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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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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Thailand Day 20: Bangkok Dangerous… and no Batteries!

Back in Bangkok and an early start making my way from Mo Chit to the airport to drop off my bags whilst I spend the last day running the rule over the red shirts. The day I arrived some 6 weeks ago was the first day of their demonstrations against the Thai Government and now as I am about to leave it seems we are merely moments away from civil war. Make no mistake when it comes (and it will come) it will be bloodier than what we have seen already. The red shirt encampment is now more tense than before – not surprising seeing people have died on both sides – but the walls of tyres and bamboo spears prove a menacing sight especially in this area more famous for farangs, fake DVDs and sex shows. There is a heavy military and police presence and there is a very different atmosphere now – eery and often tense at times.

Click HERE to view more photos from the red shirt demonstrations

All of the shopping centres are closed… still… it’s been over a month now and they must have lost millions. No last minute presents for everyone back home then! But there’s only so many times you can wander around MBK (which is the only place open) – I don’t think even a nuclear bomb would close it down. It epitomises the commercial side to Thailand. I head over to Ari to Wawee coffee where I know I can get internet access, good coffee and a break from the rain showers before meeting up with Thar Nyunt Oo – my final portrait to take before heading to the UK for a few months. Killing time once again, the only other thing I have to do today is an interview with Amnesty International UK for their magazine. They want to put U Win Tin on the cover and do a feature article about when I met him as a lead in to launching their involvement with me and political prisoner issues. Another front cover and now I feel the hard work is paying off for us all – this is a big one on Amnesty’s magazine as almost half a million people will see this magazine.

I meet up with Thar Nyunt Oo slightly later than planned, but not surprising considering the current situation here. He works for Voice of America (VOA) Burmese section and actually lives in Washington DC but is here in Bangkok for 3 months so its a lucky meeting for me. The light is fading fast and my time is also running short as unfortunately I have a plane to catch this evening so we head to the nearest place to sit down and have a chat before taking a portrait. He has just been informed by his office that its too dangerous to work anymore as the situation is so volatile – days after handing out helmets and bulletproof vests to everyone. He was arrested in 1990 as a leader of the ABFSU and was sentenced to 5 years in prison – spending it in Insein, Pyay, Thayet and Monywa before being released in 1995. In Thayet prison he shared a cell with Tate Naing (Secretary of the AAPP). Upon his release he resumed his political activities but was forced to flee in December 1996 when the authorities tried to arrest him for his involvement in the student demonstrations. We headed back out on to the overhead walkway that runs over sections of Sukhumvit and prepared for the portrait… soldiers in the background this was looking good… until I pressed the shutter and nothing happened. Battery dead and the spare one too – both totally drained due to the heat and a forgetful memory as I had been shooting all day yesterday too back in Mae Sot. There was nothing else to do but go for a beer and charge a battery enough to get the shot. Luckily I not only had my charger but also we found a Japanese restaurant right next to us that had a socket under our table… it was as though it was a sign that it was meant to happen! We carried on chatting over a few beers and it was great to hear more about his experiences but with the clock ticking away and the light almost gone we had to take the shot  and I had to catch that plane! Luckily we just about managed and I jumped on the Skytrain to ‘On Nut’ before catching a taxi the final tense miles to the airport and just made it in time before the desk closed. What is it with just making connections in time? It’s happening everywhere we go and can only be a sign that we are meant to keep moving forward on this incredible journey. And that’s exactly what we will do… after a few months rest mixed with lots of editing both photographs and video before planning the next stages. Where next? who knows… but for now it’s thank you Thailand. You have delivered.

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Thailand Day 4: Mae Sot & The Party Goes On

Three days of partying are starting to take their toll – thank God today is the last day of Thingyan! Yesterday afternoon a bomb went off in Rangoon and it wasn’t really until later into the evening that we had a clearer picture of casualties. Jackie had called me in the afternoon as her sister had been down there – thankfully she was fine, but many others weren’t – it seems 5 or so people have died. The bizarre thing is if I had stayed on in Rangoon I would have been in the exact area where the bomb went off… plus it was the exact location where I had bumped in to a General and his entourage on Monday afternoon. coincidence?… definitely food for thought in my book. Also last night I got the final confirmation from Andy Buncombe at The Independent that the big article about my work would run in the magazine next saturday on 24th April – plus U Win Tin on the cover (read more here). So there was a reason to really let the hair down last night and it went on late as usual… Aiya, Reggae bar, Khungs… all the usual places and all the usual fun with my little sister Nyi Ma Ei Ei and all her crew. So the final day of partying away at Aiya with everyone. I wish Jackie was here to enjoy it but we will have to make sure its on our schedule to be here next year if we can’t all be back in Burma to experience it for real. A quiet end to the evening with dinner in the night market with Thar Gyi and Aung Khaing Min. It’s been a well earned week of relaxation (with a splattering of work at times during the day… can’t keep the camera down for too long!) but it’s back to work on Sunday as we’re heading back to Umpiem Mai camp once more.

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Thailand Day 2: Happy New Year

Yesterday in Bangkok was very surreal – for a city that is vibrantly hectic 24 hours a day it was serene and silent as Thai New Year festivals got underway. Songkran’ in Thailand or ‘Thingyan’ in Burma is like no ordinary new year celebration where people just get drunk and party for one night. This is four days of hedonism and celebration all round and this is my first taste of it. But Bangkok was experiencing an altogether different sort of shutdown as the red shirt demonstrations seemed to have turned a different corner in the few days that I was out of the country. With tyre barricades now erected behind lines of bamboo poles I was glad to be heading out of Bangkok and back to Mae Sot where I could party with friends. Getting a bus was of course another trial altogether but so typical of Thailand… when i got to the counter at Mo Chit terminal there were no VIP bus seats left. No problem I’ll travel first or second… “one seat left in first” I was told. Ok… i’ll take it but how much? “No room now” I was told… “you go second class”… No point in arguing, even though the screen showed an empty first class bus – I just want to get out of this city as soon as possible. Thankfully I got the ‘last’ in second class (of course at the back right above the engine!!

Anyway those were the trials and tribulations of dealing with  Bangkok yesterday and now back here in Mae Sot it’s time to put my feet up for a few days and enjoy Thingyan with everyone else. Apart from a few hours work in the morning just catching up with some writing, emails and some images to be sent to certain people, the laptop and cameras stayed firmly in their bags – just as well as you cant walk more than 10 yards without having a bucket of water thrown over you! Headed down to Aiya in the mid afternoon to see who’s there and met up with Ei Ei and spend the rest of the day and evening partying away with Generation Wave and what felt like about a hundred other people packed into the bar – water everywhere – music pumping and beer almost cold. Happy New Year to one and all.

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Bangkok: Emergency on Planet Earth

When we first arrived in Bangkok on March 20th the red shirt demonstrations had just started the day before and Bangkok was a carnival atmosphere with thousands in cars and bikes on a friendly procession the rough the main streets. Now some 3 weeks later we’re back in Bangkok (after a short break on a beach!) and Sukhumvit is awash in a sea of red – the shopping centres are all closed and the Ratchaprasong intersection now resembles Glastonbury rather than the centre of a one of the biggest and busiest shopping districts in SE Asia.

The main section of Sukhumvit is now closed, there are are thousands of people here, food stalls, music, stalls selling everything you can think of in red, a massive stage and it’s right here in the middle of the tourist and shopping heartland of Bangkok – only MBK is still open – it’s incredible how this has been allowed to happen and I already fear how it may turn out in the coming weeks – there are some very pressing issues at the core of Thai politics and society that need to be addressed and maybe now they are starting to come to a point of no return. Only time will tell. This morning Jackie flew back to England as she is unable to join me on the next part of the trip into Burma – we started this trip with the release of Nyi Nyi Aung and I don’t really want to end it with the arrest of Miss J San. The day is spent running through final checks, and final meetings before flying into Rangoon tomorrow where I am hoping my ‘Visa on Arrival’ will be waiting for me with no problems. Arriving back at the hotel later in the evening I am handed a letter from the hotel management (see below) informing me that there has been a ‘State of Emergency’ declared by the Prime Minister and public gatherings of 5 or more are outlawed!!! Welcome to Burma one day early!!

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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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RFA interview & article on FCCT win

Further to the win at the FCCT Awards 2009 Radio Free Asia did a short interview and subsequent article online – in Burmese only.

To read the article click here

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