USA Day 1: The Orient Express to Myingyan. Burma’s Darkest Hell on Earth.

Wrapping up from  the shoot as well as the cold in Times Square we catch the subway over to Queens for our next installment of the day and a visit to meet Ko Nay Tin Myint and Ko Myint Soe. To some degree I felt riding the subways reminded me of being back in Burma. It’s been 20 years since I was last in New York and it seems like nothing has changed underground. As we step out in Queens it’s like being back in the real world as the fantasy fiction of Manhattan sits on the horizon a bit like Disneyland. I had hoped to be able to shoot everyone outside with New York landmarks in the background but the weather has put paid to that as New York is facing one of its worst spells in decades. With the light already fading fast we make our way through Ugly Betty’s neighbourhood (which brings a smile to our faces) to Myint Soe’s house. As we get nearer I suddenly realize we are walking underneath the overhead railway of the famous “Oriental Express” or the ‘7 line’ as it’s officially known. It’s classic New York and makes a great setting for a backdrop with all its meanings as well as looking straight out of a picture book of New York’s real life. So a quick call to Nay Tin Myint and he willingly comes to meet us and to brave the cold and do the shot outside just before the light calls it a day.

88 Generation Student, Nay Tin Myint, was jailed for more than 15 years

Nay Tin Myint had been actively involved in leading student demonstrations during the uprising of 1988. Exactly one year on from that fateful day the 8th August 1988 he was arrested by officers from Special Branch SB14 as he gave a speech during an  anniversary demonstration on the corner of Barr St in Rangoon. As he stepped down from the stage he was grabbed by 8 armed officers and ruthlessly arrested. A commotion ensued as people tried to help him but soldiers were quickly on the scene arriving with machine guns on the back of a huge truck. As he was thrown into the back of the truck one soldier stabbed him in the head with his bayonet – he still bears the horrific scar today. He was taken to a concentration camp, the HQ of SB14 and was brutally tortured for days. He told them he was an NLD youth leader as well as a member of the Tricolor student organization. He was swiftly sentenced by a military court to 3 years in prison and was sent to Insein. On leaving the court room he was asked by the so-called judge, General Aung Kyaw San, if he had anything to say. He responded that “I am doing this for the people. The people are on my side, not your side.” This didn’t settle well with the General. “Ok. You get 4 years” and he was hauled away with a further year added to his sentence.
In jail he was tortured severely both physically and mentally, being kept in solitary confinement. He carried out a hunger strike and almost died but this didn’t stop him being shackled for almost 6 months until he was transferred to Tharawaddy. Again he performed another hunger strike over prison conditions and was the transferred to the darkest hell on earth that is Myingyan prison. Once again in Myingyan he was shackled until his release in October 1993. His right leg was paralysed due to more than a year of being shackled and severe torture. He needed 6 months in hospital in Rangoon and then a further 9 months before he was able to walk again.
In spite of everything he had suffered he continued his political activities but was arrested once again in June 1993 with 11 comrades as they had met with UN Human Rights Commission representatives and had handed out the “New Era Journal” (a newspaper produced by exiled opposition groups). Nay Tin Myimt was sentenced to 20 years in prison and was sent back to Insein. One year later he was transferred once more to Myingyan where he would stay for 11 years until his release in July 2005. Torture and brutal treatment of political prisoners is state policy in all of Burma’s prisons. It is shocking, systematic and arbitrary. It is also illegal. Whilst the notorious Insein prison harbours some of the most brutal torture that has ever occurred on this planet, it is the darkest hell on earth that is Myingyan prison were suffering knows no bounds and has become the model for breaking spirits and the destruction of resolve. As the AAPP report ‘The Darkness We See’ states that upon arrival “…the first treatment given will be covering his eyes with a dirty piece of cloth. Beating immediately follows as a second lesson. The prison authorities refer to this event as the ‘welcoming ceremony with orchestra’ in which they regard truncheons and bamboo rods as musical instruments. Solitary is mandatory. Treatment where it is forbidden to speak or even look at anyone and when someone passes by your cell you must have your head bowed. The world has no eyes or ears to the abuse that goes on inside the walls of Myingyan for if it did then it would surely have acted by now to bring an end to this inconceivable mess.

Prison shackles used on political prisoners in Burma’s jails

Nay Tin Myint spent 7 years in solitary confinement. For 7 whole years he saw no-one other than the weekly visit by the superintendent but even then he was not allowed to look or speak. The only time he could get out of his cell every day was for a few minutes to have a bath with 15 cups of water. He was never once allowed the statutory 30 minutes exercise. During an ICRC visit in 2000 he was called for by name to be checked due to the concern over the abuse he was being subjected to and the state of his health. During his time he was shackled on 2 separate occasions, the first time for 3 months but the second time was for over a year. He received no medical treatment at all. Despite this treatment he summoned up the strength from within to launch a counter offensive against the regime by carrying out yet another hunger strike, but this would be one that would have very different results that bring true meaning to the term ‘will to live’. In 2005 he started a hunger strike that would last 14 days. For the first 8 days the authorities gave him water but after that they stopped. When the authorities tried to force him to eat and even offered him medical treatment he still refused. He was sure he would die but he was never going to give in. By now the prison authorities were so concerned they called the military’s Regional Commander, Ba Myint, who came straight to the prison. Nay Tin Myint’s demands for political prisoners were simple – the right to receive a reduced sentence; improved food and medical treatment enabling them the right to access to hospital outside the prison if needed and finally the right that political prisoners could write to their families. His stubbornness was to prove valiant as one by one his requests were granted as the authorities gave in to his demands. He was released soon after and returned to Rangoon.
Having suffered such senseless brutality for 15 years, after undergoing some serious medical treatment, the first thing Nay Tin Myint did was to return to his former political activities where he rejoined with all his former student colleagues, Min Ko Naing, Htay Kwe, Ko Ko Gyi and others and history was made as the 88 Generation Students organization was born. He played a big role in many of their activities including the White Campaign but in May 2007 he was forced to flee Burma as the junta came for him once more. He fled to Mae Sot where he worked for the NLD-LA and in April 2008 he was granted special case referral to resettle in USA. He is now the Secretary 1 of the NLD-LA USA branch.

Myint Soe, CEC member of the NLD-LA

After shooting underneath the Orient Express we headed to Myint Soe’s house so we could all talk over a nice cup of warm Burmese tea. Myint Soe, a central committee member of the NLD-LA spent 16 years in prison in Burma. I had previously met and photographed him in Mae Sot back in July 2009 and now here we are on the other side of the world, in very different scenery as it starts to snow outside but a link to the past in many different ways. We all chat away for what seems like hours but with the night closing in we have one more person to meet and the surprise I could not have envisaged.

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Interviews All Round But Caution Abound

The media frenzy continues as the world waits in delight and anticipation to hear Daw Aung San Suu Kyi speak (some appearing increasingly desperate to speak to the Lady themselves whilst those both trusted and respected are able to share her words with the world). Almost every leading campaigner and activist gave a media interview of one sort or another over the past few days, but there is always a moment when a new leading voice can be heard for the first time and most certainly not the last, usurping many others around her. Jacqueline San, a leading campaigner at Burma Campaign UK and also for Burma’s political prisoners as a whole as part of the team producing this project gave a radio interview along with Baroness Caroline Cox from HART – click on the player below to listen:

Jacqueline San stands in solidarity with Burma’s political prisoners outside 10 Downing Street

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Waiting for Aunty and the Washington Post

On a day that actually started the day before for many of us, we are still no closer to really knowing if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will be released from her latest detention of house arrest. Rumours, counter rumours and a frenzy of expectation and hope saw hundreds line the streets in anticipation of the impending release of Burma’s democracy icon but the wait goes on – tomorrow is another day.

U Win Htein arrives at the NLD headquarters in Rangoon

U WIn Tin arrives at University Avenue

Throughout the day NLD leaders and hundreds of supporters gathered at both University Avenue and outside the NLD headquarters in Rangoon quietly waiting despite SPDC sponsored thugs watching closely and MI frantically photographing (I’m glad I don’t have to edit their photos later tonight!). The world’s media had to rely on second-hand information for the most part with only a handful of foreign journalists masquerading as tourists in Rangoon. Melissa Bell has posted about this project on the Washington Post today as Ba Ba U Win Tin must now hopefully only have to wait one more day.

Whether she is finally freed tomorrow may depend on her acceptance of conditions imposed on her by the regime, restricting her movements and political activities. You can be sure she will demand full freedom and accept nothing less. There are still 2,202 to come after her. She will be the first to remind the world about that before anything else.

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Amnesty Netherlands Magazine

Another front page for Ba Ba U Win Tin and an accompanying feature article as well – with huge thanks to Jorn and Elke at Amnesty Netherlands for producing this great opportunity to continue raising awareness and profile of political prisoners.

Former political prisoners featured alongside U Win Tin are (clockwise top left to right): Htein Lin, U Zawana, Saw Than Hla, Daw San San and Kyaw Win Shwe.

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Dr Sein Win, Burma’s Prime Minister-in-Exile, Stands in Solidarity with Political Prisoners

Burma’s Prime Minister-in-exile and Chairman of the NCGUB, (National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma), Dr Sein Win, joined the campaign adding his voice to thousands around the world standing in solidarity for Burma’s political prisoners.

Dr Sein Win, cousin of Aung San Suu Kyi, was born on the 16th of December 1944 in Taungdwingyi. His father was the elder brother of General Aung San and was part of the cabinet of Aung San – he was assassinated in 1947, together with Aung San and most members of the cabinet, just before Burma gained independence. After the 1988 uprisings, Dr Sein Win was the  Treasurer of the Information Department of the NLD and in charge of the Party for National Democracy (PND) and was elected Member of Parliament for Paukkhaung, Pegu Division. On 1st October 1990, in the aftermath of the election, a Special Leading Committee consisting of elected MPs and party members secretly met at a location on the Mandalay-Maymyo road and endorsed resolutions that were instrumental in the formation of a parallel government. Two elected representatives were sent to the Thai side to contact with the revolutionary forces and got their support. Several MPs headed by Dr. Sein Win left Burma for Manerplaw to form a government on the Thai-Burma border. The National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma was officially formed in Manerplaw on 18 December 1990 with Dr Sein Win elected as Prime Minister.  One of the declared principles was that it would be dissolved once democracy and human rights are restored in Burma.

Dr Sein Win

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U Win Htein Freed After 20 Years In Hell

Some fantastic news this morning as U Win Htein was freed form Katha prison after serving nearly twenty years in prison.

Aung Myo Thein spent more than 6 years in Insein prison

(U) Win Htein served in the military for five years and became a Captain. He was PA (Personal Assistant) of then Commander-in-Chief General Tin Oo (now NLD Vice Chairman). He was arrested in 1980s for his involvement with Captain Ohn Kyaw Myin, who was hanged for state treason. (U) Win Htein was sentenced seven-year imprisonments.

During the 1988 popular uprising and when the National League for Democracy was formed, he became active member of the NLD and served as personal assistant and senior adviser of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo. He was arrested briefly in early 1989 and was severely tortured by the military intelligence. Then he was arrested again in 1989 and spent over five and a half year in prison until 1995.

On May 22, 1996, he was arrested again by the regime. He was accused that he provided false information to foreign media and providing fabricated news and information about the situation of farmers in the delta region, charged with two counts under Section 5 (J) of the Emergency Provision Act, and sentenced seven-year each for two cases, altogether 14-year imprisonment on August 15, 1996.

On Sep 23, 2008, he was released from Kathar Prison, Kathar Township, Sagaing Division, over a thousand miles away from his home town Rangoon. He stayed that night at a guest house in Kathar and called his wife. He asked her and other family members to come to Mandalay, middle point between Rangoon and Kathar, where they would meet and reunion. His wife, Daw Done Done, and family quickly left for Mandalay and they, together with NLD members from Mandalay, waited at the port to pick up (U) Win Htein, whom should be coming with a passenger boat from Kathar. However, he didn’t show up. Later, prison authorities contacted Daw Done Done and informed that they have put (U) Win Htein back in prison as some situation were changed.

Finally today after spending a total of more than 20 years in prison he is free.

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U Win Tin’s Personal Message

Along with the letter that I received and that was published front page in The Independent newspaper, U Win Tin has issued a brief personal video message about this campaign as he comes face to face with himself on the front cover of Amnesty International magazine (May/June issue).

The video message is personal and so remains private, but for now here is a brief clip plus a still taken from the video:

You can also view a message U Win Tin issued for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on her birthday here on the Foreign Office Facebook page.

U Win Tin – ‘Face to Face with my Hero’

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A Letter from Aung San Suu Kyi’s Right Hand Man

Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi (…and U Win Tin and Me!) make the front page today as a letter from U Win Tin has been published in the Independent newspaper in the UK in a three page article including the front page where the letter is printed. You can read the article online here at The Independent website.

It’s also my first ever front page of a national newspaper – not just picture, but the whole front page and to have it for this reason is overwhelming as it comes from my absolute hero Saya U Win Tin. Naturally I can’t divulge any information about the receipt of this letter other than it was secretly smuggled out of Burma to me under great risk, but it is an extraordinary impassioned plea by U Win Tin on behalf of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and  the people of Burma that puts all “statements of concern” ever made by world leaders and the UN to shame.

Now is the time for them to truely stand up and be counted. Tomorrow Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will be 65 and enough is enough. Ban Ki Moon’s personal mission and the same statements issued by leaders across the globe must now become set in stone by the UNSC as an action that HAS to be fulfilled by the regime in Burma – The immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners – a fundamental aspect for any form of democratic change in Burma.

Above is the part of the letter printed in today’s Independent newspaper. The rest of the letter will remain private.

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U Win Tin: Face to Face With My Hero

Rightfully emblazoned on the front cover of Amnesty International magazine (May/June edition) is the face of U Win Tin with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s name written on his palm… the most fitting place possible for his portrait to be published on the magazine of the world’s biggest human rights organisation.

The interview was done amidst the backdrop of a tense Bangkok as red shirts were staging defiant protests also. You can read the article in the image below if you have good eyesight or failing that join Amnesty International and you can get a copy of the magazine every month… although I can’t guarantee I’ll get U Win Tin on the cover every time… but I’ll try!

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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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