arrived to relative safety. Escaping from Burma as a former political prisoner is fraught with danger. It’s not just as simple as getting on a bus and heading out to Myawaddy. Every day, sometimes every hour you are watched, monitored, questioned “Where did you go today” “Why were you visiting that place” “Who is that person you were with”. It’s perpetual and it’s purpose in the eyes of the regime is to continue their de-humanisation process of political prisoners. So to evade the authorities for long enough to be able to escape from Rangoon and then several days under the cover of darkness until you reach Myawaddy is not easy. Once there you are then faced with the lawlessness of a border trade town, now run almost solely by the DKBA who continually recruit returning migrants from Thailand and others at random on the streets into their ranks. Crossing over late at night the final step is to make it to a safe house in Mae Sot, but of course with no identity, no papers, nothing to save you from an immediate return to Burma and back to jail if you are caught by the Thai authorities or SPDC spies. Not even the protection of the UNHCR. Only money as always in this world that we live in can buy you your future…

Kyaw Thu Htike arrived late last night with his wife and young son (full audio interview will be posted soon). He was jailed for 1 and a half years in Insein and Taunglaylone prisons having been arrested in March 2008 under section 13(1) and 505(B) – the antiquated law that is often thrown at political prisoners… “Whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumour or report… (b) with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public”. He was released in September 2009 under the amnesty despite having been sentenced to 7 years in prison. We chatted for ages and it was incredible to hear testimony first hand from someone who had only a few hours escaped from Burma. The long road ahead to real freedom lies in wait for Kyaw Thu Htike but at least tonight he is a free man, if only from the Military Intelligence officers waiting outside his door each day back home in Rangoon.

Copyright © ENIGMA IMAGES and not to be reproduced without permission.
All Rights Reserved

Thailand Day 5: More Mae Sot

A slow start to the day after the celebrations of yesterday that ended up late on with karaoke in MyMaesot – Ko Tate Naing flexing his vocal chords and keeping everyone entertained. Rachel had made it down from Chiang Mai as well and it was great to catch up with her now that she’s back out here. First stop today was a meeting about the Burma trip – naturally I can’t go into details but at least some of it will be revealed very soon indeed in the international media. The idea to photograph former political prisoners inside Burma is obviously the most challenging part of this campaign yet – for my part there is obviously the risk that I will get caught with someone or somewhere I shouldn’t be and most likely get deported (maybe worse… we’ll have to wait and see) but the biggest risk is obviously for those former political prisoners who i’ll be meeting and photographing. They are watched the whole time by military intelligence, so meeting isn’t easy which is why we’ve been planning this for many months now. Then there’s the contacts working on the underground who can’t risk being exposed. If they are, then its 20 years inside. No questions asked. The risks are huge but everyone is willing to take them. A sign if ever one was needed of belief in what the message of this campaign is all about. All we have to hope for now is that we have the platform for this work should it all go to plan.

After the rush around town photographing 11 people yesterday, you could be excused for wanting a few hours off to check progress, but there’s no time for that. After our morning meetings its straight back on the bikes and first stop to see Daw San San, National League for Democracy elected Member of Parliament and former political prisoner at her home in the back streets of Mae Sot.

(Daw San San – NLD MP for Seik Kan Township, Rangoon)

During the 1988 uprising the Workers Union was formed and she was duely elected chairman but as the military cracked down she was forced to retire. Having previously worked at the Labour department of the government, it was her expertise in this field that was to lead to her playing a prominent role in the NLD and in 1988 she joined the NLD becoming secretary of the Central Labor Working Committee. In 1990 she was elected as member of parliament for Seik Kan Township in Rangoon but as the military refused to hand over power she fled along with many of her MP colleagues to Mandalay. It was here that the regime arrested 35 MPs accusing them of meeting to form a parallel government. Daw San San was one of those arrested. Charged with high treason she was sentenced to 25 years and sent to Insein prison. In 1993 under the General Amnesty 1/93, Daw San San was released from prison – like many her sentenced commuted on condition of non involvement in politics in the future. In 1997 Daw San San was interviewed by the BBC via telephone and despite knowing that her answers and by identifying herself would result in her arrest she spoke with them, outlining the current situation and providing details of MPs currently in prison. Eventually as she expected, the authorities arrested her and she was returned to Insein to serve the remaining part of her sentence. She was finally freed in 2001 and forced to sign 401/1 (agreeing not to partake in politics in the future). She was given back her title of vice-chairman of NLD Rangoon Division and continued working in her role. Faced with the ever present threat from the military and having been arrested several times in 2003 around the time of the Depayin Massacre she finally fled to Thailand where she continues working as an elected member of parliament for the NLD and as vice president of the MPPU.

As luck would have it and is so often the way out here, you end up bumping into someone you need to meet and Eai Shwe Sinn was here at Daw San San’s house so we re-took her photo – as always when she’s not filming or doing interviews, my beautiful assistant acts as stand in – this time even managing to wear the same colour top to make my life as easy as possible! There is no end to her skills. The rest of the day like yesterday is spent going from one place to the next and a further 5 newly arrived former PPs are photographed. Saw Mo Shay was sentenced to 10 years at the age of 15 in 1994 and spent 11 years in Insein, Tharawaddy and Moulmein – he received a further 2 year sentence for his alleged role in a prison break to which he took no part. Back at AAPP office we hook up with new member of staff Aung Khaing Min who has been living and studying in USA. He was jailed for 5 years in 1997 in Insein and Taungoo prisons and many of his family including his brothers are still detained in Burma’s jails. On his hand is written the name of his brother Chit Ko Lin – when he was in Rangoon as a student activists between him and his brothers they all knew they would be arrested so they took it in turns to cover each others tracks until they had all been caught.

(Chit Ko Lin is currently serving a 7 year sentence in Pakokku prison)

Family links are so common for those who are detained or have been – so many brothers, sisters, cousins are jailed, if not for their direct involvement then because their family members are at large so the authorities arrest anyone they can find. We met Thet Naing at the ‘Knowledge Zone Vocational Training Centre’ that he set up last year. He had arrived in Mae Sot in 2005 but until now I had not had the chance to meet him. He had spent 8 years in 4 different prisons – arrested in 1988, again in 1997, he fled to the border in 2005 with his nephew… so the SPDC arrested his niece and sentenced her to 11 years in jail. She is currently in Umpiem Mai camp and we will meet her tomorrow. Next up was Thet Khaing who we met at the ABSFU headquarters – he had been sentenced to a mind numbing 38 years in 1998. Thankfully he only had to serve 4. Our final stop of the day was to meet Yi Yi Win who spent 3 years in Insein prison in 2004. Her husband is also a former political prisoner but is currently living in Norway, having had success on the resettlement programme. Yi Yi Win is waiting to join them but like so many currently living in a state of statelessness here in Mae Sot. With the light fading fast I ran up and down the road desperately trying to find a spot to take her portrait. Sometimes you need look no further than right in front of your eyes and we took it on her doorstep.

Copyright © ENIGMA IMAGES and not to be reproduced without permission.
All Rights Reserved