Burma Wins Big at the PX3 Prix de la Photographie Awards

One of the biggest and most prestigious photography awards in Europe, the “PX3 Prix de la Photographie Paris” have announced the winners in the annual event that celebrates a huge spectrum of photography from Photojournalism to Fine Art. With thousands of entrants from 85 countries including many of the world’s top photographers from agencies such as Panos Pictures and VII it is extremely pleasing and also humbling to win four awards – two golds, one silver and one bronze and an honourable mention – all for recent work in Burma and on the Thai-Burma border.

The winning images and photo-stories are as follows:

Aung San Suu Kyi: At Home With Burma’s Hope“:
Gold in Photojournalism (People)
Silver in Photojournalism (Political)
Honourable Mention in Portraiture

Burma’s democracy icon, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, photographed at home at 54 University Avenue

The Prison Without Bars“:
Gold in Photojournalism (Political)

From the refugee camps scattered along the border with Burma to the safe houses of Mae Sot to those who have been resettled to third countries, the daily lives of Burma’s former political prisoners are documented as they continue their fight in the struggle to bring democracy to Burma as well as their own personal fight for freedom.

Burma’s Defiance: Bo Kyi
Bronze in Photojournalism (Political)

“Burma’s Defiance” an ongoing long term project both inside Burma as well as in exile, documenting dissidents and human rights defenders still leading the fight against the ruling military regime in spite of threats and harassment from the authorities in the quest to bring freedom to their country.

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It is a huge honour to win these awards but most importantly it gives an audience and a platform to the subject matter and the issues concerned. This is the reason why as photographers so many of us take these pictures and follow these stories – personal satisfaction in the process and challenge of learning, helping and making a difference. Awards are due not to me but to the people in my pictures due to the struggles they have had to endure. My thanks, of course go to each and every one of them.

Burma’s Defiance – U Tin Oo

Photographed for the ongoing long term project documenting Burma’s dissidents and defenders – BURMA’S DEFIANCE

U Tin Oo, Vice Chairman of the National League for Democracy

Vice-Chairman of the National League for Democracy (NLD), U Tin Oo spent more than 13 years in prison and under house arrest. He was released from his latest sentence in February 2010 and continues to work tirelessly to achieve democracy and national reconciliation in Burma in spite of threats and oppression from the ruling military regime.

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FREE THE VJs: Inside Burma’s Secret Network

Today on World Press Freedom Day the global campaign “Free The VJs” is launched by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). Seventeen reporters for the DVB are incarcerated in prisons across Burma. Some are serving sentences of 27 years, arbitrarily jailed for the so-called crime of exposing the truth about the regime. Their work has included the documenting of scorched-earth tactics against ethnic minorities, the murdering of monks by Burmese troops, and the ineptitude of the regime following cyclone Nargis in 2008. The video-journalists, or VJs, have become a source of humiliation for the regime, which keeps nearly 2,100 political prisoners behind bars: among these are activists, doctors, lawyers, MPs and comedians.

The release of the VJs and Burma’s many political prisoners is a key prerequisite to democratic transition in the country, which in March swore in what it claims to be a new civilian government. Whether this government will overturn Burma’s distinction as one of the world’s most dangerous countries in which to be a journalist remains to be seen, but action must be taken now.

Please visit the official website FREE THE VJs for further details where you can support our campaign and help bring about the release of our colleagues imprisoned in Burma’s jails.

View photos from inside Burma’s the secret VJ network – CLICK HERE – taken clandestinely in the secret offices in Thailand and Norway

Undercover VJs at work in the secret offices

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Aung San Suu Kyi: At Home With Burma’s Hope

All photos available to view in COLOUR or BLACK & WHITE

Reflections on tea with the Lady.

Waiting is often the hardest thing and this has been a long wait – almost three years to be precise since we started this project. But with the Lady under house arrest for so much of this time the opportunity has of course only been there since November 13th last year. We had already made the decision not to fly straight to Rangoon when she was expected to be released, knowing that the world’s media would be there along with numerous well-wishers as well as the vultures circling in the sky determined to get their own piece of the action and press their agendas upon Burma’s great hope. It was hard to sit back and watch the moment of history from afar as the crowds surged down University Avenue knowing I could have been there experiencing the momentous occasion, but in the back of our minds we knew the moment was not right for me to go in just yet and that our waiting would go on a bit longer until we could be distanced from the maddening crowds. Personal desire takes second place to making sure this all works the way it should. These aren’t my stories – I’m just telling them.

54 University Avenue, Aung San Suu Kyi’s lakeside home that has also been her prison

Fast forward a couple of months and the timing is now right as not only has the media long gone but also the cover stories of fantasy car chases has passed and all eyes are firmly back on Naypidaw as a new government is about to sit. Unlike previous trips this one required a more meticulous approach due to the number of people we planned to meet and the obvious risks to them. The last few days were spent lie-ing low in our border office away from the heat in both senses of the word, going through final checks and meetings before making one last call to confirm our date with destiny. The next thing I know a soft eloquent voice, speaking perfect English, is on the other end of the phone. Whatever it is you do in life they say you always remember your first time and this will be a moment that stays with me forever (despite what is to come – ed). The aura of the Lady is infectious and the reality of what we hope to achieve these next weeks with so many people inside Burma hits home in a sense of excitement and anticipation. The funny thing is the filming we’ve been doing for the past few days of interviews and getting ready missed the funniest moment that would have been my face when I realised who it was I was talking to. But words mean everything and those spoken to me by my good friend and colleague Ko Myo as he dropped me off to catch the night bus back to Bangkok resonate still in my heart and head as much as those of the Lady. Loaded with phones, cameras and plenty of cover stories, this may be a mission, but it’s no more important or different from every other one both us and others do every single day that thankfully go unnoticed by Burma’s authorities. I’m only hoping this one does too.

Aung San Suu Kyi at home with her pet dog Tai Chi Toe bought for her by her son Kim

The welcoming party in Rangoon took me by surprise but thankfully it was not for me – you can read all about it here in a previous post (chronology of this Burma trip is not published in date order for obvious reasons). One decision that we made in planning this trip that went against the grain was to do the most high profile thing first and thanks must go to the General Secretary, San San (mine and the one and only) for suggesting and ensuring that this happened. Logic would dictate that you should do the thing that has the most chance of you being caught last of all on your trip, preferably the same day you are leaving, thereby ensuring a swift exit from Burma with perhaps nothing more than being followed by military intelligence. But with so many people to meet there are risks everywhere and putting the Lady first would mean that at least we could get the one the world would know about should we be caught after seeing her or at any other time. So after a day spent being a tourist and buying postcards from young vendors outside Bogyoke Market, finally the day arrived to meet the Lady.

Behind the gates to 54 University Avenue. For years Aung San Suu Kyi stood at these gates giving speeches to thousands gathered outside

As the taxi turned into University Avenue my mind was cast back to my first visit here many years ago, standing alone outside the famous gates (then a faded green) of number 54 whilst Burma’s most famous political prisoner sat alone inside. I dreamt then that one day both I would be able to walk in and that more importantly the Lady would be able to walk out. As we pulled up to number 54 the big yellow gates were opened and we drove through into the the famous compound, a sense of excitement and disbelieving inside me mixed with a nirvana of memories and stories that have been shared with me over these past years by those former Tri-Color students and other NLD members who spent so much time here working and looking after the Lady. I had to pinch myself that I was really here, standing in Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound, closing my eyes imagining what it might have been like to be standing behind these gates with thousands cheering outside as the lady delivered her speeches back in those heady days of the late 1990’s let alone just being here at any other time over the past 20 years.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on Burma’s political prisoners:

The house is now a hive of activity with building work and restoration ongoing and meetings being held on the front lawn looking out across the beautiful Inya lake. A warm smile and welcome from many that I already knew and others just recognised and I sat down inside, facing the beautiful huge portrait of General Aung San, waiting for his daughter, the democracy icon of Burma and hero to us all to walk through the doors. It really doesn’t get any better than this. Trust me.

Aung San Suu Kyi at home in Rangoon

“The Lady is coming” said U Nyi before exiting to allow Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to walk into the room. My heart missed a beat as in she walked and with her an aura that is simply indescribable. Everything anyone has ever said is true. And then some. Dignity, grace and beauty personified, I was completely captivated by her and in awe to be in her prescence, which may well sound contrived or over the top but to meet the Lady is more than just a lifelong dream and personal ambition, it is a truely incredible experience, made more so if one has more than just a passing interest in Burma or are here just to get your story. To do so here at her home in University Avenue is a great privilege and all the more memorable. We chatted and shared tea for some time (hours in fact) and whilst a few short sound files can be listened to here (actually from our second meeting the following week) our conversation roaming from politics and prisoners to pianos remains personal as I had already made a conscious decision not to sit there with microphone in hand armed with a barrage of the same old questions just asked in a slightly different way. I left that for the journalists with editors to please and newspapers to sell as this meeting was personal and personally one to be cherished – a chat and afternoon tea with the Lady and I think secretly she enjoyed the alternative approach as smiles and laughter around ensued.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on democracy and the new government:

Aung San Suu Kyi on the front steps at home with Tai Chi Toe

The time came for ‘the photo’ and it took no time at all and for better or worse as usual I made do with what we had – we shared a good laugh when I said all I had and needed was my Leica. A smile came over her face perhaps reminiscing of other more elaborate shooting requirements. With the large portrait of General Aung San as a backdrop, what could be better. For now the photo remains embargoed along with all the others from this trip inside Burma, including NLD leaders and dissidents, for the book which I’m hoping will be out at the end of the year. Stay tuned and i hope you can all join me in Rangoon for the launch. We then decided to shoot some more with Tai Chi Toe, her pet dog given to her by her son Kim. The VOGUE magazine article leads with one of the images I managed to capture before Tai Chi Toe decided it was time to chase imaginary rabbits in the garden and so I took the opportunity to take a few portraits of the Lady at home. It was no surprise when she adopted her now famous pose so beautifully captured in my friend Nic Dunlop’s powerful black and white portrait from 1996. I showed him the images soon after out of guilt that I had somewhat inadvertently re-created his classic moment in time, but his sincerity in response was re-assuring. But perhaps it also shows something much deeper, that nothing has changed in Burma and that this Lady is still as strong and relevant to the country’s future as she has always been. The Generals and many foolhardy world leaders, academics and businessmen would do well to take note. Before I knew it, it was time to leave and step back into the real world once more, or rather the very unreal world that the people of Burma must face every day. We joked about the not so secret service watching and waiting outside before saying our goodbyes. With everything hidden and also already on its way out I took one last look around this magical place before tightening my longyi and driving away through the bright yellow gates. No frantic chase, no flying market stalls. Maybe nothing achieved other than personally. Only Time will tell.

A final message from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on helping Burma:

The hardest thing about it was that I could be here at all when my beloved and so many of my very close friends and colleagues could not. For them just returning to Burma let alone the chance to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not an option. A swift return to Insein is what the regime would provide should they try. But they were with me here in spirit – every single one of them and like the Lady herself continues to re-iterate, as do I, it’s not about us. It’s about the political prisoners. This whole long journey has been possible because of them and I owe everything to everyone of them, both those incarcerated and those freed. It is their story, not mine. I’ve just had the privilege of trying to tell it and one day I hope we can all enjoy sharing it over tea with the Lady.

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Aung San Suu Kyi: ‘The Dignity of Freedom’ VOGUE Magazine

London, Paris, New York, Tokyo. Not just the fashion capitals of the world that act as a byline to the famous high-couture houses, but also just a few of the cities we have visited in compiling this long term project for Burma’s political prisoners. And now Rangoon.
These images of the Lady at home in Rangoon were shot when we met earlier in 2011 and some have now been published in VOGUE Japan magazine. It’s been quite a ride getting this article completed and is a story in itself which can’t really be shared here but massive thanks to Mayumi Nakamura, editor at Vogue Japan, for bringing Aung San Suu Kyi and the issue of Burma to the readers of Vogue Magazine.

View the photo-story, a personal portrait of The Lady at home – CLICK HERE

You can buy your copy of VOGUE Japan Magazine CLICK HERE

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The Lady Awaits As The End Of The Road Draws Near

The barriers are gone but the shackles have not been removed. A simple drive down University Avenue, past the bright yellow gates of number 54 that for so long have kept the Lady of Burma a prisoner in her own home, still strikes fear into the heart of most. Military Intelligence officers still sit outside, lurking in the bushes, noting down those who pass and with far greater interest anyone who should enter. The first time I made this journey I walked, managing to slip past an unobservant soldier too busy sleeping to notice me sneak past the barriers, creeping in the shadows. On reaching 54 I paused outside the gates (a fading green back in those days) for a fleeting second or two and imagined what lay behind… and now as destiny awaits the end of the road draws near…

Full details on Thursday 28th April…

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Brothers in Arms: The Moustaches and Ko Mya Aye

Meeting Burma’s dissidents inside the country holds great risks for everyone involved. For many it is too dangerous whilst others are able to do so under different guises or because they have in some way formed an uneasy alliance of sorts with the regime, but whoever and however these risks are taken with the overwhelming desire to inform the outside world about the situation in Burma. Defying and countering the state propaganda with the truth is the risk that dissidents, journalists, opposition groups and often ordinary people take every day in Burma. Staying silent is not an option for many. That’s what the regime want them to do. Whilst some leading opposition voices, including Aung San Suu Kyi, are often able to quietly and ‘unofficially’ meet with foreigners without much cause for retribution from the authorities (thankfully so far anyway), almost every other dissident and even ordinary person in Burma runs the very real risk of interrogation and even prison if caught or even suspected of meeting foreign journalists and the like. A simple journey to the NLD offices can strike fear into the heart of many a taxi-driver in Rangoon. To be able to meet and photograph the people that I have these past weeks defies not just the regime but also logic as well as the insanity of the situation that they find themselves having to try to survive in. But nothing is taken lightly. Due to the nature of taking part in this work deemed an act that may “affect the morality or conduct of the public or a group of people in a way that would undermine the security of the Union or the restoration of law and order,” under Burma’s draconian 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, almost everyone who has taken part cannot yet be shown for obvious security reasons. Their safety above all else is paramount. However, whilst as with U Win Tin last year, there are a number of dissidents who we are able to show publicly…

Par Par Lay, jailed 3 times has spent more than 6 years in prison and labour camps

Having been moving around Rangoon subversively for the past few weeks it’s time to head out of town and up country to Mandalay. I will miss my evening or early morning walk around the beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda. A peaceful haven in so many different ways. Serene and silent it holds as much hope as Burma’s democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi and like the Lady it plays the most important of roles in Burmese peoples lives. As with Rangoon and elsewhere before, I cannot mention names or places but can only say that as always it was a privilege to meet those who I did whilst here in Mandalay. Brave men and women, jailed for many years but still continuing with their unfinished work to change Burma’s roadmap to one that reads more coherently. The only portraits from Mandalay and basically Burma as well, that can be shown now are those of the fantastic Moustache Brothers.

Lu Zaw, cousin to Par Par Lay and Lu Maw, was jailed for 6 years

The Moustache Brothers, ‘Par Par Lay’ and ‘Lu Maw’ joined by cousin ‘Lu Zaw’, are one of Burma’s most famous and most loved comedy acts famed for their now banned ‘A-Nyeint’ vaudeville performances that combine classic Burmese dance, screwball comedy and sharply satirical criticism of the military regime. But their controversial style attracted the attention of the authorities and they became an international symbol of political oppression in Burma when they were arrested in 1996. It was during Independence Day celebrations held in the compound of Aung San Suu Kyi’s Rangoon home and in front of watching government officials and dignitaries that their performance poking fun at the regime would end in their arrest. The defining sketch that would see them jailed ended with Par Par Lay being shot multiple times by a Burmese General and when refusing to die he replies “Why should I die when I am right?”. The play on words was not lost on the watching military officials and Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw were arrested and sentenced to 7 years hard labour. Brother Lu Maw had not travelled to Rangoon and so escaped punishment. Much of their time incarcerated was spent in chains in a hard-labour camp in Kachin state, but thanks to a global campaign lead by Amnesty International and many Hollywood stars demanding their release along with negotiations lead by Aung San Suu Kyi, they were freed on 13th July 2001. Despite being banned from performing ever again and under virtual house arrest as part of their release conditions they continue to perform each night to tourists, still telling the jokes and subversively the truth despite constant threats from the authorities that they would be jailed again. In September 2007, Par Par Lay was in fact jailed again for 35 days for offering food to monks during the Saffron Revolution.

Par Par Lay decided straight away that the only name he wanted on his hand was that of ‘Mya Aye’, one of the leaders of the 88 Generation Students who is currently serving a 65 year  sentence in Taunggyi prison and suffering from extreme poor health. As we talked about Mya Aye and his colleagues, Par Par Lay’s boundless enthusiasm started to drift towards Mya Aye’s daughter ‘Waihnin Pwint Thon’, now a leading global campaigner for Burma in her own right. Their eyes lit up as they spoke of her now famous speech they had heard and watched last year and then even more so when I told them that she was a very close friend of mine. They decided they wanted to send a video message for Ko Mya Aye to accompany their portraits and here it is shown above.

After many laughs, tea and the occasional serious chat we decided on a final group shot in solidarity for their good friend ‘Zarganar’ before parting company once again. Brothers in arms. Still laughing but also still fighting.

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Dignity in Defiance from Behind the Iron Curtain

“If they can’t accept a point of view that is different to theirs and they are threatening to annihilate us simply because we express a different point of view, what sort of a government is this? What sort of democracy is this? Democracy, even disciplined democracy as they put it, has to accept that there are different views otherwise there would be no need for democracy and you just keep to a dictatorship.”

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, 15th February 2011… (excerpt from an as yet unpublished story).

 

Behind the gates to 54 University Avenue that keep prying eyes at bay

Once more Burma. Our beautiful Burma. A land of dreams and distant still voices where shackles detain hope yet still the brave defy the authoritarian regime. Once more we enter this land of fear…

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“Yayzan Lan” A Documentary Film About Burma’s Political Prisoners

A new documentary film directed by Jeanne Hallacy and co-produced by the Democratic Voice of Burma and in partnership with the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) is due to be released in April 2011.

 

For Further details please view the official website

“Yayzan Lan” or “Into The Current” tells the story of Burma’s unsung heroes – its prisoners of conscience – and the price they pay for speaking the truth to power in a military dictatorship.

Using footage secretly shot in Burma, the film uncovers the stories and sacrifices of ‘ordinary’ people of exceptional courage and the leaders who inspire them. Former prisoner Bo Kyi and an underground team work tirelessly and often at great risk on behalf of their 2,100 jailed colleagues.

While they and countless others fight on, the dream of a free Burma remains alive.

The film will be screened at the FCCT club in Bangkok Thailand at the end of March 2011.

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USA Day 4: Saffron Robes and Revolutions

With New York City bracing itself for the mother of all snow-storms slowly making its way up the East coast, our fingers were crossed that we’d manage to make it to JFK before it struck. But before leaving we had one last person to see – in fact the only former political prisoner in NY who I had had previous contact with some time ago. Thankfully the timings have worked out well to allow us a visit to Metta Parami Monastery in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn and a meeting with U Pyinya Zawta, a founding member and the Executive Director in exile of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance (ABMA). The organisation was formed by a group of senior monks in response to the events of August 2007 when the military junta raised fuel and food prices overnight to astronomical levels. The leaders are recognised as the primary organisers and co-ordinators of the activities of the Saffron Revolution in September 2007 that ended in bloodshed as thousands were arrested with many more forced into hiding or fleeing to the border. One of the most famous leaders, U Gambira is currently serving a 63 year sentence in Kalay prison. However 3 other leaders, U Pyinya Zawta, U Gawsita and U Agga Nyana (below) escaped from Burma and were granted asylum in USA and are now living in the Brooklyn borough of Bedford Stuyvesant at the Metta Parami Monastery.


U Gawsita, U Agga and U Pyinya Zawta. Leaders of Burma’s Saffron Revolution.

We were welcomed to the monastery by U Pyinya Zawta who had just arrived back from an advocacy trip in Georgia – the 3 monks continue to play a crucial role on raising awareness and educating people about the situation in Burma and their trip to Los Angeles in 2010, despite Burma VJ not winning the Oscar, brought Burma’s plight right to the very heart of the world’s celebrity stage. The monastery, an ordinary building by appearance on a very normal Brooklyn street, is a hive of activity and is the headquarters of the ABMA. It was also a nice and unexpected opportunity to finally meet Aung Moe Win who is also living here at the monastery. Having met U Zawana and other monks on the Thai Burma border at various times over the past years it was a great opportunity to now be finally sitting with U Pyinya Zawta.

U Pyinya Zawta was jailed for a total of 10 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons

U Pyinya Zawta entered a monastery at the age of 11. When he was 20 he was ordained as a monk and began attending Swedawsyin Pali University. Now an instructor of Buddhist literature, he moved to Rangoon Aloan Aung Mingala Pali University. In 1988 U Pyinya Zawta became President of Aloan Township Young Monks Union. In 1990 he completed his formal religious study. Having received a degree in Dharmasaria, he helped found the Zawtanarama teaching institute for the further study of Buddhism. That same year he was imprisoned in Insein Prison for his involvement with the first monks’ protest against the military, in 1988, that had usurped power from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party after the military’s landslide election loss. Released from prison, in 1993, U Pyinya Zawta became an instructor at Zawtanarama Monastic Institute. He was rearrested again in 1996, but released after being interrogated. In 1998 he was sentenced to seven years in Insein. In 2005, U Pyinya Zawta moved to the Maggin Monastery and opened another study hall and an HIV/AIDS patient support center. In 2007 he helped form and led the All Burma Monks’ Alliance (www.allburmamonksalliance.org) to protest military rule in Burma. Tens of thousands of saffron-robed monks marched through the streets with thousands of civilians, chanting the Buddhist Metta Sutta invocation for loving kindness and peace in the world. As a result, Maggin Monastery was padlocked by the regime and the sitting Abbot was imprisoned. To evade arrest, U Pyinya Zawta fled Rangoon, resurfacing in Thailand in January, 2008. Granted refugee status, he resettled in the US in September, 2008. As Director in Exile of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance, U Pyinya Zawta has spoken extensively around the US, promoting awareness of the Burmese people’s struggle for democratic freedom.

Still today Maggin Monastery remains locked and under the control of the military authorities. In December 2007, just one month after the monastery was raided and locked I visited Maggin Monastery and you can see the video footage below:

With the clock running down we paid our respects, said our thanks and had to head back into Manhatten to collect our bags and leave New York before the storm arrived… I think we’d have both been very happy if the storm came early but unfortunately it wasn’t to be and despite my efforts at stalling in the airport which resulted in a not unusual announcement over the tanoy for certain passengers to hurry up or risk missing their flight we kissed New York a fond farewell and finally USA has made its mark on this work.

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