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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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 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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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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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 11: Umpiem Mai Refugee Camp

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

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

 

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