‘Even Though I Am Free I Am Not’ – photographic activism for Burmese political prisoners

U Win Tin, Burma’s most prominent former political prisoner. The veteran journalist and founding member of the NLD spent more than 19 years in Insein prison. COPYRIGHT (C) James Mackay ENIGMA IMAGES/www.enigmaimages.net

Today is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi‘s birthday, her fifteenth under house arrest in the past twenty years. Preparations for elections in Myanmar (Burma) later in the year have already drawn widespread criticism regarding highly restrictive elections laws, particularly those that bar the jailed political opposition (including Suu Kyi) from participating. Past experience has lead many to fear that as the elections approach restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly will be tightened.

James Mackay’s documentary photography project – ‘Even Though I’m Free I Am Not’ – started in 2009, is very timely. The project took second place in the political photojournalism category at the prestigious Prix de la Photographie Paris 2010 awards last month and focusses on Burma’s political prisoners – both those now free and those still imprisoned. James (not his real name – he prefers to remain anonymous) has travelled to South East Asia, Australia, Japan, Europe, USA, Canada as well as into Burma itself to capture images for the project. Using a simple hand gesture duplicated by over 160 former political prisoners the project has a powerful presence.

I caught up with James via email to put a few questions to him about the project. My thanks to James for providing such detailed and passionate answers to my questions, truly an activist photographer.

[All images are taken from “Even Though I’m Free I Am Not” and used by kind permission of Enigma Images. Image Copyright (C) ENIGMA IMAGES/enigmaimages.net].

U Kyaw Myint was jailed for 3 years in Insein prison. Image Copyright (C) ENIGMA IMAGES/enigmaimages.net

REP – How did ‘Even Though I’m Free I Am Not’ come about?

JM – I’ve had a focus on Burma for some time and the idea for a project on political prisoners came when I was working undercover in Burma a few months after the ‘Saffron Revolution’. I was documenting places in Rangoon where people had been shot and killed, monasteries that had been raided and closed down, and sites where hundreds of innocent people had been beaten and arrested. These were just ordinary places but with an extraordinary hidden meaning. It was at these places that so many people had become political prisoners so it was a natural progression to create a piece about the political prisoners themselves.

Throughout 2008 I worked on the idea, trying to find a way to visually represent political prisoner without being too direct and obvious. I like to work with hidden meanings and so didn’t want to show ‘prisoners’ or ‘jail’. I certainly didn’t want a link to ‘crime’, after all these people are not criminals. But most of all I wanted to create something that would raise awareness about the issue and be emotionally powerful enough to express the horrendous situation political prisoners face in Burma. There is a very strong bond that unites all the political prisoners – both former and current – it’s as though none of them will really be free until all of their colleagues behind bars are too. So, I decided the best way was to photograph former political prisoners and come up with a way to visually link them to their colleagues still in jail.

The final piece in the jigsaw was the Abhaya Mudra. Buddhism is an important part of Burmese life and culture so to incorporate it into the project was a natural fit. The raised palm is the link between the former political prisoners and their colleagues still imprisoned. It is the Buddhist mudhra (hand gesture) called the Abbhya Mudhra which represents ‘fearlessness’. The name written on the palm is the name of a colleague suffering in jail in Burma. This simple symbolic gesture of the palm being shown becomes an act of silent protest, remembrance and fearlessness. It is integral to the whole project as it shows that even though they’re free they are not.

In January 2009 I discussed the idea with colleagues, former political prisoners themselves working on the Thai-Burma border with an organization called the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). From the start I believed the idea could work on many levels however I was adamant that I would only carry out the project if the very people whose lives I wanted to document agreed that it was a good idea. I never once saw this project as my work or about me as a photographer – it’s their story that needs to be told and I had just come up with a way to do it. Luckily everyone loved the idea so we took some portraits and now eighteen months later I’ve photographed and interviewed more than 160 former political prisoners all over the world.

Ma Khin Cho Myint was jailed for 6 years in Insein and Moulmein prisons. Image Copyright (C) ENIGMA IMAGES/enigmaimages.net

REP – What is the aim of the project? What do you think these photos can achieve?

JM – The aim of the project is to raise awareness about political prisoners in Burma and the situation there. Burma is a closed country – very little comes out and even less gets in. The military regime has ruled the country in a brutal, authoritarian manner since seizing power in 1962. The authorities strictly monitor all contact with the outside world. Journalists are systematically jailed so the world knows very little about what’s going on inside the country. It’s extremely dangerous for foreign journalists to go to Burma, not necessarily for themselves but for the people they come into contact with. It’s really important that people understand that. There are currently 2,186 political prisoners in Burma and later this year the regime will be holding the first elections for more than 20 years. The last election in 1990 was won overwhelmingly by the National League for Democracy, the opposition party lead by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet the regime refused to hand over power, instead jailing hundreds including newly elected MPs. The elections due this year are simply a charade to entrench military rule and they cannot be considered credible when there are so many political prisoners in jail. Whilst I want to keep the issue of political prisoners in the spotlight I also want to highlight the suffering faced by former political prisoners who remain inside Burma and those who have been forced to flee into exile, often living as stateless people. This is why photographing the former political prisoner wherever they are in the world helps tell the story. Unspeakable torture, directly contravening international law routinely takes place in Burma’s jails but it doesn’t end there. Once freed from prison the jail sentence never goes away as the authorities persistently harass former political prisoners, refusing them homes or work, constantly monitoring their every move. Some have managed to be resettled to third countries but often alone, their families left behind in refugee camps or worse still back in Burma where they now face constant persecution. The project is an attempt to put pressure on the international community to demand the release of all political prisoners and to help tell the stories of those forced to leave Burma. The project will go on until all political prisoners in the country are released.

Phone Myint Tun was jailed for 4 years in Insein prison. Image Copyright (C) ENIGMA IMAGES/enigmaimages.net

REP – Have you been working with any activists or organizations? Is there a structured campaign?

JM – Although I came up with the concept for the project it’s only really been through working in collaboration with the former political prisoners themselves that it’s become what it is today. There are two organizations who I’ve been working very closely with over the past 2 years and without their help it simply wouldn’t have been possible. They are the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) and the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). Both these organizations have been indispensable. It has now become a collaboration between all of the former political prisoners around the world which is the best way because after all it’s about them and their colleagues still in jail.

In the past few months I have been in discussions and working closely with Amnesty International UK. They are now incorporating this project into their campaign on Burma this year in the run up to the elections and beyond. We are going to be asking people around the world to stand in solidarity with the former political prisoners and demand the release of all political prisoners still in jail. It has the potential to be a very big campaign indeed, so watch this space!

Bo Kyi was jailed for 7 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons. Image Copyright (C) ENIGMA IMAGES/enigmaimages.net

REP – There must have been some serious security issues in shooting the project. How did you handle these?

JM – Regarding security, it is vital you understand the situation inside Burma as this is where the real danger lies. Any person that you meet with is potentially at risk. Even if you are just a tourist, a casual glance, making eye contact with someone in a tea shop can lead to them being questioned. I’ve seen this happen. The authorities are paranoid and have a total distrust of foreigners. The country is ruled by fear and contact with foreigners can bring extreme retribution. So you have to constantly be aware that anyone you meet, even innocently, could be implicated in anything you do, and if you are doing something like this project then obviously the dangers increase tenfold. We’re carrying out political acts in immediate defiance of the regime – if we were caught the people I’m photographing would get 10-20 years, maybe more. No doubt about it. But the extraordinary thing is the risks they are willing to take in order to get the message out to the world, in order to stand in solidarity for their colleagues in jail. If someone is willing to take that risk then we have a duty to help them get that message out. Obviously, I can’t go into details but I work with some of the best people on the ground both inside and outside the country. Everything is meticulously planned.

I have been privileged to meet more than 160 former political prisoners around the world, including inside Burma. Knowing them is the greatest honor and provides me with inspiration for everything I do. Every story is both compelling and heartbreaking at the same time, yet whether meeting senior NLD members inside Burma or exiled activists living in a mountain village in Norway, their courage and their determination knows no bounds. Every single one has suffered unimaginable experiences in jail – torture being common. Political prisoners are routinely kept in solitary confinement and often hundreds of miles from their family home so visits are all but impossible. Healthcare is non-existent for political prisoners and at least 143 have died in jail. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stopped inspecting prisons in December 2005 due to the military regimes interference in their work. To read more in depth stories and experiences of life behind bars for political prisoners you can go to the AAPP website where there are a huge number of first hand testimonies.

REP – What of the future? With the elections in Burma approaching any initiatives in the pipe-line?

JM – This is the most critical year in Burma’s recent history. The elections are nothing more than a sham to perpetuate military rule disguised as a civilian government. Political Prisoners have been barred from any role in shaping the future of the country and the National League for Democracy have been outlawed and forced to disband. The International community has a vital role to play, with ASEAN in particular and the United Nations, in not letting the Burmese regime get away with what they are doing. Dialogue is an essential tool to try to make headway with the ruling regime but how can you have serious dialogue when most of the people you need to be talking with are in prison? The elections will bring nothing new to Burma and its impoverished population.

I have some other projects in the pipeline… but I can’t tell you about them here… you never know who might be listening in! Thanks very much for this opportunity to talk and raise awareness about Burma’s Political Prisoners.

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