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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USA Day 1: “I Will Keep Fighting. I Will Be Back Here”

Brief background… This was a trip that came from nowhere and was totally unexpected. Wednesday evening I get an email from a certain person (who you’ll hear about soon…) asking me to come to New York to meet on Monday. The opportunity simply can’t be missed so everything gets dropped and cue frantic phone calls and emails to various contacts in USA to try to arrange as many former political prisoners as possible in New York. 24 hours later we are on the plane. Before I go any further I’d like to thank everyone who helped pull this together and in particular the unbelievable efforts of Nickie Sekera, Tim Aye-Hardy and Ko Myint Hlaing.

Touchdown USA at last. After our aborted efforts last year it’s very important that we are finally here. If this truely is the ‘…home of the brave’ then there are no people more brave than those whom I am going to meet on this trip. It’s freezing cold and yet again snow welcomes us as we embark on another leg of this mission. The sprawling gargantuan metropolis that is Manhattan awaits and there’s no time to lose as we are only here for a few days and of course there’s lots to see as well as to do! Customs at JFK was surprisingly quick and left me wondering what all the fuss was about – we had a harder time getting into Norway and Japan. The remainder of our day was spent wandering around taking in the sights and size of Manhattan as well as trying to come up with a few ideas for locations, but unfortunately the bitter cold would mean that shooting outdoors would be almost impossible. We touch base with our man on the ground Tim Aye-Hardy and it’s confirmed that tomorrow we will have 3 maybe 4 people to shoot. (This day will now be split into 3 seperate postings for each person – ed).


Saturday morning and we head straight to Times Square as there’s no time to lose – not only is it minus 2 but it’s going to be a long day traversing across New York City. If only one shot was going to be done outside I decided that this had to be the one – standing in the middle of a scene epitomising western freedom with a gaudy shine that glosses over the darkness that lies underneath – a darkness that has been experienced to it’s fullest degree by Burma’s political prisoners. We scout for a few positions to try to get as much in the background as possible, the ever present model Jackie San standing on every corner and picture postcard spot of Times Square until we decide that the top of the red stairs of TKTS provides the perfect position aloft of all the madness that this world has to offer. The walk up what symbolises a red carpet is more than deserved by Ko Thet Mhu, and the first shot of the day is underway with both Jackie and Tim taking it in turn to film as the bitter cold makes it a real challenge to keep your hands out of your pockets let alone hold them aloft for Burma or try to take pictures.

 

Thet Mhu former member of the student organisation Ba Ka Tha
was jailed in Insein prison for 6 years

Thet Mhu played an active role in student demonstrations in the 1988 uprisings but as the army cracked down he fled to the Thai-Burma border with his colleague Moe Thee Zun. Whilst many students stayed on the border and formed the ABSDF to take up the armed struggle against the regime, Thet Mhu decided to return to Rangoon to continue the non-violent struggle and when he returned he played a role in the reforming of the Ba Ka Tha organisation of the ABFSU. He travelled to Mandalay to help build up the movement and spent time with a number of other activists in the Masoe Yain monastery – a secret refuge for student and other activists. He returned to Rangoon where he was now actively working for the ABSDF as well as Ba Ka Tha in an attempt to unite student organisations. On 22nd November 1990 he was due to meet a contact from the border at Rangoon Central Railway Station, but as he was waiting he was aware that Military Intelligence were on to him and were waiting. Upon meeting his contact they both fled from the station with MI in hot pursuit – Thet Mhu stopped to pick up his slipper which had fallen off his foot as he was running and he was pounced on by 3 MI officers. A fight then ensued in the middle of the street but he fought them off before fleeing again. However, both men were eventually caught and arrested and sentenced to 7 years in prison. He was just 19 years old at the time. He spent 5 and half years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons before being released in April 1996 and as the warden was signing his release papers he was asked what his plans were for the future. Thet Mhu simply replied “I will keep fighting. I will be back here”. He returned to his political activities immediately and played a role in the student demonstrations that happened just 8 months later in December 1996. Along with his colleague Thar Nyunt Oo (photographed in May 2010) he evaded arrest and hid in the offices of several organisations that had signed ceasefire agreements with the regime. In a bizarre twist of fate the authorities found themselves in an awkward situation knowing that wanted student activists were hiding out in buildings that they could not raid for fear of upsetting the tense ceasefire agreements. He finally fled Rangoon in 1997 and made for Mae Sot on the Thai-Burma border where in 2000 he helped found the AAPP along with Bo Kyi and other former political prisoners. In 2002 he decided to try to resettle to USA as he wanted to support his then girlfriend who was studying in the UK, however he was rejected due to his association to the ABSDF which was registered as an ‘outlawed terrorist organisation’. He eventually made it to America some years later and the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’ had welcomed someone who was just that but he spent more one and a half years with no status or permit and life was incredibly tough. He eventually gained status as a political refugee and continues the flight.

With the shot in the bag and thanks to filming by both Jackie and Tim we made our way back across the supersize neon virtual world of Times Square and headed underground on the subway to Queens where we were due to meet with Ko Nay Tin Myint and Ko Myint Soe. There was also something of a surprise in store for me with our final meeting but more about that later…

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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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8 Years In Prison For The Lawyer Who Questioned The Law

Finishing up the latest trip to the UK our final destination was a date with U Hkun Sa, Secretary of Constitutional Affairs Department of ENC and General Secretary of the Kachin National Council of the Kachin National Organization (KNO).

In 1988, Hkun Sa, a prominent lawyer, was actively involved in the Bar association in Mytkyina. He was one of the founder members of the Kachin State National Congress for Democracy KNCD, which had a very close working relationship with the NLD. He was elected as General Secretary and in the 1990 election the KNCD won 3 seats. In the aftermath of the election when the regime refused to hand over power, village leaders (under control of KIA/KIO) were interrogated by Military Intelligence (MI) about Hkun Sa. He was accused of having gone to their areas and meeting with KIA/KIO leaders. He was summoned and questioned by MI and answered in a written statement. He was asked about the 1962 coup by Ne Win and his answer was that it was against the 1947 constitution and was a misuse of the peoples’ trust in the Government and army. Again he was asked the same question about SLORC coup in 1988 and he replied that there was no provision in the 1974 constitution to allow for a military coup and thus, he was charged under section 5J and taken to Northern Common Division military court no 34 where he repeated his answers in cross questioning the prosecution. He was sentenced to 10 years with hard labour in prison and was transferred to Mandalay prison.

In prison he was appointed the leader in Mandalay prison of a programme of supporting the political prisoners set up by Aung San Suu Kyi, who was providing medicines, food, healthcare etc to political prisoners in prison. Upon release from prison his lawyer’s licence was revoked and he couldn’t practice law. He stayed at his cousin’s house in Hpa Kant but MI came after him, hassling his family and friends, monitoring his every move and demanding his every movement and travel is reported to the MI. His wife’s motorcycle rental business was shut down by the authorities as they took away his licence. Even his daughter was affected by the constant pressure from the regime – she had been elected on a youth exchange programme to Japan but the regime did not allow her to go.

Whilst Hkun Sa had been in prison, Duwa Bawmwang `La Raw, the president of the Kachin National Council of KNO in exile had heard about him and had constantly sent words of encouragement and when Hkun Sa was released from prison he asked him if he was interested in politics he would arrange to take Hkun Sa to exile in Thailand. Two years later it was arranged and Hkun Sa left for Thailand on 5th February 2002 arriving on 17th Feb. He joined the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC) and was elected Chairman of the Kachin State Constitutional drafting committee (a role he still has today) and was handed the responsibility for drafting the constitution for a Kachin State within a Federal Burma. As he had also been the General Secretary of the KNCD inside Burma at the time of the 1990 election he was now also asked to form the KNCD-LA under the umbrella organization United Nationalities League for Democracy-Liberated Areas (UNLD-LA). He carried out these duties and in February 2003 was elected Vice Chairman of the UNLD-LA. In May 2003 along with 10 high ranking exiled leaders he travelled to Northern Ireland for a training programme in the peace building process. He claimed asylum in the UK and it was granted in September 2003. He continues to work tirelessly for democracy and freedom in Burma in his current role as Secretary of Constitutional Affairs Department of ENC and General Secretary of the Kachin National Council of the Kachin National Organization (KNO).

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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.

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Burma’s Political Prisoners – THE BIG ISSUE

Burma’s political prisoners are officially The Big Issue. A great UK magazine (for what it stands for) has published a four page article featuring 10 portraits from the campaign and also the chance for all to see some that haven’t been seen before (I’m always trying to vary them as much as possible, but so far picture editors seem to be consistent in their choices to publish out of the 170 available!).

Unfortunately the magazine isn’t available online but you can view and download the article here:

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Exiled Activists Stand with Burma’s Former Political Prisoners

Early this morning a group of us made our way to the Burmese embassy in London to carry out a stunt for Amnesty International UK, kicking off the week nicely in the lead up to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday on Saturday 19th. The idea was simple – a group of 6 people would congregate on the steps of the Burmese embassy (officially Burmese territory) and carry out an outlawed political act that if done in Burma would result in years in prison.

(practising the line up in between coffee breaks)

This is the first time my work is being used as a campaign tool for Amnesty International and to have two former political prisoners (Htein Lin & Aung Gyi) in the group makes it even more powerful. So Htein Lin and Aung Gyi along with Zoya Phan, Nay Oo Hlaing and Waihnin Pwint Thon joined the Director of Amnesty International UK, Kate Allen and made their silent protest on the steps of the Burmese embassy with the names of a current political prisoner written on their hands. A powerful statement of intent was made on what is officially Burmese territory (not for the first time I might add!) Apart from a brief flutter of the curtains there wasn’t a sound from inside the embassy – with military precision we were done before they knew what had happened (and that included have two Press Association photographers there as well). So the first Amnesty action using this work… and much, much more to come…

you can read full details here on the Amnesty UK website

(left to right: Zoya Phan; Htein Lin; Nay Oo Hlaing; Aung Gyi; Kate Allen; Waihnin Pwint Thon)

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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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