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.