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Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, 15th February 2011… (excerpt from an as yet unpublished story).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

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

USA Day 1: Standing Either Side of Daw Suu

We bid farewell to Myint Soe and head off for our fourth and final stop of the day a few blocks away in Queens to meet Ko Aung. By now it’s dark and snowing as well, so unfortunately no chance of another shot outside. Ko Aung greets us at his front door with a warm smile and welcomes us in to his home, but suddenly I am filled with feelings of deja vu. Not because of where we are but because there’s something extraordinarily familiar about Ko Aung and I’m left feeling we’ve met before somehow. Like almost every person we have visited in the past two years where their homes or places of work have walls adorned with pictures of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s long struggle for freedom, Ko Aung’s home is no different. Except upon closer inspection of many of the photos on the wall, the young man proudly standing at Daw Suu’s side in numerous different locations and times of Burma’s forlorn past is actually the very person standing right next to me.

Ko Aung standing on Aung San Suu Kyi’s right hand side during the tour of Burma in 1989

Ko Aung @ Aung Gyi Lwin was one of the many young students who became the ‘Tricolor’ students organization who provided security for Aung San Suu Kyi. Wherever she went they were at her side and they lived in her compound at 54 University Avenue with her. Ko Aung’s name was on the household list and his parents were only too happy that he lived with and looked after his ‘sister’. Ko Aung’s father had been a bodyguard for General Aung San so it was only natural that his son should follow in his footsteps. Their families were very close, whenever Aung San Suu Kyi or her family visited it was Ko Aung who would drive them around and it was he who collected Aung San Suu Kyi when she returned to Burma on the 3rd April 1988 to care for her dieing mother. It was Ko Aung’s father (with Aung Gyi) who broke the news to Daw Suu that her mother was ill. But there was something else familiar about him that was niggling away at me but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. We started looking through old photos from 1988/89, reminiscing and recognising so many of the people I have had the privilege to meet and come to know over the past years and then it hit me. As Ko Aung was naming the different people in each photo, more often than not the young man standing the other side of Daw Suu was Maw Lwin… Ko Aung’s younger brother also known as Maw Gyi who I had met and photographed in Japan!

Maw Gyi @ Maw Min Lwin, elder brother of Ko Aung and former Tricolor member
photographed in Japan in 2010

Aung San Suu Kyi with Ko Aung (left) and his brother Maw Gyi (right), in Upper Burma July 1989

For me this is the beautiful part of this long journey. Whilst photos taken at face value can be used to raise awareness, to empower people or in campaigns, the real story and meaning to all of this lies in these people, brothers and sisters all over the world, together even though so very far apart. Tracing the footsteps of Burma’s political prisoners is an emotional journey at the best of times, but it’s little moments like this when links are discovered, entwining Burma’s bravest to one another that provide inspiration, if indeed any more inspiration is be needed. Burma’s political prisoners provide it in abundance. Whether it be the moment just now in linking two brothers a world apart, or photographing Myint Soe when he was in Mae Sot and now meeting him again at his new home in New York or even the act of writing the name of Cho Mar Htwe, imprisoned in Moulmein, on the palm of Khin Cho Myint and then six months later photographing Cho Mar Htwe herself. These are just some of the hidden stories these photos can tell.

Ko Aung was detained in Insein prison for 9 months under section 10(A)

Four days after the military coup on 18th September 1988, Ko Aung was arrested for the first time. Along with 5 of his colleagues he was detained under the order given by Mandalay Division Commander-in-Chief General Tun Kyi. The reasons were simply through their association with the NLD as they were campaigning in Mandalay. He was detained in Mandalay Palace jail for 3 months but was eventually released without charge. Upon his release, in January 1989, he joined Aung San Suu Kyi and the rest on the campaign trail in Pakkoku as they were embarking on their tour of Upper Burma (see photos above). Throughout 1989 the tour continued across Burma as Aung San Suu Kyi campaigned against Ne Win and the military rule that had brought the country to its knees. But back in Rangoon on Martyrs Day, the anniversary of her father General Aung San’s death the net was starting to close in on Aung San Suu Kyi and those surrounding her. The SLORC authorities had laid on a football field to host a huge ceremony, however it was clear that celebrations were not the order of the day as it was filled with hundreds of armed troops and Suu Kyi told the public to boycott it, later that day stating on VOA that… “we decided that it was best to boycott the whole arrangement since they had prepared a killing field for the people. They have said that the people could gather in a football field in order to go up and pay their respects, but that football field was filled with armed troops and armed vehicles…. the people are urged not to support the Martyrs Day ceremony being staged by the SLORC today and to remain inside their homes to let the world know that the people of Burma are like prisoners in their own country deprived of all freedom under military rule.”

The next day, the 20th July 1989, at 7pm in the evening the military drove their trucks into the compound of 54 University Avenue and along with 48 others including Aung San Suu Kyi, Ko Aung was arrested and taken to Insein prison where he was detained under section 10(A). He was detained until April 1990 when along with six others he was released. The rest stayed in prison, some for a few months more, some for years. Upon his release he returned to University Avenue where he lived until Aung San Suu Kyi was herself released in July 1995.

As the harrasment from the authorities commenced again he confided in Daw Suu that he could not face being sent back to prison again and decided he had to flee Burma. He was granted a US Visa and made his way to Bangkok, but trouble was waiting once again as he was pulled aside in immigration for questioning. He knew from the style of questioning that it was not the Thai authorities who were really asking the questions. He knew that behind the screen it was Burma’s Special Branch. After more than 4 hours of interrogation he refused to answer any more questions and a stand off ensued. Eventually he was allowed to go and he arrived in New York on 31st November 1997 where he has lived ever since.

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

No Change in Policy or Defiance as DVB’s Sithu Zeya is Sentenced

With the welcome news last week that 16 political prisoners have been released including 3 members of the ABFSU (Lwin Ko Latt, Han Win Aung & Kyaw Kyaw) comes the usual twist of fate for others less fortunate. Welcome news indeed, but it was no amnesty or relaxing in policy by the regime as yesterday it was confirmed that Sithu Zeya has been sentenced to 8 years in prison under Burma’s draconian laws – 3 years under section 13/20 The Immigration Act and 5 years under section 17/1 The Unlawful Association Act. It is likely this will be increased as we await further news over charges under the infamous Electronic Act that could add a further 20 years to his already unjust sentence.

Along with his father Maung Maung Zeya, he was arrested for the crime of photographing the aftermath of the bombing scene at Kandawgyi Lake in Rangoon during the Thingyan festival in April earlier this year. But it was whilst under interrogation by military intelligence that brutal torture he endured lead to his confession that he was a journalist for Democratic Voice of Burma and so was his father. This was his real crime, being one of the brave undercover journalists who risk everything to expose the reality of the SPDC’s crimes. The young 21 year old man now faces a life of continued torture in Burma’s dark prisons along with 17 other DVB journalists. Deputy Director of DVB, Khin Maung Win, confirmed that authorities had offered to free Maung Maung Zeya if he divulged the names of other undercover DVB reporters – the regime have made targeting the undercover VJs of DVB and other exiled media organisations a number one priority. But it is a policy doomed to failure and is as futile as that which the world continues to adopt in ‘waiting and seeing’ as an ever patient nation grows tired of it’s meglomaniac rulers and more people than ever before are willing to take the risks to expose the regime by becoming VJs themselves and joining the ranks of the many hundreds already at work undercover throughout Burma. In a small part of the world far from the darkness of Insein a candle will be lit tonight to honour Sithu Zeya and all 22 journalists jailed in Burma.

Defiance comes in all shapes and sizes and without the likes of Sithu and Maung Maung Zeya willing to take the risks involved the outside world would have even less knowledge of life behind this iron curtain. Whilst the numbers of political prisoners rise and fall in equal measures there will be no let up in the undercover journalists’ and activists’ quest to tell the truth no matter what the consequences. As Han Win Aung said on his release last Friday, “It doesn’t matter for how long they’ve detained us … how brutal they were, we will never be broken in spirit. Our beliefs are unshakeable. We will flourish under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership for the sake of democracy and political freedom.”

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

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.

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

Hands Up For Democracy in Burma

Another major article in a national newspaper – this time it’s the The Observer newspaper in the UK that ran a double page feature on this work with political prisoners. Thanks to Jack Davies for his time and the many long distance phone conversations we’ve had over the past week.

You can read the article on The Observer website.

Unlike the first major international feature article about this work in The Independent (which concentrated on telling the story about the work itself and about political prisoners) this article leads with the portraits of celebrities and politicians/statesmen accompanying the portraits of two former political prisoners – my friends ‘Zulu’ and ‘Andrew’ as it has now become a campaign and politics is on the agenda with the election fast approaching. This shows how with Amnesty International‘s involvement we have been able to attract high profile people to stand in solidarity on this issue. Raising awareness amongst the general public is crucial if we are to achieve our hopes of change. However, an unfortunate by-product of that need to educate and inform people is often the way in which the message is carried to the masses and in this article the rather unfortunate sub-heading stating that “Amnesty organised a unique photo project” may be true to the extent that a few celebrities have been photographed by Amnesty as well as more than 5,000 members of the public, but it does not reflect or respect the fact that this is an independent long term documentary project (still ongoing) in which many people in Burma as well as outside have put their lives on the line and continue to do so right now as we speak in order to get the world to stand up and take notice about the illegal incarceration of more than 2,150 political prisoners in Burma. To read about the actual “unique photo project” please read the Independent’s take on this matter. Amnesty International have of course done more than just arrange a few people to be photographed and they didn’t write the sub-heading that is misleading at best but unfortunate journalistic licence in order to attract attention like the large portrait that adorns both pages. Without Amnesty International being involved now in the capacity that they are there would be no major campaign, there would be no 5,000plus images of support being delivered by British Deputy Prime Minister to the ASEM meeting today and there would be no images of Nick Clegg himself and other world leaders, statesmen and celebrities standing in solidarity with the former political prisoners who are leading the way. Like the newspaper editor who said during the Saffron Revolution that Burma is only on the front pages because the colourful images of monks robes make good pictures, too often to get the world to listen you have to sanitize the truth. If a celebrity or even you or I can bring change to Burma and bring about the release of all political prisoners then I will be the first person to celebrate, but please don’t forget who it’s all about. Those who have suffered and those who continue to do so. They are the ones who are leading the way.

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

BURMA’S POLITICAL PRISONERS CAMPAIGN LAUNCH “Freedom In Your Hands”

“Freedom is in your hands – Use it for Burma’s political prisoners”

Take action NOW at the Amnesty UK website to demand their immediate release.

Finally, after many months hard work behind the scenes with Amnesty International as well as two years hard work on the road, today this project is officially becoming part of a major campaign action by Amnesty International to demand the immediate and unconditional release of all Burma’s political prisoners. This is a campaign action that YOU can be part of. TAKE ACTION, stand with Burma’s former political prisoners and demand the release of ALL of their colleagues who remain in jail today.

This campaign film is being used to launch the start of this major campaign by Amnesty International UK and we need you to play your part in placing insurmountable pressure on world leaders and the UN to bring about the release of Burma’s political prisoners. The campaign is being lead by the former political prisoners themselves but WE NEED YOU to stand with them. With this campaign we aim to collect thousands of portraits from people all over the world and put pressure on world leaders at the EU-Asia summit in October just days before the elections will be held in Burma.

Please visit the Amnesty UK website for full details.

It has taken almost two years of hard work by many people to get to this stage, but there is much, much more to do. This is just the start. This film requires some special thanks to the following people (in no particular order) for their hard work:
Everyone at AAPP and DVB and others who’s names I cannot mention; Jackie San (for filming everything); Verity & Laura at Amnesty UK; Paul & Tim at Handcrafted Films; but most importantly of all, I would like to thank the former political prisoners themselves who have taken part and those who I am yet to meet. Without you there is nothing, but with you there is everything. I will not stop until your colleagues are free.

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

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..

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

WORLD EXCLUSIVE: U Win Tin – The Voice They Cannot Silence

UK newspaper “The Independent” publishes an in-depth feature article about Burma’s Political Prisoners in the colour supplement magazine on Saturday 24th April 2010 featuring 18 images from this campaign including an EXCLUSIVE portrait of U Win Tin.

For full details of the article visit The Independent website on Saturday 24th April.

“Well you see my opinion about this government is you see, that when you have to face with a military government, you need a little bit of courage, some sort of confronting you see. Because if you are always timid and afraid and intimidated they will stamp on you. Sometimes you have to make yourself a bit courageous, outspoken and so on.

That is why when people tell me I should keep a low profile because people are very anxious about my security. You can be snatched back to prison at any time, but you can’t help it.

You can’t help you see. Of course you don’t like to go back of course, but you see you can’t help, that depends on them, their idea and their intention.

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

Burma Day 5: A New Year But With Nothing New

(As stated before, information posted about inside Burma is strictly limited for obvious security reasons)

The fifth and final day of this trip inside – it’s been cut short due to a change in plan after the second day. Today is the first day of Thingyan and whilst the real festivities don’t start until tomorrow you can already sense a very small wave of euphoria in the air… but with it a very big increase in police and miltary presence on the ground. Stepping out of the hotel yesterday to be confronted by armed police was an unwelcome surprise. It’s the only time of the year when all flights out of Burma are full and I’ve been on standby since Saturday. Finally today I have a flight out this evening. Off course I really don’t want to leave this beautiful country and the people I care so much about, but I have to. Every time I come back here I wonder if things are getting worse. But then can things really get any worse for these people? In the few days I’ve been here I’ve seen the same old shocking sights of poverty, corruption and intimidation. Of course I’ve been followed and watched by intelligence and their stooges – sometimes its so obvious that you feel like just wandering right up to them and taking their portrait from about 3 yards away! Even when you’re not followed, someone somewhere is always watching you or is scared of you being there next to them. It’s indicative of this climate of fear that prevails throughout Burmese society. Fear of retribution from this, the most brutal of ruling regimes. But then there are the times when you can just grab a few silent moments away from prying eyes and perhaps share them with The Lady, sitting silently across the lake.

Aside from the work that I managed to do here there were a couple of other moments that were highly entertaining and when the authorities could have had a field day. First off, an unbelievable incident at Shwedagon Pagoda where I bumped into a member of an ‘outlawed organisation’ whom I knew. It could have been the moment when the SPDC got two for the price of one! The second memorable incident was just hours before leaving and looking back now I can laugh, but at the time I’ll admit that for a split second I thought my time was up. I was in Kandawgyi Park killing time before heading to the airport to leave. There was a very heavy police presence – armed riot police everywhere throughout the park and on the road watching all the stages being built for the water festival due to start tomorrow. I paid my two dollars to enter the park and walked along the timber walkway by the waters edge past the 5 armed riot police sitting in the shade at the entrance. As I walked on I noticed in the distance a large group of people coming the other way – it was unusual because you have to pay to go on this walkway and it was blisteringly hot so why would so many people be out in this sun? I stopped to try to see what was going on and I realised it was a large group of police, military and plain clothes intelligence and they were walking towards me. I turned around and the police I had just walked past at the entrance were now all standing blocking the entrance to the park. My only reason of concern was that in my camera bag was all the photos and video that we had done in the past few days. Work that if found here and now would mean very serious trouble. I couldn’t go anywhere so I had to resort to just playing the dumb tourist card (not for the first time – ed) If they know who you are its too late to worry anyway. The group walked towards me and as they got nearer I made out that there was clearly someone of very high military rank amongst them – 5 or so senior military personnel, one with more medals stitched on his shirt than are surely possible to win. There were armed riot police, armed soldiers, 10 or so plain clothes military intelligence, radios crackling away, men in dark glasses… I tried not to smile as they all just walked on by past me, oblivious to what was hidden in my bag, oblivious of what I was up to. Dumb tourist… thanks for visiting our beautiful country and giving us your dollars. UPDATE AFTER THE EVENT – this was the exact location where the bomb went off 3 days later killing 9 people and injuring dozens more. Coincidence?? You decide…

Coming within touching distance of one of the Generals (or someone of similar high rank) was certainly not part of the itinerary when we planned this trip, but as always with Burma – expect the unexpected! As soon as they were gone in the distance I walked to a quiet area of the park out of sight and earshot and rang in to share the moment as I could barely contain myself with laughter. Checking in is all part of the procedure at times and this was an unexpected check in to have to discuss! It’s so bizarre because I had an almost identical incident when I was leaving last year. Let’s hope we’re not tempting fate and that it’s not a case of 3 strikes and your out when I come back next time. I make it to the airport without any other dramas or excitement, on the way passing by Khin Nyunt’s house where he is currently under house arrest, a casual glance in wondering if perhaps he’ll be available for a portrait next time I’m here! Safe flight back to Bangkok and mission accomplished… for now anyway.

Over the last two days I’ve captured a few images whilst wandering around killing time and you can view them here at the enigmaimages website.

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