March 18, 2018
A+ A A-

Abhaya – Burma’s Fearlessness by James Mackay

  • Category: Life
Photographer James Mackay has put names and faces on Burma's former and current political prisoners.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace prize winner and leader of the opposition National League for Democracy, spent more than 15 years under house arrest in her lakeside home and Insein prison. First detained in July 1989 for six years and again in May 2003 after the infamous Depayin incident in which a mob lead by the military tried to assassinate her. She was released from her latest sentence in November 2010 and continues to work tirelessly to achieve democracy and national reconciliation.  Soe Min Min, a member of the NLD who was arrested in 2008 for praying for Aung San Suu Kyi's release while she was under house arrest, is serving an eight-year sentence in Insein Prison.
Khun Myint Tun, a National League for Democracy (NLD) member of Parliament, was arrested in May 1996. He was charged with disturbing state peace and stability and sentenced to seven years. Along with fellow MP Kyaw Khin he was later sentenced to a further three years for giving videotapes of Aung San Suu Kyi speeches to an Australian journalist. He was released in 2003 and fled Burma in 2007. He continues his political work in exile as Joint Secretary of The Members of Parliament Union (MPU) and as a Central Committee Member of the NLD-Liberated Area.  Kyaw Khin is an NLD MP and colleague of Khun Myint Tun. He is currently serving a 14-year sentence in Taunglaylone Prison. He was arrested after political pamphlets were reportedly found near him in a classroom. Kyaw Khin was released earlier this year.
Phyu Phyu Thin, a member of the NLD and a leading human rights activist, was arrested in 1999 for her role in organizing a visit by Aung San Suu Kyi's to Mandalay. She was detained in Insein Prison for four months. In 2007, she was arrested again for organizing a prayer vigil at Shwedagon Pagoda for the release of  Suu Kyi. In August 2007, she joined in peaceful protests led by the 88-Generation Students but was forced into hiding when her colleagues were arrested. She now runs a centre providing medicine and counciling for HIV patients in Rangoon. Honney Oo, a final-year law student, was arrested in October 2007 for her involvement in the Saffron Revolution. She was charged with reforming the ABFSU, for having spoken with foreign media on the telephone and for participating in protests. She was sentenced to nine years and is currently in Lashio Prison.
During the past 20 years the existence of political prisoners in Burma came to be accepted as normal by the international community.

Reviewed by Mark Farmaner

During the past 20 years the existence of political prisoners in Burma came to be accepted as normal by the international community. World leaders went through the motions of calling for their release without taking any serious action to persuade the ruling generals in Burma to free them.

With the exception of a handful of prisoners – most famously Aung San Suu Kyi – most were nameless and faceless, just another statistic, a number.

In Abhaya – Burma’s Fearlessness, photographer James Mackay has put names and faces to the statistics. He asked former political prisoners to hold up their palm with the name of a political prisoner still in jail.  There is a short profile of each former political prisoner, and of the political prisoner still in jail.  Seeing them pictured, across 224 pages, page after page, brings home the sheer scale of the number of those who have been imprisoned, and that they are ordinary people, who have paid an extraordinary price for wanting freedom for their country.

Famous political prisoners are featured, including Aung San Suu Kyi and U Win Tin, but the pictures and profiles of lesser known political prisoners reveal the many forms of degradation and abuse they have suffered. They have been jailed, tortured, beaten, deprived of food and medicine, and cut off from the world, many even totally isolated in solitary confinement. Burma’s dictatorship has tried to break them physically and psychologically. Yet here they stand defiant and determined, not forgetting those left behind in jail.

James Mackay travelled the world to take these pictures, including undercover trips to Burma. Again this brings home what is taking place in Burma. Such is the scale of arrests and abuses that former political prisoners from Burma are on every continent, from humid refugee camps in Thailand, to icy winters in North America.

There are 244 portraits in this book, a small percentage of those still in jail, and an even smaller percentage of the thousands who have been jailed in recent decades.

James Mackay hasn’t produced this book as a project of historical documentation. He wants this book to raise awareness, and encourage practical action to help. He writes: “…trying to understand how Burma’s oppressive regime can rule through fear and hatred, while the world sits back and watches.”

In the forward to the book, Aung San Suu Kyi says: “I hope that all who read this book will be encouraged to do everything they can to gain the freedom of political prisoners in Burma and to create a world where there are no political prisoners.”

World leaders who fall over themselves in their haste to express admiration for Aung San Suu Kyi should reflect on these words, should look into the faces of those pictured in this book, and remember that despite hope and excitement about change coming to Burma, most political prisoners remain in jail. World leaders haven’t done everything they can to help gain their freedom. This book is a timely reality check that action is still needed to free all political prisoners in Burma.

Portraits of former and current political Prisoners

Mark Farmaner is director of Burma Campaign UK

Abhaya – Burma’s Fearlessness by James Mackay is published by River Books.

Mizzima Activities