Brothers in Arms: The Moustaches and Ko Mya Aye

Meeting Burma’s dissidents inside the country holds great risks for everyone involved. For many it is too dangerous whilst others are able to do so under different guises or because they have in some way formed an uneasy alliance of sorts with the regime, but whoever and however these risks are taken with the overwhelming desire to inform the outside world about the situation in Burma. Defying and countering the state propaganda with the truth is the risk that dissidents, journalists, opposition groups and often ordinary people take every day in Burma. Staying silent is not an option for many. That’s what the regime want them to do. Whilst some leading opposition voices, including Aung San Suu Kyi, are often able to quietly and ‘unofficially’ meet with foreigners without much cause for retribution from the authorities (thankfully so far anyway), almost every other dissident and even ordinary person in Burma runs the very real risk of interrogation and even prison if caught or even suspected of meeting foreign journalists and the like. A simple journey to the NLD offices can strike fear into the heart of many a taxi-driver in Rangoon. To be able to meet and photograph the people that I have these past weeks defies not just the regime but also logic as well as the insanity of the situation that they find themselves having to try to survive in. But nothing is taken lightly. Due to the nature of taking part in this work deemed an act that may “affect the morality or conduct of the public or a group of people in a way that would undermine the security of the Union or the restoration of law and order,” under Burma’s draconian 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, almost everyone who has taken part cannot yet be shown for obvious security reasons. Their safety above all else is paramount. However, whilst as with U Win Tin last year, there are a number of dissidents who we are able to show publicly…

Par Par Lay, jailed 3 times has spent more than 6 years in prison and labour camps

Having been moving around Rangoon subversively for the past few weeks it’s time to head out of town and up country to Mandalay. I will miss my evening or early morning walk around the beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda. A peaceful haven in so many different ways. Serene and silent it holds as much hope as Burma’s democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi and like the Lady it plays the most important of roles in Burmese peoples lives. As with Rangoon and elsewhere before, I cannot mention names or places but can only say that as always it was a privilege to meet those who I did whilst here in Mandalay. Brave men and women, jailed for many years but still continuing with their unfinished work to change Burma’s roadmap to one that reads more coherently. The only portraits from Mandalay and basically Burma as well, that can be shown now are those of the fantastic Moustache Brothers.

Lu Zaw, cousin to Par Par Lay and Lu Maw, was jailed for 6 years

The Moustache Brothers, ‘Par Par Lay’ and ‘Lu Maw’ joined by cousin ‘Lu Zaw’, are one of Burma’s most famous and most loved comedy acts famed for their now banned ‘A-Nyeint’ vaudeville performances that combine classic Burmese dance, screwball comedy and sharply satirical criticism of the military regime. But their controversial style attracted the attention of the authorities and they became an international symbol of political oppression in Burma when they were arrested in 1996. It was during Independence Day celebrations held in the compound of Aung San Suu Kyi’s Rangoon home and in front of watching government officials and dignitaries that their performance poking fun at the regime would end in their arrest. The defining sketch that would see them jailed ended with Par Par Lay being shot multiple times by a Burmese General and when refusing to die he replies “Why should I die when I am right?”. The play on words was not lost on the watching military officials and Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw were arrested and sentenced to 7 years hard labour. Brother Lu Maw had not travelled to Rangoon and so escaped punishment. Much of their time incarcerated was spent in chains in a hard-labour camp in Kachin state, but thanks to a global campaign lead by Amnesty International and many Hollywood stars demanding their release along with negotiations lead by Aung San Suu Kyi, they were freed on 13th July 2001. Despite being banned from performing ever again and under virtual house arrest as part of their release conditions they continue to perform each night to tourists, still telling the jokes and subversively the truth despite constant threats from the authorities that they would be jailed again. In September 2007, Par Par Lay was in fact jailed again for 35 days for offering food to monks during the Saffron Revolution.

Par Par Lay decided straight away that the only name he wanted on his hand was that of ‘Mya Aye’, one of the leaders of the 88 Generation Students who is currently serving a 65 year  sentence in Taunggyi prison and suffering from extreme poor health. As we talked about Mya Aye and his colleagues, Par Par Lay’s boundless enthusiasm started to drift towards Mya Aye’s daughter ‘Waihnin Pwint Thon’, now a leading global campaigner for Burma in her own right. Their eyes lit up as they spoke of her now famous speech they had heard and watched last year and then even more so when I told them that she was a very close friend of mine. They decided they wanted to send a video message for Ko Mya Aye to accompany their portraits and here it is shown above.

After many laughs, tea and the occasional serious chat we decided on a final group shot in solidarity for their good friend ‘Zarganar’ before parting company once again. Brothers in arms. Still laughing but also still fighting.

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Jumping for Burma’s Political Prisoners

Today, Waihnin Pwint Thon, daughter of jailed 88 Generation Student leader Ko Mya Aye and leading campaigner and activist in her own right, jumped higher and further than most to raise awareness for Burma’s political prisoners. Spurred on by a number of close friends and colleagues, she leapt from a crane 150ft above south-east London with nothing more than a large elasticated rope tied to her legs to raise awareness for Burma’s Political Prisoners. She also raised an awful lot of sponsorship money (you can still sponsor her here) which will not only go towards Burma Campaign UK and their campaign work for Burma’s political prisoners but also at Waihnin’s request a large percentage of money raised is going direct to the former political prisoners who have been forced to flee Burma and now live a stateless and perilous existence on the Thai-Burma border in the refugee camps of Umpiem Mai and Nupo and also in safe houses in Mae Sot and the surrounding border areas. There, their lives are in grave danger and today Waihnin played a small part that she was able to try to help them.

Below is a short video message to those former political prisoners from Waihnin and Khun Saing issued at her request.

As DVB VJs we were hard at work today and here’s one cut of the days events – the other cut will be broadcast on DVB TV channel soon.

On the Thai-Burma border the former political prisoners have no status for they are not recognised as refugees and face the very real threat of imminent return to Burma at any moment. There is no protection by the UNHCR. There is no work, no right to be there, no life. They have left Burma with nothing and often also leaving their families behind. The money raised today by Waihnin will go a very long way in helping them.

You can read a great recent interview with Waihnin here at The Irrawaddy where she explains her reasons for this jump as well as her recent work.

“I think your personal conviction is more important than which organization you are working for. For me, I wish to work in the struggle for human rights. I wish to see the people of Burma and all countries enjoying human rights and freedom. Since I believe that I am working for the good of the Burmese people, I have no special attachment to any particular organization.”

Her father would be proud of her efforts today in once again further highlighting the issue of Burma’s political prisoners. In doing this jump today she has raised a huge amount of money that will go a long way to helping the people of Burma and it’s current and former political prisoners.

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Waihnin Pwint Thon Speaks for Burma and Political Prisoners at the UK Labour Party Conference

The issue of Political Prisoners and Burma has taken centre stage today at the annual British Labour Party conference being held in Manchester, UK. The short film made about this political prisoner work was shown as an introduction to a speech from Waihnin Pwint Thon, daughter of jailed 88 Generation Student leader Ko Mya Aye,

 

Waihnin Pwint Thon demands the release of her father Mya Aye

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The Faces Behind The Names Behind The Scenes…Taking Action

Please join these two leading Burmese activists and take your portrait in solidarity with Burma’s Political Prisoners and submit it to Amnesty’s campaign

With the Amnesty International campaign now in full swing I can finally release these portraits of two of the people involved in this project, both joining in and taking action to stand along side Burma’s political prisoners (not my portrait of course – the most likely time you’ll get to see that will be if I ever get caught). With the public now submitting their own portraits by the hundreds as we speak, I am still continuing my work taking portraits of former political prisoners all over the world – that’s my role and my work, but what I ask of you is that you take your portrait like my two colleagues have done here.

As most of you will know if you’ve been reading any of the blog entries from around the world, there is one person who is fundamental to this project, traveling by my side, assisting in all aspects and without her help and involvement this campaign would not be where it is today.

Jacquelin San taking action for fellow Zoology student Mie Mie and Burma’s Political Prisoners
outside Number 10 Downing Street in London

Jacquelin San, affectionately named the Secretary General by our good friend Ko Than Win Htut at DVB, is pictured here joining in the public campaign and adding her voice to the hundreds who have already taken part in the past few days since the campaign was launched. She fled Burma in 2000 after the student demonstrations in Rangoon in the late 1990s where she was a second year Zoology student at RC1 and sat demonstrating with hundreds of her colleagues in the road at Hledan junction in December 1996. The portrait is taken outside Number 10 Downing Street in London, the home of the British Prime Minister. Taking this campaign message about Burma’s political prisoners to the front door of the man holding power in the UK is an extraordinary achievement. Mr Cameron you are next so please open the door.

Waihnin Pwint Thon takes action in the House of Commons with her
father’s name written on her hand

Another person who has played a hugely significant part in this campaign is Waihnin Pwint Thon, daughter of 88 Generation Student leader Ko Mya Aye who is currently jailed in Taunggyi prison in Shan State where he is suffering from extreme ill health. he is serving a 65 year sentence plus six months for his role in peaceful demonstrations in 2007. Waihnin has not only been involved in helping me with my work in many ways, but she is also a leading campaigner for Burma and political prisoners in the UK where she works for both Amnesty International and Burma Campaign UK. Above all else she is an inspiration to me. She speaks with courage and determination and her father whom she has not seen for over half of her life would be incredibly proud of her. By taking part in this campaign she is making a stand not just for her father but for all of her fathers colleagues and all of the people of Burma.

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