The Final Curtain Falls as a New Dawn Breaks

Visiting USA seems to come as a last minute, unexpected but great surprise. In January we were on a plane with 48 hours of getting the call from Yoko Ono and this time is almost the same as frantic calls between Indiana, New York and DC confirm that it’s now or never. So now it is and a four day four city tour begins in DC currently in full meltdown with a record 100 degree heatwave hitting the city as I land. Beats the 18 percent grey of the UK. It’s 20 years since I was last in DC, back then it was just passing through, catching a few sites and this time is not much different with just 24 hours to take in RFA, VOA and other killers in the airwaves.

First stop was RFA and finally a chance to meet everyone after years of relying on that old communication device, the telephone. Thanks to Nyan Winn Aung for helping to arrange this as back into the streets we went to photograph, Nay Rein Kyaw, Soe Win and Nay Lin. Racing across town, next stop was VOA and a building the size of Buckingham Palace overlooking the National Mall. Catching up with Thar Nyunt Oo who I had met last year in Bangkok amidst the chaos of the Red shirt uprising it was another great opportunity to meet the other half of Washington’s exiled Burmese ‘Saboteurs’ as the regime would like us all to believe they are. Kyaw Thein had helped me set up this opportunity but as before at RFA the first spanner in the works appeared in taking people’s portraits. The role of journalists is to be objective and report truthfully and in the case of all at RFA, VOA and other Burmese exiled media this is in no doubt even if it may appear that they are all activists fighting the regime – it’s not their fault that there is only a bad picture that can be painted about the Burmese government. But unfortunately hand in hand with that impartial role as a journalist taking part in this work appeared to be crossing the line. For me, whilst disappointing, I can understand and respect this decision of the powers that be high up, but for everyone in the Burmese section and particularly the former political prisoners who could now not join their colleagues I felt a sense of sadness. It was always going to be impossible to photograph every former political prisoner in the world and there are of course many who have been photographed in Burma who I cannot show, but now those who are allowed to be photographed will also represent those who are not.

A Selection of Portraits from the Last Leg of this Three Year Journey

With DC wrapped and a quick stop off in between flights to meet Nyi Nyi Aung and Aung Din, the next stop on this flying visit was Fort Wayne, Indiana and the home of more than 7,000 refugees from Burma who have been resettled in this industrial town in Midwestern USA. It is home to a significant number of former political prisoners too and with the help of good friends Aung Khaing Min from AAPP who was in town at the time and Myo Myint, who many of you will know from Nic Dunlop’s stunning film ‘Burma Soldier‘, a non-stop day criss-crossing from one end of town to the other saw another 11 portraits taken. A very special thanks to Karen for driving what must have felt like a thousand miles. Ending this project here in Fort Wayne is fitting. This is no bright lights big city environment of London, Tokyo or New York. It is a place that is real and perhaps with it brings many of the realities of real life. If the struggle for democracy has been a long and difficult one, then the struggle to rebuild your life is as hard. Being here now to end this long journey that has been full of emotional pain and joy in equal measures, it is a perfect place to reflect on what those less fortunate than many of us in this world have to go through.

Returning to America in such haste and so soon after only having been here a few months ago was because of what is to come in the second half of this year. When this whole project first started I could never have imagined I would be where I am now having put together more than 250 portraits, testimonies and personal stories providing a small insight into the horrendous past, present and likely future of Burma’s political prisoners. It was my desire from the start that at some point I could somehow be able to put it altogether into a book that might be able to capture a moment in time of part of Burma’s long struggle and also perhaps help people understand more about the deplorable suffering endured by the Burmese people. Now the final chapter can start. The book has been confirmed and the long process of editing is underway. I hope that the end product will do justice to all of those who’s company I have enjoyed and who’s lives I have been honoured to portray over these past years. The final curtain falls as a new dawn breaks.

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RFA Interview and the PX3 Victory for Burma

Nice to chat with my friends from RFA again – especially having just been there last week in the DC headquarters and even more so to Ma Ingjin (wife of my friend Ko Thar Nyunt Oo who works at VOA). Thanks for the interview and article on my work.

Read the article here online on the Radio Free Asia website

Listen to the audio interview below – click play on the audioplayer

Radio Free Asia Interview at The Amnesty Exhibition

Just before the exhibition launched on Monday evening Radio Free Asia (RFA) did an interview with me about political prisoners and Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, also joined us. Thanks to Ma Aye Hnin Nyo for the interview – it was broadcast back into Burma on 24th June.

You can listen to it below by clicking on the icon:

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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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On Becoming a Friend Of Burma

Competition wins, awards and back slapping congratulations are all well and good but are only any use if they can help to promote the message that the work contains – and in my case that message is Burma and it’s 2,176 political prisoners. The most meaningful and also often the most prestigious recognition that one can achieve is from one’s peers and the very people that the work is about. Last week I had the greatest honour being interviewed by Nyan Winn Aung at Radio Free Asia for the feature show “Friends of Burma”. I am truely amazed to be joining a long list of highly esteemed and respected activists including Debbie Stothard (ALTSEAN), Jeremy Woodrum (US Campaign for Burma), Ms.Yuki Akimoto (Director of Burma-Info), Mark Farmaner (BCUK) to name a few – all of whom I look up to with great admiration and respect for their untiring work for Burma’s Democracy movement. To be considered a “Friend of Burma” (and in such company) is truely my greatest achievement yet. My only hope is that it will help keep the names and silent voices of those 2,176 at the forefront of everyone’s hearts and minds.

Thank you to Nyan Winn Aung at RFA for a really enjoyable interview that went on for just over an hour!! But you can listen to the edited version of the interview here

The hard work is only just beginning as 2010 is a matter of a few days away… but for now the perfect end to the year and the perfect Christmas gift – a”Friend of Burma”. Thank you to everyone who has been involved in this work to date.

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RFA interview & article on FCCT win

Further to the win at the FCCT Awards 2009 Radio Free Asia did a short interview and subsequent article online – in Burmese only.

To read the article click here

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Radio Free Asia interview

The second interview I’ve done with Radio Free Asia (RFA), thanks to the article published in September edition of The Irrawaddy magazine (see PRESS section of this blog). Thanks to Kyaw Min Htun at RFA. Yet again broadcast back into Burma and around the world. Clink link below to hear the interview:

RFA interview with Kyaw Min Htun 03/09/09

RFA

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Thailand Day 22: Bangkok

Ma Suu Mon AyeBack in the ‘City of Angels’ for final preparations for the trip into Burma tomorrow – despite MBKs best efforts there’s no way my iPhone can be unblocked to work in Burma! The first of two meetings sees an early morning catch up with Ma Suu Mon Aye, the youngest female political prisoner who was jailed in 2000 at the age of 18. We manage to grab a few moments to chat early in the day in a park by Mo Chit station before heading to work – so often this is the case with this project. She spent 1 year in Insein Prison. Like so many she was forced to flee Burma after her release from jail and she currently lives in Bangkok where she is a journalist for Radio Free Asia. On her hand is written the name of her friend, a 25 year old fellow journalist, who was arrested on June 10th 2008 for photographing a demonstration of Cyclone Nargis victims outside the UN Development program office in Rangoon. Eine Khine Oo is the inaugural winner of the Kenji Nagai Award which Ma Suu Mon Aye collected on her friend’s behalf. Courage runs deep no matter how old or young. The afternoon was set aside for a meeting and interview with U Zin Linn, the veteran journalist, former political prisoner, vice-president of the Burma Media Association and Director of Media and Information for the NCGUB… amongst many other things. An incredible meeting. This was a real honour to be able to spend time with him and to hear first hand details of not only his own personal experience in Insein prison (including time spent with his colleague U Win Tin) but a hugely informative insight into the world of political prisoners. You can read the interview on this blog in the Interview section.

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PRESS: RFA, VOA and BBC airing skyful of interviews

“RFA, VOA and BBC airing skyful of lies”. That’s the usual propaganda broadcast daily on state controlled media both on MRTV and in the New Light of Myanmar. However, they might like to change it now to a “skyful of interviews” as in the last 48 hours I have done telephone interviews with all three. What can now be deemed an award winning project has now gained the attention of exiled media across the world. First up was an interview on VOA with Zaw Win Hlaing in Washington DC. Accompanying this interview they also spoke with former political prisoner, artist and also my good friend Htein Lin who’s portrait was included as part of the winning submission. Next up was another interview with Washington with RFA followed finally by a more local call with the BBC. It’s incredible to achieve such attention in the exiled media and the best news is that all of the interviews will be broadcast not just around the world, but also back into Burma. The exposure for the project is immense and it brings the issue of political prisoners back into the forefront of people’s minds (not like it ever goes away). Time will tell if I’m able to get a visa again…