Fearless for freedom

Art November 28, 2011 00:00

By Surendra Singh
Special to The

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Former political prisoners risk the wrath of the Burmese authorities to raise awareness of the plight of those still in jail



Even though Burma’s rulers have released 300 political prisoners so far and promised a series of democratic reforms, no one really known how many political detainees remain in the country’s jail. Bangkok-based photographer James Mackay reckons the number exceeds 2,000.

Mackay reveals this and other facts about Burma’s decades of repression under the military government in his latest photo exhibition, “Abhaya: Burmese Fearlessness”, which is on show at the Serindia Gallery at OP Garden on Charoenkrung Soi 36.

Through Mackay’s images of former inmates who have been released from prisons in recent years, it’s clear that democracy is slowly coming to the isolated country. The world is hoping that the government will release more prisoners given the recent string of positive signs and reformist moves: Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) is poised to contest an upcoming election, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is to visit Burma this week, and most importantly, the military-dominated parliament has just passed a bill allowing citizens to protest peacefully.

But the message conveyed in Mackay’s exhibition is clear: torture of political prisoners is continuing in Burmese prisons. They include monks, students, journalists, lawyers, elected MPs and more than 300 members of the NLD and they are spread over 42 prisons and 109 labour camps where conditions are “atrocious” and healthcare “non-existent”. Reports indicate that 146 political prisoners have died in jail from beatings, torture and lack of medical attention.

Part of an international appeal for their liberation, the exhibition displays images of former inmates who are photographed standing with their right hand raised, palm out-turned facing the camera, the name of a current political written on their hand. In Buddhism, this hand gesture is called “abhaya”, literally “fear not”, representing an act of silent protest, but also one of remembrance and fearlessness.

Ranging in age and profession, Mackay’s subjects are braving a possible backlash by agreeing to be part of this exhibition. Most are former student activists, protest leaders and members of the NLD apart from Aung San Suu Kyi, but there are VIPs too such as writers, journalists and musicians.    

Among the former inmates is U Tin Oo, vice-chairman of the NLD and former general and commander in chief of the Armed Forces. He’s spent more than 17 years in prison and under house arrest due to his political activities in Burma. He was first arrested in 1976 and charged with high treason. He has been arrested three times and was released from his latest sentence in February last year and continues in his role for the NLD working to achieve democracy and national reconciliation.

Tin Oo’s colleague, U Win Tin, a former journalist, writer and founding member of the NLD, was arrested in 1989 because of his political activities and close association to Aung San Suu Kyi. He was jailed for 19 years in Insein prison, mostly in solitary confinement. His sentence was increased whilst in prison when he secretly published anti-government propaganda. He was released in 2008 and despite his age, continues to work endlessly for the release of political prisoners – wearing a blue shirt every day (like the prison uniform) to remind people of those still incarcerated.

Popular comedian Par Par Lay of the Moustache Brothers was first jailed in 1990 for making jokes about the regime. In January 1996, along with his cousin Lu Zaw, he was arrested at an Independence Day celebration at Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound and was sentenced to seven years for making fun of the ruling generals. He spent more than five years in a labour camp in Kachin State. During the ‘Saffron Revolution’ in 2007 he was again detained, but for only one month. Despite the threat of imprisonment, the Moustache Brothers continue to perform each night at their home in Mandalay.

Then there’s Zayar Thaw, a hip-hop musician and a founding member of outlawed student organisation Generation Wave. He was arrested with five colleagues in March 2008 and charged with forming an illegal organisation and possession of foreign currency. He was sentenced to six years in prison later reduced to four years. He now works closely with the NLD as a personal bodyguard for Aung San Suu Kyi.

If Mackay’s estimation is true, the former inmates on display in the exhibition are just a fraction of the numbers of political prisoners still in jail. It’s clear that without the release of all the political prisoners, Burma cannot have true reconciliation and democracy.

“It is important that they and what they stand for should not be forgotten, that their sufferings as well as their aspirations should be remembered,” says Suu Kyi.

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The exhibition also sees the launch of the book “Abhaya: Burma’s Fearlessness” published by River Books, with a foreword by Aung San Suu Kyi. Find out more at (02) 238 6410 or e-mail serindiagallery@gmail.com.