Burma Day 1: The Waiting Is Over

The most dangerous part of this project is working inside Burma. The risks are huge if caught – maybe not so much for me although you can’t be sure, but for anyone I’m with or is associated to me then it could mean paying the ultimate price and a very heavy prison sentence and all that comes with that. For these obvious reasons there is very little that can be talked about in this blog about the trips inside Burma (as with the trip last year) other than to state that no matter what these risks are, there are some very, very brave people indeed inside Burma who are willing to take them in order to tell the world what’s going on and in this case to tell the world that their colleagues currently detained in prison MUST be freed immediately. We take these risks because the message is too important and that is why I report back in a limited sense about what we are doing to let the world know that despite the risks we are doing what we can – there is nothing to be gained in staying silent. That’s what the Generals want.

This time I have a Visa-on-Arrival. It’s a new system introduced by the regime to try to lure more foreign visitors by making the visa process more simple – plus of course it costs more so they make more money… but I felt I might as well give it a go and on arrival at Rangoon airport, other than a few nervous moments when two military officials march across the waiting area with my passport in their hand and disappear into a small room, everything goes smoothly and I meet my official tour guide who has arranged my visa and we head into town – chatting about my forthcoming trip to Inle Lake, beautiful Bagan and all that wonderful Myanmar has to offer the newly arrived tourist. Of course I have no plans to go to any of these places and I’m purely going through the motions. I feel really sorry for her, knowing that deep down I know she hates her government as much as I do, but like so many, she is trapped here, unable to speak, unable to live an ordinary life. I get dropped off at my hotel by my guide and immediately jump in another taxi to another hotel once she is out of sight. Whilst your every move may be tracked by the regime and its intelligence officers, you might as well make it as hard for them as possible to know your exact whereabouts whenever you can. It’s a game of cat and mouse that you may not need to always play, but you can never be sure.

It’s incredibly hot here (40 degrees today) and everyone is gearing up for Thingyan next week. The rest of the day is spent taking in a few of Rangoon’s sites and several hours at the most beautiful of them all late into the evening – the Shwedagon Pagoda – one of my favourite places on earth.

A day being a tourist… after all that’s what I am aren’t I?!

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Thailand Day 7: Umpiem, Nupo… Houston We Have a Problem.

The usual early start heading south to Umpiem Mai refugee camp but we only just make the line car as it’s packed up and ready to go half an hour early! The day ahead is going to be hectic – there are more than 30 former political prisoners in Umpiem Mai refugee camp and most of them will be photographed today. Getting into the camps is often a game of cat and mouse with the authorities. Either a few hundred baht changes hands and a look the other way as you sneak in the gate or if you’re lucky you may be able to sneak in without having to pay some tea money. Either way the bottom line is you’re not supposed to be going in – the Thai authorities don’t want photos, videos and reports coming out of what like is life inside these camps. The usual way is to be a ‘Teacher’ or ‘Missionary’ for the day. But today I am concerned about getting in as we have company with us which on a normal day I would be more than happy to have but today is about the issues we are trying to cover for former political prisoners and we can’t afford getting caught or not getting in to the camp.

The route south is nothing but the usual – checkpoints where those without papers are hauled aside and have to part with whatever cash they have to be able to continue their journey. It’s just another part of the perilous life of a stateless person on the Thai-Burma border being exposed to corruption at every turn. About 30 minutes from Umpiem Mai cmap we are pulled over at the top of a hill by the Thai police – it’s a random checkpoint and there about 30 police in total – many armed, ready and waiting to fill their pockets with a little extra cash for the weekend – they are in for a nice surprise when they stop us as we had just picked up 19 Karen refugees on their way to a day’s farming… a handsome reward for the Thai police even if they had to do their best to extort money away from the eyes and ears of the foreigners amongst us on the line car – we filmed what we could and you can just make out the Karen woman ‘talking’ to the police in the clip above.

We finally make it to Umpiem Mai and meet Kyaw Soe Win at the gate as planned, but this is where the plans go wrong (as I had expected form the start). There is no way we are going to be allowed in today as we are too many people. If it had just been Thiha, me and Jackie then no problem – we could sneak in as normal, but with the extra (white western) faces accompanying us its obviously a no go. No time to be disappointed as when one door shuts another opens and we change around our entire schedule and decide to head straight to Nupo and come back here on Sunday… when the Palat is away!… (just us 3) providing we can catch the last line car form Umphang and also get a message to the camp that we are on our way (they aren’t expecting us until tomorrow). There is no phone reception in Nupo camp but with the wonders of modern technology I send a Facebook message via my iPhone to John Glenn in Houston, Texas, who then in turn gets a message to our contacts in Nupo Camp informing them of our imminent arrival… Houston we have a problem!! Digital democracy at it’s very best!! We catch the next line car down to Umphang and just make the last connection to Nupo camp by the skin of our teeth. It’s becoming a bit of a habit just making these connections wherever we are in the world… it’s as though it’s just meant to happen.

The road to Nupo has been vastly improved since my last visit just 6 months ago and we arrive much quicker than expected giving us time to take several portraits in the early evening before the light disappears – the call ahead had already been made by John Glenn from in Houston to prepare whoever was available – great teamwork! So here we are back at ESC Nupo (English Speaking Course) and a warm welcome as always – it’s great to see Robin, Min Zaw Oo, Ton and everyone again and a real honour to be able to stay in the camp at the school. This part of the trip wouldn’t be possible without the help from all at ESC so a huge thanks to you all. Nupo camp is home to approximately 25+ former political prisoners, mostly living in Section 16 and most of whom I photographed on my last visit back in July. But the light was not so good back then and the portraits were all rushed and also with many of the same backgrounds. Also most importantly, with the Leica back in my hands these portraits will simply rock. So without any delay we decide to get the shoots underway as tomorrow we will only have the morning to work with as it gets too bright after about 11am and we have to head back to Umphang and then on to Umpiem Mai on Sunday.

This time our trip to the camps is taking on an extra dimension as we are also documenting the current perilous situation for former political prisoners on the Thai-Burma border where they are basically stateless people as they are not being recognised as refugees by the UNHCR or Thai authorities. You can read more about this issue on a seperate blog entry here. The first person who we not only take a portrait of but spend some time interviewing is U Chit Tin, a former member of parliament for the NLD. Jailed for high treason in 1990 when he was one of 35 NLD MPs who met in Mandalay to form an alternative government, U Chit Tin is now awaiting resettlement like so many here in the refugee camps. (You can read about his story here). U Chit Tin spent 2 years in Insein prison and amongst other things in his life as an NLD MP he was in the lead car in front of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi when they were attacked at Depayin. Imagine an MP from your Government going through that as well as torture and oppression for 16 years and now being forced to live in a refugee camp… A complete and utter farce is the only polite way to describe this mess.

With the light fading we manage to take 5 more portraits this evening which makes all the hassle and misfortunes of earlier pale into insignificance. We photograph Naing Linn (2 years in Pathein prison); Moe Kyaw Aung (7 years in Insein & Tharwaddy prisons); Than Oo Myint (1 year in Moulmein prison); Moe Kyi (3 years in Insein, Bago & Tharawaddy prisons) and finally Soe Myint Aung (3 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons).

Please click HERE for full size images of the above portraits

As the evening drew to a close we headed back to ESC for some dinner and a good catch up with everyone. It may sound strange to say it but it’s great to be here and I only hope that next time I come back we can have made huge in-roads on not only the political prisoner issue inside Burma but also that of those in peril as stateless people living in these camps.

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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.

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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.

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Thailand Day 4 (part 2): One Hundred Years in One Day

So much for thinking there were only a handful of new arrivals since last being here in Mae Sot 6 months ago. The General Amnesty of September 2009 where 128 political prisoners were released had seen a signifcant number of people flee across the border since then – both those who had been released and others whose lives had become un-liveable as a former political prisoner inside Burma. In short the only difference is that once released from prison you are no longer in a cell. Almost everything else about your life remains the same but just in a different context. Constant monitoring, harrasement and mental torture by the regime and its thugs – for a former political prisoner life can so easily cease to exist as everything is taken from you – even your friends and family. Many are therefore forced to flee across the border into Thailand – this is not easy and is a trip faced with extreme danger. As a former political prisoner you are always watched and being caught trying to flee brings about an immediate return to jail.

(Naw Ohn Hla – currently in Insein for leading prayers at Shwedagon pagoda for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners)

So as the 10th Anniversary event came to a close in the mid-day sun, the first day of shooting got underway almost straight away. The next few days were going to be very busy – the initial estimates of 5 or so new faces were way off the mark. The next 5 hours saw us race around town on the back of bikes as we met , interviewed and photographed 11 new arrivals in Mae Sot since last being here: Daw Cho Mar Htwe (11 year), U Zawana (16 years), U Sandawbartha (16 years), U Thawbita (1 year), Soe Lwin (15 years), Moe Kalayar Oo (6 years), Soe Htike (8 years), San Lwin Oo (2 years), U Kyaw Kyaw (6 years), Sein Kyaw Oo (5 years), and Thwin Linn Aung (5 years). In one afternoon 11 people had spent almost 100 years in prison.

(Cho Mar Htwe being interviewed by Jacquelin San)

One of the first people I heard about that had recently arrived was Daw Cho Mar Htwe. She was arrested in 1998 as a member of the NLD and spent 11 years in Insein and Moulmein prisons before being released in the Amnesty of September 2009. The funny thing was that my good friend Ma Khin Cho Myint @ Zulu had written Cho Mar Htwe’s name on her hand when I took her portrait in Nupo camp last year. It was the second time I had had to take Zulu’s portrait as the original name she wrote on her hand had also been released… so with Cho Mar Htwe now having been released I needed to take yet another picture of Zulu… her hand was now quickly becoming known as the lucky hand! So first stop was to Lae Lae’s house where Daw Cho Mar Htwe was now living – in fact whilst we were there we also photographed Sein Kyaw Oo and Thwin Linn Aung – who was of particular interest to Jackie as he had been a prominent student leader at Rangoon university during the student uprisings in 1996 whilst she had been one of the many junior students who sat in the road at Hledan junction listening to their seniors speaking. Then it was a race across town to see Moe Kalayar Oo and her husband Soe Htike. Moe Kalayar Oo spent 6 years in jail because of her participation in the demonstration during the funeral ceremony of U Nu. During the Saffron Revolution she was a member of the 88 Generation Students but evaded arrest and went on to assist Nargis victims in 2008. But the authorities finally caught up with her so she fled with her family. Her husband Soe Htike had been involved in the All Burma Students Democratic Movement and was arrested in 1991 spending 8 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons. Like his wife he then became a member of the 88 Generation Students and was one of the core group outside Insein prison every day whilst Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was on trial in summer of 2009.

(U Zawana and U Sandawbartha – both spent more than 16 years each in Burma’s prisons)

Back across town again to Thiha’s home for a meeting with monks U Zawana and U Sandawbartha. Both had spent more than 16 years each in prison – much of it together in Insein and Tharawaddy. Both were from the same monastery in Rangoon – Shwe Pyi Thar learner’s monastery and U Sandawbartha being arrested 2 days earlier and both were finally released in September 2009. In 1992 U Zawana met with UN Special Rapporteur of human rights Mr. Yozo Yokota and gave evidence on the situation inside the country. He was subsequently sentenced to 29 years in jail – full interviews with both will be available soon. Staying in Thiha’s house temporarily is Soe Lwin – 15 years in 4 different prisons having been sentenced to 24 years in jail. It’s so hard to get your round being with someone so young who has spent half of their life in prison for absolutely no reason. It’s always a time to reflect on so many things whenever I meet a former political prisoner, but also it provides you with such an amazing sense of inspiration. Anything is possible if you put your mind to it. Just ask these people who have survived hell.

(Soe Lwin – 15 years spent in Insein, Myeik, Tavoy and Moulmein prisons)

The final stop of the day was to visit the People’s Volunteer Association being run by former political prisoners San Lwin Oo arrested after Saffron Revolution in 2007 and U Kyaw Kyaw – a solo protester arrested in 2003 and who has been jailed for 6 years. The organisation was formerly known as the “Burma Volunteers Association” and is a non-profit association taking a leading role to solve the social conflicts in the migrant community in Thailand. We photographed both men in a dusty road where the office is located but also is the home to hundreds of Burmese migrants – as though stacked one on top each other like chickens in a battery farm. It may be a sense of freedom from the oppression behind the walls that is Burma but its a very long way from the world that most people are lucky enough to be able to enjoy.

As the last of the light disappeared we headed back to AAPP to join in the celebrations (see part one of this post). A completely unexpected start to have photographed so many in one afternoon and simply not possible without the ever present help from Thiha and also the Secretary General keeping me on the straight and narrow and concentrating on what I had to do. without them both doing all the real hard work in interviews and planning then most of this campaign just wouldn’t have the depth that it does.

100 years in prison in one day. There’s nothing to add to that sombre fact.

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Thailand Day 4 (part 1): Ten Years Strong

Ten years ago today, on 23rd March 2000, former political prisoners from Burma living in exile in Thailand formed the human rights organisation the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), more commonly known as the AAPP. The date of 23rd March has relevance as it is the anniversary of the arrest of student leader Min Ko Naing in 1988. For the past ten years, AAPP has cast light on the dark situation that is the hell of Burma’s prisons and the political prisoners that have suffered within them. It has played a vital role in reporting to International governments and the UN on the situation of political prisoners in Burma and has campaigned vigorously and untiringly to both raise awareness and bring about change. It provides a voice and support for the 2,186 political prisoners currently incarcerated in Burma’s jails and also assistance to their families and those who have been forced to flee into exile.

The day starts in a rush and thankfully we grab a lift from Dr Naing Aung from the AAPP office to the Rujira Hotel on the outskirts of Mae Sot – where the celebrations are being held. More than 150 people had gathered to this special occasion – former political prisoners, activists, exiled NLD Members of Parliament – the room was awash with important people who had come to acknowledge not just the work and tenth anniversary of AAPP but more importantly the fact that 2,186 people were still in jail and the fact that a significant number of those people should be playing important roles in the forthcoming elections. Former political prisoners dressed in their blue prison uniforms carried a banner that re-iterated this message “There can be no national reconciliation in Burma as long as there are political prisoners”. There is really no other way to put it.

It was a strange experience to know so many people in the room – to have been privileged to have shared the lives of so many of them for this project; an honour to be a part of this family. I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. Anniversary t-shirts in the prisoner colour blue were handed out to all and the MCs Moe Myat Thu and Ma Suu Mon Aye got things underway. The former political prisoners performed to the packed hall and a number of prominent activists and former political prisoners spoke to the audience. It was a great day and I spent most of the event wandering around chatting to people and taking the odd photograph – you can see the photos here. Also with so many former political prisoners gathered in one place it was also a great opportunity to start planning who to photograph and a real coup as Daw San San, NLD MP, Vice President of the MPPU and former political prisoner agreed to have her portrait taken later in the week. In fact our initial estimates of 5 or so new faces to photograph in Mae Sot were way off target. We also caught up with Ma Thida who was over from DVB in Oslo – so many friends everywhere but a big surprise for Jackie who met a very special old friend (now in Generation Wave) whom she hadn’t seen for ten years since having to leave Burma in 2000. It was a wonderful moment to enjoy a re-union and such a small world to be re-united here in Mae Sot both fighting as activists for their country.

To mark the 10th anniversary the AAPP were launching their new report “The Role of Political Prisoners in the National Reconciliation Process”. The report calls on the international community to press the military junta to unconditionally release all political prisoners, review the 2008 Constitution, and begin a tripartite dialogue. But the report also calls for the criminal records of all political prisoners to be erased. The 2010 election and party registration laws prohibit current prisoners including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Khun Tun Oo from standing for election or belonging to a political part – and this is a key point if there is to be any sense of real democratic change and progress for Burma. You can condemn the constitution, repression and general disastrous human rights situation throughout Burma all you like but the basic fact that the very people who were not only originally elected to run the country but who are also who the people of Burma would still want to play a role now in shaping its future are still in jail. Their unconditional release and involvement in the political process is fundamental if there is ever to be meaningful change in Burma.

The new report was launched at a press conference and the whole event was filmed by Democratic Voice of Burma DVB and you can read all about the days events here in a report from The Irrawaddy. The celebrations continued throughout the day culminating in an evening event held at the office of AAPP for former political prisoners and a selection of specially invited guests – time to really celebrate and for me an incredible moment as a slideshow of the 115 photographs of this project was played on a big screen to everyone – amazing feeling to see all these former political prisoners watching their colleagues from all over the world – it made all the hard work really seem worthwhile to have it shown and acknowledged in such company. Everyone partied long in to the night – a well deserved day of celebration but also acknowledgement of the role of political prisoners in Burma’s past, present and future.

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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 1: Breaking The Silence

On March 20th we touched down in Bangkok and only now, one month on from this trip starting, can the details start to surface.
Breaking The Silence from the Border and Burma…

We were in the queue at Heathrow at about 5am when I got a call from Rachel – “The report’s being launched on Tuesday… the photos are all over it”. The new report from Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) “The Role of Political Prisoners in the National Reconciliation Process” is being launched on Tuesday at the 10th Anniversary of AAPP in Mae Sot and the cover features all of the photos from this campaign to date. I knew they were going to use some on the cover and in the book but I didn’t realise it would be the whole front cover and back as well!! Final motivation to get us ready for the month ahead, not that any is really needed. Once again the most important person who keeps the ship sailing smoothly is on board – Miss J San @ The Secretary General. So with last minute revelations and itinerary changes including a cancelled cross-border trip (we wouldn’t have made it anyway so was thankfully no loss) we were finally off – I was actually due to leave 24 hours earlier – if only I had because then I could have met Nyi Nyi Aung at Bangkok airport and taken his photo… now that would have given the Generals something to think about. So we’re back in Bangkok but just for one night before heading to Mae Sot for several weeks of fairly intense work and most importantly to kick things off the 10th Anniversary of the AAPP. A bizarre concept greets us – thousands upon thousands of Red shirt protesters demonstrating peacefully for democracy – no sign of a policeman or soldier in sight – it’s almost a carnival atmosphere. How different it would be a few hundred miles away across the border in Burma if the same happened there, red shirts ‘n’ all. The only people we have booked to see in Bangkok are U Zin Linn and Ma Suu Mon Aye – both to re-take their photos as their original prisoners have now been released. Unfortunately only U Zin Linn is available today and we’ll catch up with Ma later, so we head over to his office and spend the whole afternoon catching up with him and his daughter Nai Nai who works for SEAPA. U Zin Linn was jailed twice for a total of 9 years. The former journalist and close friend and prison inmate of U Win Tin is currently Director of Media & Information for the NCGUB and also Vice President of the BMA.

U Zin Linn became an activist in the High School Union after the students’ massacre on 7th July 1962 taking on a role as an active member in the Rangoon Division Students’ Union. He Participated in a poster-and-pamphlet campaign on the 4th anniversary of 7 July movement and went into hiding to keep away from the military police. He was still able to carry out underground pamphlet campaigns against the Burmese Socialist Programme Party ( BSPP). However, in 1982, he fell into the hands of MI and served two years imprisonment in the notorious Insein prison. In 1988 he took part, together with his old students’ union members, in the People’s Democracy Uprising. In November of that year, he became an NLD Executive Committee Member for the Thingangyun Township and later became superintendent of the NLD Rangoon Division Office. In 1991, he was arrested because of his connections with the exiled government, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), and sentenced to 7 years imprisonment in the notorious Insein Prison. In December 1997 he was released. Zin Linn was an editor and columnist and contributed articles to various publications, especially on international affairs, while in Burma. He fled Burma in 2001 and currently lives and works in Bangkok.

We re-took his portrait in his office before heading out to spend the afternoon in a Burmese tea shop talking politics whilst being  surrounded by red shirted protesters… it was a very surreal way to start the trip.

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BREAKING NEWS: Nyi Nyi Aung Released

Nyi Nyi Aung @ Kyaw Zaw Lwin has been released from Insein prison the day after an appeal was made by his lawyers.

Full details here on Democratic Voice of Burma

One Year On: Revolution and Evolution

Sometimes you can only move forward by going back to the beginning – and one year on that’s exactly what I’m doing in preparation for taking this campaign to the next level. With exciting developments on the horizon, where better than to gather your creative thoughts and ideas than with one of Burma’s most famous exports – world renowned artist Htein Lin. You can read all about Htein Lin here on this blog when I first took his portrait almost exactly a year ago to the day.

One year on and 117 former political prisoners later we are back in his studio discussing ideas and plotting a collaboration of sorts. With oppression ramped up to maximum by the SPDC with ludicrous election laws, worsening situations in ethnic states and more political prisoners in jail now than ever before, it’s time to start the fight back. Stay tuned…

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