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 3: Touchdown in Mae Sot

Another night bus from Bangkok… another night in the freezer. At least this time my contact in Bangkok bought the tickets so we had front row seats as opposed to the usual place for Farangs at the back right – just above the engine. The excitement of being back so close to home for the first time in years must have proved too much for The Secretary Generals teeth as Day 2 was spent undergoing emergency root canal surgery in Bangkok. Thanks to Bumrungrad International hospital in Bangkok it was a relatively pain-free experience – an amazing hospital. We also had dinner last night with some very special friends indeed (who cannot be identified due to their profile) and continued in accompanying us for a very quick low profile trip to Mae Sot – something that had been planned for some time and was pulled off without anyone knowing or realising… other than of course the people they had come to meet.

First stop was naturally to swing by the AAPP office to check in and catch up with everyone. The 10th Anniversary is tomorrow and final preparations and practice of the performance was underway. Also the new museum has been finished and it looks great (more photos available soon).

It was also great to see Thiha again (pictured above with the 10th anniversary t-shirts) – our close friend and former political prisoner of 17 and a half years and very much an integral part of the team on the ground here in Mae Sot. Initially we had plans to photograph about 5 or so new arrivals in Mae Sot plus trips back to both Umpiem Mai and also Nupo refugee camps to also photograph about 20 new arrivals but also to start work on documenting the current situation for former political prisoners and the mess that is the resettlement programme. But it’s way more than a mess and will be a whole blog entry on its own at some point in the coming weeks once we have got some of the work done – in a nutshell the situation is perilous for many former political prisoners who basically aren’t recognised as refugees and so are left in a state of flux faced with the very real danger of being returned to Burma… where of course the regime know exactly who they are and would send them straight back to jail for very lengthy prison terms.

The late afternoon and evening was spent with our special friends who accompanied us for a 24 hour visit – we visited the places and met the people we needed to. I’m hopefully it will be very fruitful for the future for all concerned – we have some great plans but above all it was a real honour and wonderful experience.

So here we are back in Mae Sot for the 3rd time in just over a year, but this trip is by far the most important to date. There’s a trip in to Burma planned for this project… Months of planning now lie in the hands of fate and the ever changing daily situation inside the country. Silence is Golden but now the silence can start to be broken and in part will be revealed in a UK newspaper on Saturday 24th April (full details to follow).

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Thailand Day 9: Mae Tao Clinic

The Mae Tao Clinic is something of an institution in Mae Sot and the surrounding border areas. Without it, you start to wonder just how many people might have died over the years. It is a truely remarkable place run by truely remarkable people – there is really no other way to describe it. Founded and directed by Dr. Cynthia Maung, it provides free health care for refugees, migrant workers, and other individuals who cross the border from Burma to Thailand. It was established in the aftermath of the mass demonstrations in 1988 when thousands fled to the border to begin their fight for democracy. I have had the honour of visiting many times and thanks to my friend Eh Thwa (a manager at the clinic) I have been given unrestricted access throughout the clinic to document and photograph accordingly. But this time the visit was different – I was here to photograph Dr Tun Thu, a former political prisoner who has been working at the clinic for many years. Dr Tun Thu was detained for 8 years in Insein prison and Tharawaddy prison for his political activities. He fled to teh border like many of his colleagues and has been working at the Mae Tao clinic ever since.

Dr Tun Thu

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