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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Thailand Day 6: Old Memories and New Arrivals

Tomorrow we leave for a flying visit to both Umpiem Mai and Nupo refugee camps where over 40 former political prisoners are ready and waiting. It’s going to be very hard work and based on previous experiences it’s a frantic race against the clock – but more about all that over the coming days as we re-experience it. Today we finally get to put our feet up for a few hours as we have fairly comprehensively photographed Mae Sot’s contingent in the last 48 hours.

(Myawaddy as seen from the banks of the Moei river)

With the main focus with the political prisoner issue naturally revolving around the reasons of arrest and subsequent treatment in prison, another major element lurking in the background is that so many are forced to flee – leave their home, their country. This is the same for so many people in Burma – there are 160,000 people just sitting in the camps that litter the border – all waiting to go home, some having been here almost 20 years, others it’s all they’ve ever known. I took Jackie down to the Friendship bridge that links Thailand to Burma and for the first time in 10 years she was able to see her homeland – albeit Myawaddy. But imagination is more important than knowledge and in opening your mind and seeing beyond the Dawna mountain range I can only imagine how many people might stand here and dream if only for a second about what once was and what hopefully will be again. I can only imagine what those feelings must be like to see your homeland so near but yet in reality so far.

We got a call from Thiha early in the evening, a former political prisoner had literally just arrived from across the border in Burma in the early hours of the morning and we had to go and meet him, confirming the news that we had heard just yesterday that someone was waiting in Myawaddy to cross over. We headed back into town and went to meet Kyaw Thu Htike in a safe house in the back streets of Mae Sot. This was the first time I had met someone who had literally just arrived to relative safety. Escaping from Burma as a former political prisoner is fraught with danger. It’s not just as simple as getting on a bus and heading out to Myawaddy. Every day, sometimes every hour you are watched, monitored, questioned “Where did you go today” “Why were you visiting that place” “Who is that person you were with”. It’s perpetual and it’s purpose in the eyes of the regime is to continue their de-humanisation process of political prisoners. So to evade the authorities for long enough to be able to escape from Rangoon and then several days under the cover of darkness until you reach Myawaddy is not easy. Once there you are then faced with the lawlessness of a border trade town, now run almost solely by the DKBA who continually recruit returning migrants from Thailand and others at random on the streets into their ranks. Crossing over late at night the final step is to make it to a safe house in Mae Sot, but of course with no identity, no papers, nothing to save you from an immediate return to Burma and back to jail if you are caught by the Thai authorities or SPDC spies. Not even the protection of the UNHCR. Only money as always in this world that we live in can buy you your future…

Kyaw Thu Htike arrived late last night with his wife and young son (full audio interview will be posted soon). He was jailed for 1 and a half years in Insein and Taunglaylone prisons having been arrested in March 2008 under section 13(1) and 505(B) – the antiquated law that is often thrown at political prisoners… “Whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumour or report… (b) with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public”. He was released in September 2009 under the amnesty despite having been sentenced to 7 years in prison. We chatted for ages and it was incredible to hear testimony first hand from someone who had only a few hours escaped from Burma. The long road ahead to real freedom lies in wait for Kyaw Thu Htike but at least tonight he is a free man, if only from the Military Intelligence officers waiting outside his door each day back home in Rangoon.

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Thailand Day 4 (part 1): Ten Years Strong

Ten years ago today, on 23rd March 2000, former political prisoners from Burma living in exile in Thailand formed the human rights organisation the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), more commonly known as the AAPP. The date of 23rd March has relevance as it is the anniversary of the arrest of student leader Min Ko Naing in 1988. For the past ten years, AAPP has cast light on the dark situation that is the hell of Burma’s prisons and the political prisoners that have suffered within them. It has played a vital role in reporting to International governments and the UN on the situation of political prisoners in Burma and has campaigned vigorously and untiringly to both raise awareness and bring about change. It provides a voice and support for the 2,186 political prisoners currently incarcerated in Burma’s jails and also assistance to their families and those who have been forced to flee into exile.

The day starts in a rush and thankfully we grab a lift from Dr Naing Aung from the AAPP office to the Rujira Hotel on the outskirts of Mae Sot – where the celebrations are being held. More than 150 people had gathered to this special occasion – former political prisoners, activists, exiled NLD Members of Parliament – the room was awash with important people who had come to acknowledge not just the work and tenth anniversary of AAPP but more importantly the fact that 2,186 people were still in jail and the fact that a significant number of those people should be playing important roles in the forthcoming elections. Former political prisoners dressed in their blue prison uniforms carried a banner that re-iterated this message “There can be no national reconciliation in Burma as long as there are political prisoners”. There is really no other way to put it.

It was a strange experience to know so many people in the room – to have been privileged to have shared the lives of so many of them for this project; an honour to be a part of this family. I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. Anniversary t-shirts in the prisoner colour blue were handed out to all and the MCs Moe Myat Thu and Ma Suu Mon Aye got things underway. The former political prisoners performed to the packed hall and a number of prominent activists and former political prisoners spoke to the audience. It was a great day and I spent most of the event wandering around chatting to people and taking the odd photograph – you can see the photos here. Also with so many former political prisoners gathered in one place it was also a great opportunity to start planning who to photograph and a real coup as Daw San San, NLD MP, Vice President of the MPPU and former political prisoner agreed to have her portrait taken later in the week. In fact our initial estimates of 5 or so new faces to photograph in Mae Sot were way off target. We also caught up with Ma Thida who was over from DVB in Oslo – so many friends everywhere but a big surprise for Jackie who met a very special old friend (now in Generation Wave) whom she hadn’t seen for ten years since having to leave Burma in 2000. It was a wonderful moment to enjoy a re-union and such a small world to be re-united here in Mae Sot both fighting as activists for their country.

To mark the 10th anniversary the AAPP were launching their new report “The Role of Political Prisoners in the National Reconciliation Process”. The report calls on the international community to press the military junta to unconditionally release all political prisoners, review the 2008 Constitution, and begin a tripartite dialogue. But the report also calls for the criminal records of all political prisoners to be erased. The 2010 election and party registration laws prohibit current prisoners including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Khun Tun Oo from standing for election or belonging to a political part – and this is a key point if there is to be any sense of real democratic change and progress for Burma. You can condemn the constitution, repression and general disastrous human rights situation throughout Burma all you like but the basic fact that the very people who were not only originally elected to run the country but who are also who the people of Burma would still want to play a role now in shaping its future are still in jail. Their unconditional release and involvement in the political process is fundamental if there is ever to be meaningful change in Burma.

The new report was launched at a press conference and the whole event was filmed by Democratic Voice of Burma DVB and you can read all about the days events here in a report from The Irrawaddy. The celebrations continued throughout the day culminating in an evening event held at the office of AAPP for former political prisoners and a selection of specially invited guests – time to really celebrate and for me an incredible moment as a slideshow of the 115 photographs of this project was played on a big screen to everyone – amazing feeling to see all these former political prisoners watching their colleagues from all over the world – it made all the hard work really seem worthwhile to have it shown and acknowledged in such company. Everyone partied long in to the night – a well deserved day of celebration but also acknowledgement of the role of political prisoners in Burma’s past, present and future.

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Burma’s Former Political Prisoners Unite in Japan

The trip to Japan saw 7 former political prisoners unite in joining together to raise awareness about their colleagues currently detained in Burma’s notorious prisons.

Click here to view all the portraits in full size and go the ENIGMA IMAGES website

To read all the details of this trip to Japan please view the section on this website – Japan – February 2010

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Japan Day 2: Stopping the Traffic in Tokyo

As we experienced in Norway, most meetings and opportunities to photograph people can only really happen at the weekend so the flying start to this trip continues at full speed. The first meeting of the day is with everybody. Not all 35 million people in Tokyo, but with a large gathering of representatives from many of the various Burma organisations here in Japan at a monthly meeting: NLD-LA; FWUBC; Burmese Women’s Union; Chin Nationality Community; Burmese Refugees Serving Association; People’s Forum on Burma; Karen, Mon and many other representatives to mention just a few. Getting an audience of important people like this doesn’t happen everyday and thankfully the Secretary General was able to translate my garbled explanation about this campaign for political prisoners and explain to everyone in a much more coherent fashion exactly what it is all about. It was warmly received and supported by all. Before heading of to lunch with everyone we managed to do some interviews with former political prisoners Phone Myint Tun and Htin Kyaw – and not to be left out I had one with DVB! There are not too many former political prisoners in Tokyo but we had 3 people lined up to photograph today – Htin Kyaw, Maw Gyi and Dr Aye Chan.

Htin Kyaw was a second year Physics student at Hlaing College Rangoon when he became involved in the democracy movement in 1988. Like so many of his colleagues at that time it was the events of March 13th that we now remember as Phone Maw day that proved the final straw. In August 1988 at Aung San Suu Kyi’s famous speech at the West Gate of the Shwedagon Pagoda he became a member of the Tri-Colour student movement that provided security for her (pictured here standing far right second from Daw Suu in Kachin State April 1989).

Htin Kyaw was arrested in Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound on 20th July 1989 with many of his Tri-Color colleagues including Moe Myat Thu (previously photographed in Mae Sot last year) and Maw Min Lwin @ Maw Gyi (who we photograph here in Tokyo shortly after Htin Kyaw). They were all detained under 10 (A) of the infamous State Protection Law 1975 of which Aung San Suu Kyi has been detained under Section 10 (B) for much of her time under house arrest – “The law to safeguard the state against the danger of those desiring to cause subversive acts”. In total about 40 people were arrested that day in the compound and Htin Kyaw was detained in solitary confinement in Insein prison. He spent almost 1 year in Insein before being released. In 1991 he fled Burma to Thailand where he stayed for 2 years before moving to Japan where he is currently the Vice Chairman of NLD-LA Japan. Maw Gyi remained in Insein for a further 2 years until in March 1992 he was taken to the martial court and sentenced to 8 years imprisonment with hard labour. However, he was released a month later according to the General Amnesty 11/92 in April 1992.

Yesterday was the first time we had really photographed someone outside in a public place and as this trip was all about trying to capture the essence of Tokyo there’s no better place to do that than on the streets amongst everyone. We tried some tests at the Hachiko crossing the day before but it was just too busy so we found some other locations. Despite shooting in the thick of it the final pictures have managed to capture an essence of isolation that I wanted to show.

Having had a great lunch with everyone and got two great portraits of Htin Kyaw and Maw Gyi in the bag we made our way from Ikebekuro to Takadanobaba to meet up with Dr Aye Chan, former political prisoner and currently Professor of Southeast Asian History at Kanda University of International studies here in Tokyo. He became a student at Rangoon University in 1968 and became involved in the pro-democracy movement and was first arrested when handing out leaflets in an underground movement during the college’s 50th anniversary celebration. He managed to graduate and became a teacher and moved to Japan in 1993 being awarded a scholarship – he became friends with Aung San Suu Kyi who was also studying there at that time. He returned to Burma in 1988 and resumed his teaching at Rangoon University. He was sympathetic to the student movement, regularly serving as an advisor to the young men and women pushing to have democracy replace the military government. Many student leaders fled to Thailand, and Aye Chan had planned to join them. But he was arrested May 17,1990 when two student leaders came to his house to seek refuge – they had been followed by Military Intelligence. He was sentenced under section 17a to 15 years imprisonment. He spent 7 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons. You can read full details about Dr Aye Chan’s experience here.

The final event of a very long day was a brief visit to Mon National Day celebrations in Itabashi-Ku. It was also Karen Revolution day as well but unfortunately time was running short and when we got there it was finished. Still, last year I was in Karen State at Brigade 7 headquarters enjoying it so I’m lucky enough to have experienced it then.

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From the Midnight to the Rising Sun

Next week (if all goes well with technology) will see an exclusive LIVE webcast as we move half way around the world from the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’ to the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’. We will be taking the campaign to the Far East and meeting former political prisoners in Tokyo.

Full details will be posted shortly to confirm the LIVE webcast in Full HD  broadcast at USTREAM – click HERE

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