A New Year. A New Start. A New Hope?

A start to the New Year that so many could only have dreamed of. To be there to witness it all unfold was more than I could ever have wished for. Maybe it was written in the stars that I would be lucky enough to be there. Whatever the case, it was a momentous few days that sparked the sort of euphoria and emotion that no words or images can do justice. Arriving in Rangoon a week earlier with long term plans ready to role in documenting a very brave little girl whose parents, both prominent student leaders of the 88 Generation, were serving long sentences in prisons at either end of the country. Everything was thrown up in the air at 6pm on Thursday 12th January when state media announced that “For the sake of state peace and stability, national consolidation and to enable everyone to participate in the political process and on humanitarian grounds, the government will grant amnesty to 651 prisoners so that they can take part in nation building”. It caught everyone by surprise and immediately the story took a complete reversal of fortune. A call soon after the announcement meant an early start before heading to the prisons, but that was to change once again as by midnight word was already buzzing around that this was the big release that everyone was hoping for and the little girl would finally be reunited with both of her parents.

As daylight broke on Friday 13th, I met up with friends in Generation Wave and we made the short journey up to Insein prison full of hope but still tempered with the reality that this has happened too many times before for us to be too expectant. Twelve members of their organisation were still in jail – a sign of how the authorities are fearful of generations of all ages. After the disgraceful so-called general amnesty on January 2nd that merely saw sentences marginally reduced across the board, there was always the chance that the regime’s cruel tricks and tormenting political prisoners, their friends and families would come home to roost once more. Arriving early outside the prison and crowds were already starting to gather, as were military intelligence and their informers. The long wait commenced and rumours circulated of those being released as slowly more and more former political prisoners, dissidents, activists, members of the NLD and other opposition parties arrived to join the masses outside the famous gates of Burma’s most notorious prison. Suddenly the silence was broken and excitement tore through the crowd as it was confirmed that Min Ko Naing, the leader of the 88 Generation Students and Burma’s dissident supreme had been released from Thayet prison. Finally the dream was coming true as one by one, names were shouted out of political prisoners being set free across the country. U Gambira, Ko Ko Gyi, Khun Tun Oo and many more. Could this really be happening? But it was, and as the prisoners started to walk through the gates and back into the arms of their families and friends it was a sight to behold. I franticly called Jackie, now back in the UK and unable to return here just yet, for a tearful phone call as our hard work over these last years was now meaning more than ever before. Forget taking pictures for a second or two. This kind of breaking news press work is not my game anyway and my manual focusing on my Leica was long gone as I was trying hard to keep my emotions under check. This was historic and to be here now amongst so many of Burma’s bravest outside this darkest hell hole that has tried to break their wills was almost too much to believe. Whilst a thousand others would have taken the shots that would have been splashed across papers worldwide for a mere moment or two, I preferred to just take it all in, standing side by side with friends and colleagues as four years of my life was unfolding in front of my eyes.

CLICK HERE to view the entire gallery of images of the Political Prisoner Amnesty

Below is an audio slideshow of my work for Human Rights Watch of the 88 Generation Students being released

With the release from Insein completed I jumped in the car with Ko Sunny and Ko Kyaw San and we headed to the airport as the 88 Generation Students were on their way home. A brief chat on the phone with Sandar Min as she walked away from 65 years in Myaungmya prison and we arrived at Rangoon International where hundreds had amassed at the domestic terminal ready to greet their heroes. Banners were unfolded and once again a waiting game would have to be played out as the notorious effect of ‘Burmese time’ would mean no flight would actually arrive when it was due. The funniest example of this would be the arrival of Ko Htay Kywe who was due in early on Sunday morning yet would not arrive until after 5pm! But it wasn’t long before the first plane touched down and leader of the 88 Generation Students, Ko Ko Gyi, was mobbed as he came into view through immigration. Total chaos ensued as cameras flashed and the place just erupted as everyone pushed and shoved their way to try to get a glimpse of their hero and to welcome him home. I lost a flip flop in the crush and much to everyone’s amusement just carried on walking around with one. An hour later and the other was gone too as the pandemonium just grew and grew each time someone arrived. It was simply an outpouring of emotion and joy that would be hard to match anywhere else in the world. These people are Burma’s true heroes and a hero’s welcome was exactly what they got and deserved.

88 Generation Student leader Ko Ko Gyi is mobbed by hundreds of well wishers and dissidents as he arrives in Rangoon airport

If the sight of Ko Ko Gyi was enough to send the huge crowd in to a state of ecstasy, it would be what was to follow that would not only bring out true joy in everyone but also provide a reminder of the darker side to suffering that a family goes through when the regime tries to take away their life. Nilar Thein, a key figure in the 88 Generation Students, had been released from Tharawaddy prison earlier in the day and arrived at the airport to await the arrival of her husband Ko Jimmy. When Jimmy and the other 88 Generation Students were all arrested in 2007, Nilar Thein went into hiding for almost a year. The regime tormented her with rumours that Jimmy had died under interrogation in an attempt to force her out into the open. She not only resisted and kept up the struggle for democracy from her secret hiding place in an attic, but she was also forced to give up her young daughter, Phyu Nay Chi, barely 4 months old. She was finally caught and jailed, but now here in Rangoon airport with her young daughter at her side, she stood waiting for the reunion that would quite literally bring the house down. As her family and friends mobbed her, for a brief moment it was all too much and she broke down in tears. One cannot begin to imagine the suffering and pain that she and many other women like her have gone through, as both mother and wife, torn from their young children and jailed for years. It seemed that everyone here was sharing her pain and joy – I know I certainly was and there were many others in tears as well as Ma Nilar.

Nilar Thein, who was released from Tharawaddy prison, breaks down with emotion as she is greeted by her colleague Soe Tun

As attention turned back to the latest plane touching down, Ko Mya Aye walked into what was now a deafening arena of well-wishers. When Jimmy arrived a short time later it was as though the roof had caved in. The crowds surged and Jimmy, Nilar and little Phyu Nay Chi were almost hoisted aloft and carried off to downtown Rangoon. It was simply the most overwhelming, emotional experience I have ever witnessed. I can’t really begin to properly describe what it was like throughout this whole day both at Insein prison and at the airport as one by one they were freed and arrived back home, but hopefully the photo story on my website can show what it was like to share in one of Burma’s most historic days for years. It is a day that I will never forget and a privilege to have been there to witness it.

Crowds overwhelmed with joy mob Nilar Thein, Ko Jimmy and Phyu Nay Kyi as they try to leave the airport