aung san suu kyi bearing the name of fellow detainee soe min min image © james mackay
as burmese president, thein sein, is said to release more than 6,000 burmese prisoners and detainees, the work of south east asia and UK-based award-winning photographer james mackay becomes stirringly relevant. the artist has captured the portraits of up to 300 burmese political dissidents – each one holding their hand up in the classic buddhist gesture of ‘abhaya mudra’ to bear the name of fellow detainees jailed in recent decades. mackay travelled the world for three years to document these pictures, including undercover trips to burma in order to raise awareness and precipitate formative action to help.
chronicled in a book titled ‘abhaya – burma’s fearlessness’ is an assemblage of famed and lesser known dissidents – among those photographed nobel laureate and celebrated burmese democracy advocate aung san suu kyi who spent almost two decades imprisoned and kept under house arrest by burma’s military junta. in the book she displays the name of soe min min – a member of the NLD who was arrested in 2008 and sentenced to 8 years for praying for aung san suu kyi’s release during her time under house arrest. he was released from insein prison under a presidential amnesty in january 2012.
each image is accompanied by a short biographical text describing a profile of both the prisoner pictured and also those inscribed on the open palm – sharing insight on a small percentage of those who have been punished for wanting freedom for their country. the work brings to light the extent and weight of burma’s oppressive regime – a visual portrayal of the human spirit in pursuit of freedom and democracy in one of the world’s most isolated countries.
mackay describes the message behind his work:
‘…trying to understand how burma’s oppressive regime can rule through fear and hatred, while the world sits back and watches.’
pictured: ‘u win tin’ – 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, he wears a blue shirt every day (like the prison uniform) to remind people of those still incarcerated. bearing the name of: ‘aung san suu kyi’ – burma’s democracy icon and leader of the NLD, has spent more than 15 years under house arrest in her lakeside home and insein prison. she was released from her latest sentence in november 2010 and continues to work tirelessly to achieve democracy and national reconciliation in burma in spite of constant threats and oppression from the authorities. image © james mackay
pictured: ‘u sandawabartha’ – a member of the young monks union during the 1988 uprising was arrested in 1993 when he was involved in a statement being issued demanding the release of aung san suu kyi and all political prisoners. he was charged with high treason and sentenced to 29 years. he was jailed for more than 16 years before his release in 2009. he fled burma soon after his release and now lives on the thai-burma border. bearing the name of: ‘u thumana’ – a buddhist monk, was arrested after the 1988 democracy uprising and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment. he is still detained in insein prison. image © james mackay
pictured: ‘thandar oo’ – was arrested and jailed for her involvement in the student demonstrations in rangoon in december 1996. sentenced to 7 years she spent over 6 years incarcerated in the notorious insein prison. she continued her activism after her release and was forced to flee burma with her husband in 2007 when threatened with re-arrest. she currently lives in exile with her husband who is also a former political prisoner, on the thai-burma border. bearing the name of: ‘nilar thein’ – participated in the mass uprisings on 1988 when she was just a high school student and was first jailed in 1991. she was jailed again in 1996 for leading student demonstrations and served 9 years. together with her husband kyaw min yu, she is a leader of the 88 generation students and in august 2007 lead peaceful demonstrations against the military regime. she went into hiding and evaded arrest for more than 1 year before finally being caught in september 2008. she was sentenced to 65 years and is currently detained in thayet prison. image © james mackay pictured: ‘par par lay’ – one of burma’s most famous comedians known as 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 7 years for making fun of the ruling generals. he spent more than 5 years in a labour camp in kachin state. during the saffron revolution in 2007 he was again detained, but for only one month. despite now being banned, along with his brother lu maw and cousin lu zaw, the ‘moustache brothers’ still perform every night to tourists. bearing the name of: ‘mya aye’ – a leader of the 88 generation students was first arrested in 1989 and spent 7 years imprisoned for his role in the mass uprising of 1988. in August 2007 he was arrested along with his colleagues for peaceful protests that lead to the saffron revolution. he was sentenced to 65 years and six months and is currently detained in taunggyi prison. image © james mackay
pictured: ‘u tin oo’ – vice-chairman of the NLD and former general and commander in chief of the armed forces, has 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 3 times and was released from his latest sentence in february 2010. he continues in his role for the NLD working to achieve democracy and national re-conciliation in burma. bearing the name of: ‘aung zaw oo’ – a human rights and labour activist, was arrested in january 2008 for distributing copies of the universal declaration of human rights. he was sentenced to 12 years in prison but was released in october 2011 under the general amnesty. image © james mackay
pictured: ‘tun lin kyaw’ – a former member of NLD youth and tri-colour student group, lived with aung san suu kyi from an early age after his parents died. in 2004 he performed a solo protest outside city hall in rangoon, demanding the release of aung san suu kyi and all political prisoners. he was arrested and spent 3 years in insein prison. during interrogation he was badly tortured and had to have half of his lung removed. he was released from prison to receive emergency medical care but was re-arrested once he left hospital to serve the rest of his sentence. he fled burma and is now a refugee in umpiem mai camp on the thai-burma border. bearing the name of: ‘aung aung oo’ – a student friend of tun lin kyaw was arrested in march 2006 and was sentenced to 14 years in prison for his underground political activities. he was released under a presidential amnesty in january 2012. image © james mackay
pictured: ‘yin min oo’ – a member of the NLD, was arrested in 1993 and accused of contacting illegal organizations. he was later falsely charged with high treason for a bombing incident in which he had no part and was sentenced to life imprisonment. he spent more than 11 years in prison before being released in 2004. he fled burma in september 2005 and has now resettled in norway. bearing the name of: ‘u soe hlaing’ – member of NLD and former cellmate of yin min oo, was arrested in 1996 for his political activities and is currently detained in tharawaddy prison. image © james mackay
pictured: ‘phyu phyu thin’ – a member of the NLD and leading human rights activist, was arrested in 1999 for her role in organizing aung san suu kyi’s visit to mandalay. she was detained in insein prison for 4 months. in 2007 she was arrested again for organizing a prayer vigil at shwedagon pagoda for the release of aung san suu kyi. in august 2007, she joined in peaceful protests lead by the 88 generation students but was forced into hiding when her colleagues were arrested. she now runs a centre providing medicine and counseling for HIV patients in rangoon. bearing the name of: ‘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 9 years and is currently in lashio prison. image © james mackay
pictured: ‘aung gyi’ – was first jailed for 4 years in 1989 for his role in student demonstrations during the mass democracy uprisings. he later became a journalist and helped set up a network of undercover reporters and video-journalists (VJs) working for the ‘democratic voice of burma’ an exiled media organisation. in 2007 working undercover as a VJ during the saffron revolution he was arrested and jailed for two years. he fled burma in 2010 and now lives in london, UK. bearing the name of: ‘kyi thar tun’ – a cellmate of aung gyi and leading member of the ABFSU, was arrested in 1998 and sentenced to 24 years in prison for leading student demonstrations. he was eventually released from shwebo prison in october 2011 under the general amnesty. image © james mackay
pictured: ‘myo myint’ – former engineer in the burmese army and member of the national league for democracy (NLD), was arrested in 1989 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for his involvement in the mass uprising of 1988. he spent 15 years in insein, tharawaddy and taungoo prisons before his release in 2004. he fled to the thai-burma border before being resettled to USA. his life story has been portrayed in the documentary film ‘burma soldier’. bearing the name of: ‘nay min’- a colleague of myo myint and reporter who was first jailed in 1989, was arrested again in 2004 and sentenced to 15 years in tharawaddy prison. he was released under amnesty in october 2011. image © james mackay
pictured: ‘htin kyaw’ – is a former member of the tri-colour student group that provided security for aung san suu kyi. in 1989 he was arrested in her house along with 40 members of the NLD. he was jailed for 1 year in the notorious insein prison before fleeing burma in 1991. he now lives in japan where he is vice-chairman of the NLD (liberated areas) japan. bearing the name of: ‘sein hlaing’ – is a member of the 88 generation students and tri-colour student group. he was first arrested in 1989 and sentenced to 14 years in prison. he was arrested again in march 2009 and sentenced to 3 years in prison. he was released in may 2011 under amnesty when his sentence was reduced by one year. image © james mackay
pictured: ‘ludu u sein win’ – one of burma’s most famous, respected journalists and most outspoken critic of the ruling regime was arrested in 1967 and sentenced without trial to 13 years in prison for his political writings. he was jailed in insein prison and coco island. he was released in 1976 but was re-arrested almost immediately and jailed for a further 4 years. he suffered a stroke in prison and despite being paralysed in his right side and in need of oxygen to aid his breathing he continued to defy the regime in writing 2 articles every day under a guise of different pseudonyms. in June 2012 he sadly passed away due to illness. bearing the name of: ‘zarganar’ – is burma’s most famous comedian, actor and film director. previously imprisoned several times for his political activities, he was arrested in june 2008 and sentenced to 35 years for delivering aid to survivors of cyclone nargis and talking to foreign journalists about the government’s lack of action. he was released from myitkyina prison under amnesty in october 2011. image © james mackay
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