Burma: The Prison Without Bars

Burma’s non-violent revolution has seen thousands detained for their political activities. There are currently more than 2,100 political prisoners in Burma’s notorious jails. From the refugee camps and safe houses on the Thai-Burma border to those who have been resettled to third countries around the world, ‘The Prison Without Bars’ (an ongoing long term documentary project) follows the lives of Burma’s former political prisoners as they continue in the struggle to bring democracy to Burma as well as their own personal fight for freedom.

Photostories so far from the Thai-Burma border can be viewed by clicking here

Soe Lwin was arrested for handing out democracy pamphlets aged just 14.
He was sentenced to 29 years in prison and served more than 15 years behind bars.

Khun Saing spent more than 13 years in prison.
Whilst re-settled in the UK he is seperated from his wife and young child who remain in Umpiem refugee camp 

As a sideline the project will also involve video and multimedia to enable former political prisoners to help tell their stories. A clip from an interview with Tun Lin Kyaw, a former bodyguard of Aung San Suu Kyi can be viewed here

Video Copyright © Khun Saing and reproduced here with kind permission

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Jumping for Burma’s Political Prisoners

Today, Waihnin Pwint Thon, daughter of jailed 88 Generation Student leader Ko Mya Aye and leading campaigner and activist in her own right, jumped higher and further than most to raise awareness for Burma’s political prisoners. Spurred on by a number of close friends and colleagues, she leapt from a crane 150ft above south-east London with nothing more than a large elasticated rope tied to her legs to raise awareness for Burma’s Political Prisoners. She also raised an awful lot of sponsorship money (you can still sponsor her here) which will not only go towards Burma Campaign UK and their campaign work for Burma’s political prisoners but also at Waihnin’s request a large percentage of money raised is going direct to the former political prisoners who have been forced to flee Burma and now live a stateless and perilous existence on the Thai-Burma border in the refugee camps of Umpiem Mai and Nupo and also in safe houses in Mae Sot and the surrounding border areas. There, their lives are in grave danger and today Waihnin played a small part that she was able to try to help them.

Below is a short video message to those former political prisoners from Waihnin and Khun Saing issued at her request.

As DVB VJs we were hard at work today and here’s one cut of the days events – the other cut will be broadcast on DVB TV channel soon.

On the Thai-Burma border the former political prisoners have no status for they are not recognised as refugees and face the very real threat of imminent return to Burma at any moment. There is no protection by the UNHCR. There is no work, no right to be there, no life. They have left Burma with nothing and often also leaving their families behind. The money raised today by Waihnin will go a very long way in helping them.

You can read a great recent interview with Waihnin here at The Irrawaddy where she explains her reasons for this jump as well as her recent work.

“I think your personal conviction is more important than which organization you are working for. For me, I wish to work in the struggle for human rights. I wish to see the people of Burma and all countries enjoying human rights and freedom. Since I believe that I am working for the good of the Burmese people, I have no special attachment to any particular organization.”

Her father would be proud of her efforts today in once again further highlighting the issue of Burma’s political prisoners. In doing this jump today she has raised a huge amount of money that will go a long way to helping the people of Burma and it’s current and former political prisoners.

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Al Jazeera TV: Former Political Prisoners Need Urgent UNHCR Action NOW.

As we have reported in previous posts here and here, once again the issue of the former political prisoners forced to live a perilous life as stateless people on the Thai-Burma border needs urgent attention from the UNHCR now more than ever before. We have been working with the former political prisoners on the border now for a long time on this issue and our close friends, Aye Min Soe and Thiha, have appeared in an interview on Al-Jazeera about this issue:

The Best Friend have recently posted some of the documentation made available by the former political prisoners on the Thai-Burma border to the public to highlight this issue – Please download it and help us with this urgent issue.

We will be meeting with a number of human rights organisations in the coming weeks to raise this issue and fight to ensure that no-one is sent home after this sham election is done with. The political landscape will not be conducive to closing the camps and sending people home. Not now, not after the election, not ever until this regime is dealt with. Rhetoric from ASEAN and Thailand in contrast to this fact is exactly that. Rhetoric.

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PRESS RELEASE: Former Political Prisoners Need Urgent UNHCR Protection

An issue that we have been working on for some time with the former political prisoners living in Mae Sot and the refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border is now being accelerated as the date for the elections has been announced, bringing with it the very real threat of the former political prisoners being returned to Burma. You can read previous posts here and here.

Below is the Press Release letter issued by the former political prisoners to Human Rights organisations across the world. We are part of the working group working very hard on this issue so please contact me directly if you can be of assistance. enigmaimages@gmail.com

PRESS RELEASE

The Ex-Political Prisoners of Burma have joined together in an unprecedented call for help from the international community ahead of the elections in Burma set to be held on November 7. The Ex-Political Prisoners, now living in camps on the Thai Burma border,  fear forced repatriation from Thailand to Burma after the election and are desperately seeking assistance that is currently unavailable from the UNHCR for a safe haven,  if only temporary, in a third country.

The Ex-Political Prisoners currently have limited access to UNHCR to claim refugee status due to policy agreements between UNHCR and the Royal Thai Government.

The fear is that the Thai Government could repatriate all refugees back to Burma after the November 7 elections on the basis that the elections have created a legitimate Government in Burma. The Ex-Political Prisoners claim that the election will be a sham. Many potential candidates have been banned and Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest.

The elections will change nothing, they claim, but simply install the junta under false pretences for a number of years to come. During this period any repatriated ex-political prisoners fear that the Junta will again persecute them.

“There are multiple examples of forced repatriation from Thailand, a violation of the Principle of Non-Refoulement which is a cornerstone of International Human Rights Law.  The Royal Thai Government has clearly stated its intention of repatriating Burmese asylum seekers following the ‘democratic election’ in Burma.  Our fears are well founded and should we be forced to return, with no recognition from UNHCR, we face certain imprisonment or death,” the ex political prisoners said in a signed letter to human rights organizations around the world.

NOTE TO THE EDITOR: We plead for your help.  Please publish the attached letter or an article exploring our situation so that the general public is aware of the situation we face. Without help from the international community we have no further options.  We have sent this letter to a number of Human Rights Lawyers and Human Rights Organizations in the hope of gaining legal representation.  Should you have any further questions please do not hesitate to contact our spokesperson Aye Min Soe , also an Ex-Political Prisoner, at andrewsaisai@gmail.com (ph +66822259968).

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Thailand Day 6: Umpiem Mai – Back Once Again

Yesterday was another day off as slowly the wheels start to get back in motion for a potentially hectic few days before leaving Thailand next Thursday. But that may now be in serious doubt as an earthquake has erupted in Iceland and it’s closed all airspace over Europe in the past few days meaning no flights from anywhere in the world. Looks like I might be here for a bit longer yet… no complaints form me, but there’ll be plenty from others I’m sure! Can’t do anything until tomorrow anyway as we are back off to Umpiem Mai camp today to photograph a few of those former political prisoners who weren’t available when we were there a couple of weeks ago. We miss the first line car as it leaves 30 minutes early so an unfortunate delay means we get down to Umpiem with even less time now than we had hoped – it’s only a one day trip so time is tight. Again unfortunately none of the Karen former political prisoners are available as they are not in the camp. It’s a real disappointment as it’s equally as important to show the wide ranging scale of political prisoners across all ethnicities in Burma. No matter though as we make our way back up the hill to Section 16 – I’m pretty sure I could do this trip blindfolded now. Again a warm welcome and its great to see everyone again. It’s a really hot day today and bright sunshine meaning photographing people isn’t easy but we only have 3 people today but again we have to find locations in this small area that we haven’t used before… some serious artistic license required!

Zaw Moe Myint

Tint Lwin @ Theing Gi Aung

Naing Min Htwe

Today we photographed the above 3 former political prisoners in Umpiem camp: Zaw Moe Myint was arrested after student demonstrations at Hleddan junction in 1998 and spent 4 years in prison. Tint Lwin @ Thein Gi Aung was arrested in 1990 and spent 8 years in prison. He fled after being involved in the Saffron Revolution in 2007 and after MI arrested him in 2009 in regards to action against the election in 2010. Naing Min Htwe was involved in student demonstrations in 1996 and spent 6 years in jail. He fled in 2009 at the time of Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial after a threat of arrest from the authorities. We barely had time to do more than take the portraits, enjoy a quick cup of tea and a chat with everyone before having to head back to the market gate to catch the last line car back to Mae Sot. Luckily we were offered a lift from one of the Thai camp guards who was on his way into Mae Sot, so once again like before we climbed aboard saving an indefinite wait for a further line car that may not even turn up.

Back in Mae Sot and we lined up one further shoot before calling it a day. I had met Daw Htay Htay Win during Thingyan and she was now available for a portrait so we met up at Aiya, moved a few photos around and tried to work with the failing light to get something to work. Daw Htay Htay Win was first jailed aged 15 during the U Thant uprising in 1974. She spent 3 years in prison… as a 7th standard student. She fled to Thailand in 2005 but returned to Burma in 2007 and participated in the Saffron Revolution. Once again she fled back to Thailand to evade arrest. when Cyclone Nargis struck in May 2008 she once again returned to Burma to visit her fathers tomb in the Delta. On her return to Thailand she was caught in Myawaddy and sentenced to 2 years in prison under 13(1).

Daw Htay Htay Win

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You Are NOT a Refugee… You Are a Political Prisoner

Possibly the biggest issue as well as danger faced by former political prisoners when they flee Burma and arrive in Mae Sot on the Thai-Burma border is that they are not recognised as a refugee. In essence this means that they are not safe and their lives are in great danger as they can be returned to Burma at any moment if caught by the Thai authorities. With many Burmese agents, informers and spies on the border area there is a very clear and present danger for all those who arrive here. Having spent years in prison for their political beliefs and activities, they manage to flee the country at great risk, arrive in the assumed free outside world where they are not free or safe. They become stateless people. They are still prisoners.

Throughout our time here on the Thai-Burma border we have been documenting the lives, current situations and dangers that the former political prisoners face upon fleeing Burma and arriving here in Thailand. Some make their way into either Umpiem Mai or Nupo refugee camps – not through official channels of course because you see these people aren’t seen as refugees and therefore can’t be given the protection that the camps have to offer (they have to make their own way there… you work it out). Others are left to survive in safe houses with colleagues who have also made the treacherous journey in fleeing Burma over the past years. The UNHCR of course state that their hands are tied by Thailand’s own policy on refugees because it hasn’t signed up to the 1951 Geneva Refugee convention (see below). Unfortunately they wouldn’t answer my calls to meet to discuss this issue. But when you can prove that you have been in prison for your political activities because not only do you have your release card from jail but also your ICRC certificate from when they visited you in prison and documented you and gave you a ‘Special Detainee’ number, when you can prove without doubt your past background as an activist, the torture you have suffered at the hands of the military regime, the years you have spent in Burma’s gulags and therefore without doubt the very real threat to your safety if you are returned to Burma then surely you are a refugee? Clearly the UNHCR and Thailand think differently as more than 100 former political prisoners are living in fear each day that they may be returned at any moment to the SPDC who you can be damned sure know exactly who these people are. It’s why they jailed them in the first place. And what of the third countries that are waiting to take these people who wish to resettle? The USA is leading the way… that was until they put all cases on hold.

Take this for an example (a very brief summary and you can read more on a previous post of Nupo refugee camp). A former MP for the National League for Democracy who spent 2 years in Insein prison in 1990 having been charged with high treason. He meets a US diplomat in Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound with her in 1995. He flees Burma to Thailand. He later meets the same US diplomat when he is working for the NCUB. People therefore know who this man is – he is an MP from the NLD who was jailed because of exactly that reason. His health is failing due to the torture he suffered when he was being interrogated in Burma. He has to stop working. His son flees Burma to be with him. They make their way into Nupo refugee camp to try to get resettlement to a third country – he is fast tracked by the UNHCR (probably because no-one wants to have the death of someone of his stature on their hands). But then the US Department of Homeland Security decides to put his case on hold. No-one knows why. In the meantime in a bizarre twist of fate, his perfectly healthy son is resettled to the USA. He is still in Nupo refugee camp some 2 years later – still on hold and unable to re-apply to another country until the US decides his fate. There can surely be no doubt whatsoever as to who he is because after all one of their diplomats met him with Aung San Suu Kyi? Then there’s the story of the former political prisoner resettled to the UK yet his wife and young child are still stuck in a refugee camp waiting and praying that one day they will be able to join him and start to live their life… but she is being refused resettlement. Then there is the story of the former political prisoner in a refugee camp who complained about the amount of food rations he and his colleagues were receiving. He was taken away at night into the forest to be shot. Thankfully his colleagues found out in time and he was returned to camp. These are just some of the stories and unfortunately there are hundreds more.

So the question is what’s going on… not just with these cases but with policy in general with regards to political refugees fleeing Burma?

We are busy working with NGO’s and other contacts on highlighting the situation faced by former political prisoners upon fleeing Burma and will report back soon as our work progresses. We hope to be able to present our findings to the British Government.

The 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention is the foundation of international protection of refugees. It defines a refugee as someone outside their own country unable or unwilling to return owning to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. It sets out the kind of legal protection, other assistance and social rights a refugee should receive from the 141 states that are now party to the Convention. It was the first international agreement that spelled out a set of basic human rights that should be at least equivalent to freedoms enjoyed by foreign nationals living legally in a given country and, in many cases, those of citizens of that state. These include freedom of religion and movement, and the right to work, education and accessibility to travel documents. A key provision stipulates that refugees should not be returned to a country where they fear persecution. It also spells out people or groups of people who are not covered by the Convention. For more information, see www.unhcr.ch/1951convention/51qanda.html

As Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention on Refugees they are able to implement their own criteria for assessing if someone is in genuine need of protection. To date the guidelines that have been used have been very narrow and only include fleeing fighting. The argument put forward by the Thai authorities for not accepting new arrivals is that the people who are seeking shelter are not fleeing fighting but looking for resettlement opportunities.

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Thailand Day 9: Umpiem Mai Refugee Camp and 161 Years in Prison

To view all the portraits from Umpiem Mai Refuge Camp please click HERE

A cool damp start to the day and it seems the wet season is starting to close in on us already as we even had a brief rain shower yesterday in Nupo. Today it’s back to Umpiem Mai refugee camp for a second go at getting in – early calls to Kyaw Soe Win and its looking much better today as not only is the Palat away for the day but with just the three of us it’ll be fine. We head of from Umphang on the line car and two hours later we’re at Umpiem Mai. No problems at the market gate entrance and its straight in and off we go through the market  – Jackie and Thiha make their own way as we split up to attract less attention. It’s 11.00am now and even though it’s another hot day it’s an overcast sky meaning less struggle with the harsh light and contrast… but this is still going to be probably the hardest day yet. Thankfully everyone is not only expecting us but also welcoming us as always with open arms and hearts, fully appreciating our efforts as much as we fully appreciate all of theirs in joining in this campaign – teamwork at its very best. This time I take a different walking route through the camp to Section 16 way up at the back near the monastery. Walking this way you really get to see the scale of this sprawling metropolis cramped in on the edge of the rolling hills. How so many of these huts survive the harsh wet season is beyond me – many don’t and actually collapse amid mini landslides.

Section 16 houses the former political prisoners and political refugees – it’s a really small cramped area but a most welcoming sight as we arrive – again this is Jackie’s first experience of Umpiem having had her first taste of a camp yesterday at Nupo – the differences are only too apparent to see. So many friends greet us who I met last time I was here and have photographed before – Kyaw Soe Win, Aye Aye Moe (and little Thit Synn Moe), Tun Lin Kyaw, Lwin Myint, Aung Moe, Thiha (another Thiha) and all their families. It’s really emotional to be back here with them all but in a good way. Then of course there are the 20 or so new former political prisoners here who I haven’t met before – it’s all so overwhelming but such a special feeling to meet everyone and be here to try to help. The hardest thing about photographing here and today is not just trying to find suitable locations to deal with the often harsh sunlight but actually trying to find over 20 different backgrounds altogether in such a small area. Unlike Nupo where it was slightly more relaxed in being able to walk around the entire camp it’s just not possible here. So we have to really stay within the confines of Section 16 and it’s several hundred square yards and the next few hours are spent scrambling around over every square inch of Section 16 and I think we did pretty well with the end results all things considering! But that’s not all we have to cope with – there are also over 20 people to interview and note down all their details… as well as choose names to go on their hands. This is where the Secretary General takes over and lets me concentrate on trying to get the pictures right in my head and then in the camera. Without her and Thiha it would have been complete meltdown. One after the other, the former political prisoners take it in turns to step into Kyaw Soe Win’s house, register and then get photographed… if only the UNHCR took such an interest in these people and did the same thing. If only.

Thin Min Soe

This is another of the main reasons for us being here today – as per Nupo yesterday. We are working hard to document the situation for these former political prisoners and try to help them in their desperate plight of getting recognised as refugees. Today we carry out a number of interviews on camera – a broad selection of some of these former political prisoners who can go on camera and tell us their stories. Kyaw Soe Win and Thiha help organize people and Jackie carries out the interviews… and I get a short rest in the shade for half an hour… and a cup of Burmese tea of course! For more about this issue read my previous posting HERE.

The day is a huge success but most importantly has been enjoyable and spent with some very special people – friends. In all we have photographed, interviewed and documented 22 former political prisoners in about 4 hours!! Unfortunately about 5 people were unable to make today as they were away from camp working or otherwise engaged – a couple of Karen former political prisoners being engaged in the struggle across the border – our thoughts very much being with them as well. Even though we had photographed some people before, today gave me the opportunity to actually photograph them under better conditions and in a better frame of mind… with my Leica round my neck: Lwin Myint (9 years); Kyaw Kyaw Khine (20 years); Aung Moe (7 years); U Win Myint (9 years); Aung Ngwe San (3 years); Aung Than (18 years); Aye Aye Moe (2 years); Khine Thaung Kyaw Aung (8 years); Kyaw Kyaw Lwin (8 years); Kyaw Soe Win (4 years); San Myint (3 years); Saw Than Hla (23 years); Soe Myint (3 years); Than Than Sint (4 years); Thiha (7 years); Thin Min Soe (4 years); Tun Lin Kyaw (3 years); U Thawbita (1 year); U Ukantha (2 years); U Wituta (9 years); Yan Aung Shwe (10 years); U Zaw Win (7 years). 22 people photographed – 161 years in prison. There’s really nothing more you can say.

Thiha & Saw Than Hla

Making the final line car back to Mae Sot was always going to be a push due to everything we had to try and fit in today and as we are here it seems crazy to dash away without spending all the time we can with everyone. So as we headed back down the hills towards the Market gate stopping off on the way at aye Aye Moe’s house, U Zaw Win’s house and a final stop to see Saw Than Hla again. We had missed the final line car but no problem… as though welcoming us with open arms for what we were trying to do, one of the camp officers was heading into Mae Sot and offered to give us ‘Teachers’ a lift back for a few hundred baht. We gratefully accepted, climbed aboard the open back truck and before we had passed through the checkpoint I had passed out. Massive thanks to Kyaw Soe Win as always. Mission accomplished.

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Nupo Refugee Camp March 2010

For full details on the time spent in Nupo refugee camp please click HERE. Below is a short video documenting the former political prisoners photographed in the camp.

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Thailand Day 8: Nupo Refugee Camp – The Return

Click HERE to view all of the portraits of former political prisoners in Nupo refugee camp.

An early start for what will be a long day – or rather an intensive day as we have to try and wrap things up before the sun gets too high overhead and we’re left with nothing but shadows and highlights. Last night we had a meeting with many of the former political prisoners here in Nupo to learn more about their current precarious situation living in the camp and the ongoing disgraceful situation in regards to the UNHCR resettlement program. There is great fear amongst many here that they will be returned to Burma – all refugees that is – after the election. There are already noises being made from Thai authorities than suggest that this could be the case. Perhaps this goes some way in explaining why the USA has all cases currently on hold. So it’s an early start after sleeping in the camp last night and after morning coffee in the school’s coffee shop “Memento” we started with the portraits. Luckily a group of former political prisoners met us early at ESC school so we started looking for suitable backdrops around the school.

First up were Myint Oo (5 years in Insein, Bago and Taungoo prisons), Kyaw Han (3 years in Sittwe prison) and Zaw Win Naing (4 years in Myeik prison). The day is almost a race against the clock as we have to get the last line car out of Nupo at about 3pm or we get stuck here (no bad thing in my book) but with a tight schedule we cant afford any more slip ups like yesterday. Also it’s a race against the sun – in fact the whole thing is one continual race around everywhere, tracking people down, trying not to draw too much attention to yourself – it’s a total challenge that is impossible to do without the ever present help of Thiha and of course the Secretary-General Jacquelin San who as well as being on interview duty and translation is also filming everything – and she’s getting very good at it to!

First ones in the can (as they say) and we spend the next few hours trekking across Nupo camp starting in Section 16 where all POCs are living. It’s a cramped section of the camp in comparison to almost all other areas – another hardship faced by former political prisoners and their associates – conditions also vary across the camp depending on the usual things in life – how how much money you have and who you know. The portraits keep coming thick and fast – first up my good friend Ma Khin Cho Myint @ Zulu who was photographed for the 3rd time (the previous two political prisoners had been released so she now is known by everyone as having the lucky hand!). She was jailed for 6 years in Insein and Moulmein prisons. Zulu has been the main organiser here in Nupo so a massive thanks to her for making today come together so well. Making our way swiftly through Section 16 we pick up quite a crowd along the way, one by one having their portrait taken as we desperately try to quickly find differing yet most importantly interesting backgrounds to be able to take the portraits – Kyaw Win Swe (7 years in Insein and Mandalay prisons), Kyi Toe (3 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons), Kyaw Zaw (11 years in Insein and Kalay prisons), Su Su Win (8 years in Insein prison), Kyaw Tint Oo (2 years in Maubin prison), Win Hlaing (6 years in Insein and Thayet prisons), Yu Yu Hlaing (1 year in Myant prison) and her husband Soe Moe (6 years in Dawei prison). We also had time in passing to catch up with Lwin Lwin Myint (U Gambira’s sister) who with her husband were busy building their new house.

Heading across towards the monastery on the other side of the camp we take a detour to the graveyard where two former political prisoners who died whilst in the camp are buried. U Than Myint (who’s wife and child we met and photographed – see above) passed away on 23rd January 2009 aged 52. He was a member of the NLD and BPPU. Unfortunately I never had the chance to meet him but when I visited in July last year I met Myo Khin. He had been jailed for 7 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prison and he was suffering form bad health coupled with no home in the camp – his life was one of extreme hardship and makes you seriously reflect on everything you have in comparison. He died on 15th December 2009 aged 53. He was a member of the NLD and BPPU. I was very sad to hear that he had passed away in  of liver failure amongst other serious health problems. Both men had gravestones in the rundown graveyard of Nupo camp – it was a true moment of reflection and sadness. Our final stop was over at the monastery to photograph U Aubar before making our way back through the wide open boulevards (in comparison!) of the Karen section of the camp to ESC Nupo for a final meal and well earned rest before catching the line car back to Umphang. Yet another brief but totally exhausting and truely rewarding time spent in Nupo camp. I thank you all for everything that you did and hope that in turn we can in some way help with your current situation. God knows we’ll try.

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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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