Burma’s Monks Challenge Junta

The Buddhist monks of Burma have delivered an ultimatum to the Burmese military government: If the government will not apologize for and stop the persecution, assassination and contempt of Buddhist monks and the people of Burma until October 2nd. 2009, a second wave of the Saffron-Revolution including demonstrations of the monks will take place, starting on October 3rd in Burma.

For more details visit Democracy for Burma

(Top row left to right)

U Teza was detained for 8 years in Insein and Thayarwaddy prisons.
U Kyaw Myint was detained for 3 years in Insein prison.

(Bottom row left to right)

U Naing Linn was detained for 2 years in Pathein prison.
U Win Naing was detained for 5 years in Mandalay prison

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DVB documentary broadcast

Today DVB have broadcast a short 8 minute documentary feature about the project. You can watch it in Burmese on DVB television at Livestation – just download the player and watch DVB television live. Alternatively click on the link below to watch it here in English:

Democratic Voice of Burma

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Thailand Day 18: Mae La Refugee Camp

Due to recent attacks by the Burmese army just a couple of hours drive north of the camp, the security is extremely tight with curfews in place. Life has become even more tense than normal in the past few weeks. Sneaking in to the camp through a small secret entrance, I met my contact and we hurriedly made our way to our rendezvous with the political prisoners currently living here. This was not the first time we had been in the camp and yet it got more difficult each time. It was only possible to photograph 3 former prisoners as it was not safe for many others to leave their house or be seen outside of their zone within the camp. Checkpoint at Mae La refugee campMae La, the largest refugee camp on the Thai/Burma border, is home to 32,000 refugees. That’s the official UNHCR number, however in reality there are closer to 45,000+ people living in the camp as many go un-registered as they do not meet the UNHCR classification for refugee status. For example, victims of Cyclone Nargis, that tore through the Irrawaddy delta in May 2008 will not be registered as refugees and since the Saffron Revolution in 2007 thousands more have fled from all over Burma including from the ongoing attacks in Karen state and entered the camp illegally in hope of seeking their salvation.

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Thailand Day 15: Noh Boh and Mae Usu Temporary Shelters

A sideline from daily events with political prisoners involved several trips north of Mae Sot to take supplies to the new refugee arrivals at Noh Boh and Mae Usu. On 6th June the Burmese army and the DKBA launched a major military offensive against the KNLA in Papun District near the Thai Burma border. More than 4,000 refugees were forced to flee across the Moei river to safety in Thailand by the Burmese army and the DKBA have relocated to a new temporary shelter in Noh Boh village, Thailand on 11th July. Food, medicines and other supplies are in desperate need. The Thai military provide security to the camp in case of attack by the DKBA or Burmese army.

Karen refugees at Noh Boh

 

Villagers from Ler Per Her IDP camp and surrounding villages were forced to flee from their homes on June 6th as the Burmese military launched a major offensive against the KNLA. The villagers fled across the Moei river into Thailand and sought refuge in Noh Boh village in monasteries and local orphanages. They have now been re-located once again to this area where they have been allowed to form a temporary shelter – unofficially it has become the tenth refugee camp on the Thai Burma border.
But they do not want to become refugees.
All they want to do is go home.

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Thailand Day 12: Nu Po Refugee Camp

Six hours drive south of Mae Sot lies Nu Po refugee camp. Noh Poe as it is also often called, means “small lake” in Karen and is home to almost 15,000 people who have fled their native Burma. Many former political prisoners are sent here when they escape across the border in Thailand and the most of the refugees in the POC/PAB sector are political activists who have been involved in the democracy movement since 1988.

Thanks to my good friends at ESC Nupo I managed to photograph almost 30 former political prisoners whilst here. The total now photographed for the project is up to 76. All images are available for viewing here. My personal connections with Nu Po go back several years due to a friendship established with John Glenn, a former political prisoner and founding member of the English Speaking Course (ESC Nupo). The school was formed in 2007 out of the huge demand for English classes in particular for adults. The programme relies almost solely upon private donations and funds that can be raised by those who work and live there. Foreign teachers have been recruited and an incredible school building that contains classrooms, a computer room, sleeping quarters, school office and much more. It is a truly remarkable place, run by truly remarkable people – a real home from home. Pictured here is Ma Lwin Lwin Myint, younger sister of U Ashin Gambira the prominent monk and leader of the Saffron Revolution in 2007. Since her brother was detained in 2007 and due to his high profile activism, Ma Lwin and all of her family members have suffered continual harassment and persecution from the military junta and its thugs in the USDA and Swan Arr Shin. Many of them have been subsequently detained and jailed but she managed to evade capture.
Along with her husband, Ko Lu Maw Naing, she played a prominent role in delivering aid and providing assistance to victims of Cyclone Nargis in the Irrawaddy Delta. This was the final straw for the junta who literally put out a warrant for her arrest. She fled to the border with her husband in 2008 and they are currently living in Nu Po refugee camp and studying at ESC Nupo. Her brother U Gambira was sentenced in November 2008 to 65 years imprisonment and in january 2009 was transfered to the remote Khandee prison in Sagaing Division. Ma Lwin told me that despite suffering torture and persecution as a political prisoner in jail, her brother is in good health and above all in good spirits. Both Ma Lwin and Ko Maw are journalists for the Burma Student Post which is produced by ESC Nupo and to which I am very proud to be the sponsor.

Below are a selection of former political prisoners photographed in Nu Po camp – visit ENIGMA IMAGES website to see all 24.

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Lwin Lwin Myint, sister of U Gambira, talks of her brother’s experience

Interview with Ma Lwin Lwin Myint and Ko Lu Maw Naing (sister and brother-in-law to U Gambira). U Gambira is currently detained in Kalay prison in Sagaing division serving a 68 year sentence. The interview took place on July 20th 2009 in Nu Po refugee camp on the Thai Burma border where they are both currently living as refugees having been forced to flee Burma for their own security.

JM James Mackay

LL Lwin Lwin Myint (U Gambira’s sister)

KM Ko Lu Maw (U Gambira’s sister’s husband)


JM When was the last time that you saw your brother?

LL September 2008 in Insein prison

JM How was he?

LL He was ok

JM What is his opinion of the charges against him?

KM He was unlawfully accused in the first place. It is a crime he didn’t commit. Even the students in that movement (saffron revolution) did not commit the charges against them. U Gambira was charged under the Electronic Act which is using the internet – they make using the internet a crime. Another charge against him is religious disrespectfulness. This charge was put against him because during the September uprising all the monks praying on the streets it made the generals look bad. This is what the unlawful charges are against U Gambira, he is not guilty and I am sure he will feel the same. Four different occasions under the Electronic act added up to 20 years, so 5 years for each occasion. And the religious act added up to a total of 68 years.

JM When you last saw him he hadn’t been sentenced because he was sentenced in November 2008. Have you had any contact with him since then

LL Yes, my family have. We had to flee Burma before his trial.

JM Why did you both have to leave Burma?

KM We are activists in the movement. I was along side my brother in law (U Gambira) in the September 2007 movement.

JM Was the SPDC threatening you as a family member of U Gambira?

KM/LL Currently the younger brother, the older brother and her sister’s husband have been arrested. The parents are being watched constantly – they were called to Rangoon to be a witness in the court and if they don’t go they will be arrested. Currently in their home in Meitkila there is intelligence people watching. Also at the home of her oldest sister in Rangoon they are outside watching always.

JM Why are all your family members in prison? Is it because U Gambira is so prominent or is it because of their own activities?

KM They were arrested because of U Gambira’s political activities. First the SPDC tried to force U Gambira to stop his political activities and be on their side, but he refused. So they turned to the family members and told them to persuade U Gambira to stop, but they also refused. That is how they all ended up in prison.

JM Was that before U Gambira was sentenced?

LL Yes, that was whilst he was in court on trial.

JM So that would explain why he received such a long sentence.

KM Even now, they still approach the eldest sister in Rangoon, saying they will give her support and money if she will do as they say – to act for them and persuade her brother to stop. They want U Gambira to cut his connection with the movement. Even recently, a month ago, they approached her to talk to U Gambira for them.

JM So SPDC are attempting to force all leading activists to stop their activities, and if they don’t stop they give them even longer sentences to ensure the threat goes away

KM Yes, this is right. U Gambira has been a monk since he was 12 and he became a prominent activist leader in 2006. He is now 30 years old on June 19 the same day as Daw Suu and he is a leader so he is a threat to them.

JM The important thing for the international community to see is that he is a monk not a criminal. He is a revered person. They have charged him with religious disrespectfulness but do they treat him with disrespect in the same way that they treat other political prisoners in jail?

KM Yes – just the same kinds of torture. In 2008 October the government military intelligence gave him some milk and he got very sick. Eventually they sent him to the prison hospital. He was vomiting and was very weak – he suffered from severe exhaustion and headaches. He was there for nearly one month. Also at night only to U Gambira’s cell they shone a very strong light all night long towards his eyes to mentally torture him. That was all before he was sentenced.

LL In January 2009 he was sent from Insein to Mandalay prison. In that point in Mandalay he kept doing his Buddhist practice every day and during his time walking and chanting he was protesting also and was requesting to meet with Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi. Also he did one week hunger strike in Mandalay prison to protest. Then he was put into solitary confinement for one month because of this. Then he was moved to Kande prison. Again he did hunger strike in Kande prison. One time In Kande prison when he was allowed out of his cell, he refused to go back, again demanding a meeting with Than Shwe and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. They beat him and dragged him back to his cell. Then he transferred to Kalay prison in Sagaing division where he is now.

JM Now he is in Kalay prison it is almost impossible for your parents to visit him, this is a tactic they use against high profile activists to make them suffer even more.

LL Yes they have done this to all of my family – my older brother is in Taungyi prison, younger brother is in Kyaukphu prison and my brother in law is in Moulmein prison. My parents live in Meitkila so it is very difficult for them to visit him.

JM Is it because of their connection to U Gambira or because of their activities?

LL A combination of both. My brother and my brother in law were both arrested on the anniversary of the September 2007 demonstrations last year. They planned to hold a prayer ceremony and then release balloons to mark the anniversary but they were arrested the night before. They both were sentenced to 5 years each.

JM Do you worry that your remaining family members not arrested will be arrested and targeted as well.

LL We are worried for them all of the time. They are targeted and watched all of the time but my parents and oldest sister cannot flee because they have to stay to look after the family members in prison.

JM So in a way they have become prisoners themselves even though they are not in jail. Again this seems to be another tactic of the SPDC to make life difficult for any kind of opposition.

KM Even when the election is finished the high profile people won’t be released. High profile people like U Gambira, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Min Ko Naing, 88 Generation are the biggest threat to the SPDC so they will not release them

JM Do you fear then that you will never see your brother again?

LL We hope that one day we will see him again when the situation changes but I still worry for all my family in prison. U Gambira is suffering from weak nervous system because of the incident with the milk in Insein prison

KM When that happened they didn’t let him see the doctor or give him medical treatment. They kept him in his cell. Only after I wrote letters and emails to the media about this incident, they changed their mind because of the media pressure and he was submitted to prison hospital. He is mentally strong but physically weak because of this attempted poisoning and beatings so we worry very much for him.

JM Ban Ki-Moon constantly re-iterates that the UN want to see all political prisoners released yet very little changes. What do you feel the UN should do?

KM The UN should take action in an effective way in the Security Council like they did in Sudan – with the president of Sudan. If the UN take serious action only then will the regime be under threat and the situation might change, but with Ban Ki-Moon and Gambari just visiting and talking about pressure nothing will happen. They only release some political prisoners who have come to the end of their sentences or petty criminals – not people like U Gambira.

JM When Cyclone Nargis hit in May 2008 we saw many people arrested for helping deliver aid. Without the help of monks and ordinary people probably many more would have died. Even though he was in jail did U Gambira have an involvement in getting aid to the Delta?

KM When the Nargis happened, during a prison visit U Gambira asked us to go and help the victims as much as we can. So we went to the area around Bogolaye and Mawkyun. We helped the victims with the recovery process, with healthcare and food supplies and built toilets. We went to the Delta twice and after the second time the SPDC came after us and then we had to flee the country.

LL The SPDC realised that the whole family were involved in activism and not just U Gambira. We were involved in Cyclone Nargis and then planning the anniversary of the Saffron Revolution and then at that point the SPDC realised that the whole family involved so they started targeting our whole family. The brothers were arrested for the anniversary and we knew we would be next so we had to flee.

JM Many international governments donated huge amounts of aid and money to the cyclone victims. Did you see any examples of SPDC interfering with aid being delivered?

KM Normally when you want to give aid you have to give SPDC a list of everything you have in your truck when you pass through the checkpoints, but we didn’t because we went by boat and bribed the boat owner so we weren’t seen, so our aid got to the people without being searched. When aid is delivered, the headman of the village (who is government) has to go and collect it. He then asks the village people for money if they want to receive aid – £1000 kyat each and they say this is to pay for the fuel to bring the aid to the village.

LL You can by many stuff in Mingalar market and Nyaung Binlay market especially you will see plenty of mosquito nets – not a few – thousands of nets which are sold by organizations not just individual people. Some of my friends including some reporters they give us this information as well. But the NGOs have to deal with the government.

KM SPDC also donated money to these victims and to monasteries but the SPDC collect this money from the general public not from their own money.

JM The SPDC, yet again, are interfering on every level and this is the same with other issues where there is intimidation and persecution on every level against anyone who opposes them.

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Thailand Day 11: Umpiem Mai Refugee Camp

The second major phase of photographing former prisoners involves getting into the refugee camps – in particluar Nupo but also Umpiem Mai and Mae La. The next few days will take in Umpiem and Nupo and potentially another 30+ former prisoners. Access to the camps is strictly controlled with checkpoints not only at the entry points but also along the surrounding roads. The highway from Mae Sot down to Umphang is littered with checkpoints – some that seem to spring up whenever tensions rise over the border in Burma or if there is a sudden clampdown by the Thai authorities. The problem for former political prisoners (and many others fleeing Burma) is that they may have no proper documents to show the Thai police if they are stopped. Without proper documents they will be arrested, deported and in the case of the former political prisoner that will mean straight back to jail. So many organisations will help them become registered with the UNHCR as ‘persons of concern’ (POC). Whilst this document will grant them refuge in Thailand, in 2006 Thai policy for refugees changed and then stated that all POCs had to live and remain only within the camps. Former political prisoners in Umpiang refugee campMany former political prisoners were forced to go to the camps and this had a damaging effect on their ability to continue their activist work for exiled opposition groups and organisations. One might wonder how much the Burmese military junta leaned on the Thai government to implement this change. So living and travelling around Mae Sot and outside the refugee camps is often very risky for former political prisoners (and other refugees). Many literally still remain as prisoners in their homes or in hiding in Mae Sot and the surrounding areas just so they can continue their activism. They have become stateless people.

The journey to Umpiem Mai is about 4 hours in the line car. We had arranged to photograph about 8 people in Umpiem Mai before heading off to Nupo the next morning. I was being taken there by Ko Thiha who had arranged the trip with his colleagues in the camps. Ko Thiha spent 17 years, 6 months and 16 days in 5 different prisons (Insein, Taungoo, Kalay, Taunglaylone and Maisatt) having been jailed in 1990 for his political activities. He was freed along with U Win Tin in September 2008 and soon after he fled to the border. He shared his prison experiences with me and no matter how many times you hear these horrendous stories of torture and suffering, you always sit listening completely transfixed, because they always resonate so much inside. We passed through 7 checkpoints on the way – more than I have ever encountered before and it was nervous times for many of the people on board as the Thai police were stopping and searching every vehicle. A quick phone call to a contact and we discovered that the Thai police had stopped a car further up the border near Mae Hong Son and found guns and ammunitions. The people they arrested were ‘Red Shirts’ of the Thai political movement and the police suspected the weapons had been given to them by the KNLA (which of course was not true). This naturally meant that security was tightened up all along the border. We got to Umpiang camp without too many problems, met our contact and sneaked into the camp without being seen. Again due to recent fighting in Burma there are strict curfews in the camps at the moment, especially for westerners working there… and even more so for westerners who shouldn’t even be there. Release card from Insein prisonWe made our way up to the Burmese section way up the hill at the back of the camp up by the pagoda. A great view but for all the wrong reasons. Life in the camps is not easy by any means. Rations are limited and there are all the usual social problems once finds in the outside world that are only heightened in the closeted environment of a refugee camp where so many people are living in cramped conditions often in a state of flux, often having just escaped horrendous situations back home in Burma. We met up with everyone and as always the warmest welcome was bestowed on me and yet again superb Burmese food prepared. We had to be careful not to draw too much attention so stayed inside huts most of the time, but had to shoot outside due to the light. It was great to spend so much time in the company of these former political prisoners inside the camp – watching and listening to them sharing their stories and experiences. They even showed me their release cards (pictured above) and joked about what they said to the guards once they were released. We only had a couple of hours in the camp as we had to catch the line car down to Umphang were we had to stay the night before travelling on to Nupo the following morning. We made our way back across the camp to meet up with one former political prisoner in particular who I wanted to meet and photograph. Saw Than Hla was sent to prison in 1983 for his political and human rights activities. A member of the KNU, Saw Than Hla lived in a small village in the Irrawaddy Delta. He spent 24 years in Insein and Thayet prisons before being released in 2007. When I asked him what the real reason was for him being sent to prison for such a long time he simply replied… “because I am Karen”. This is not hard to believe based on what is happening just miles away from where we are – ethnic cleansing and genocide as the military junta are trying to wipe out the Karen people. Swa than Hla was probably the most inspiring person I have met to date. He was suffering badly from hypertension and low blood pressure – so we went to the market and bought him some limes and sweet biscuits. He showed me his letter from the ICRC that recognized him as a former prisoner in Insein prison and therefore as a person of concern… however he is still waiting to achieve that status from the UNHCR… bureaucracy gone mad. Here is a man who has spent 24 years in jail as a political prisoner and the UN can’t see fit to award him full refugee status and ensure he gets food rations and is looked after. He proudly put on his traditional Karen clothes for the photograph. It was an honour to be able to take that photograph.

 

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