Shedding Light on Political Prisoners

As the fate of Burma's political prisoners hangs in the balance, a film documenting their stories is making the rounds.
2011-10-07
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A family member of a prisoner waits outside the Insein prison in Rangoon, May 17, 2011. Many of Burma's political prisoners are locked up inside.
A family member of a prisoner waits outside the Insein prison in Rangoon, May 17, 2011. Many of Burma's political prisoners are locked up inside.
AFP

The Saffron Revolution that shook Burma’s military dictatorship in 2007 resulted in a rapid jump in the number of political prisoners. Some rights groups say there are about 2,000 at present but the new nominally civilian government insists it’s much less, without citing any figure.

The political prisoners come from the most respected levels of Burmese society—monks, students, teachers, doctors, lawyers, journalists, and members of parliament; as well as many women and ethnic minorities—and commonly, rights groups say, have been subjected to torture and long prison terms. Writing a political poem or song or distributing one political pamphlet can bring years at hard labor, they say. Many activists have been sentenced from 65 to as many as 104 years.

There are numerous accounts of brutal treatment of political prisoners. Prisoners on hunger strike, for example, have been put in solitary confinement in cells designed for military dogs, according to one group, while the most high-profile inmates have been transferred to remote prisons, cutting them off from family and friends’ moral support, food, and medicines. Some prisons have no medical care, and many political prisoners die in them.

Ex-political prisoners are watched, intimidated, and harassed, forcing many to live in exile.

Now comes the first film to take these lost souls out of the shadows and give them a human face by documenting their stories.

Filmmakers

Called "Into The Current," it is the work of Bangkok-based American journalist and filmmaker Jeanne Marie Hallacy and Santhar Aung, a video journalist who fled Burma in 2007 after filming footage that wound up in the Oscar-nominated film Burma VJ.

The Democratic Voice of Burma, an exile media organization, and the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), or AAPP, a Thai-based underground group that aids prisoners and their families and collects information on prisoners and prisons, also had a hand in making this stunning film.

Aung had fled Burma determined to make a film about political prisoners, afraid their stories would be forgotten. But former prisoners were reticent with him about their prison lives, and their friends and family in Burma feared speaking about them on camera would bring retribution.

Teaming with Hallacy made the difference. She knew film making and though a foreigner to the Burmese, she had learned their language, been writing about Burma for years, and was trusted.

Aung and Hallacy faced the challenge of making a film about prisoners with no firsthand photos of the interior of prisons and few of even their exterior. “How do you convey the sheer horror of what people had to endure … without actually seeing it?” asked Hallacy.

Their solution was to use the video reconstruction of prisoners’ experience done by AAPP, showing them walking in chains and lying in leg irons—even within the prison. They also filmed former prisoners testifying, standing alone in a stark setting and speaking simple, powerful, and disturbing words.

DVD cover from the film "Into the Current." Photo appears courtesy of James Mackay/Enigma Images.net
DVD cover from the film "Into the Current." Photo appears courtesy of James Mackay/Enigma Images.net Photo appears courtesy of James Mackay/Enigma Images.net


Testimonies

The film features several extraordinary prisoners and former prisoners. Bo Kyi went from prison to exile in Thailand, where he founded AAPP and its clandestine work. Some of those behind bars are his close friends and like him, leaders of the 1988 Generation who precipitated an earlier uprising, which was ruthlessly put down. Bo Kyi shuns the limelight but has won many human rights awards.

Min Ko Naing, a nom de guerre meaning “conqueror of kings,” formed a nationwide student union to oppose military rule that figured in the 1988 uprising. Imprisoned, he reportedly was forced to stand in water for two weeks during interrogation until he collapsed. Released after 15 years, he was rearrested for his role in the 2007 uprising and is serving a 65-year sentence. He has been honored by four countries.

Zarganar (“tweezers”)—a comedian, satirist, actor, and film director—gained tremendous popularity through his wisecracks against the government. He has been imprisoned three times since 1988. In 2006, military leaders banned him from writing, performing or publishing. He organized relief for survivors of the cyclone that devastated the Irrawaddy Delta in 2008, but for speaking to the BBC about the homeless survivors, he was imprisoned. He is serving a 35-year sentence 900 miles (1,448 kilometers) from his home in Rangoon.

There were hints a week ago of Zarganar’s imminent release, together with several hundred other political prisoners. The move was, however, delayed by a power struggle in Burma, according to sources.

First arrested in 1976 while a medical student, Khun Saing served seven years, enduring torture and solitary confinement. Imprisoned twice more since 1988, he had medicine smuggled in for inmates. After caring for his cell mate, he himself nearly died of tuberculosis. Between prison terms, he opened the Florence Nightingale Clinic offering free medical care to the poor and activists’ families. He fled to Britain in 2007, forced to leave behind his wife and a daughter he has never seen.

Love and forgiveness

It was Hallacy’s friendship with Bo Kyi that led her to make this film. “When he started sharing stories with me about his experiences in prison, I was very struck and moved by how profound those stories were,” she said. "I thought they were very allegorical for lessons that people could draw upon beyond Burma itself.”

Indeed, it was Bo Kyi’s recounting of how he and his cell mates nursed a sick pigeon in their cell back to health and then set aside their attachment to it and released it to fly with its own kind that particularly inspired Hallacy. To Bo Kyi, the pigeon was like a daughter but he realized it would be selfish to keep the bird and they must teach it to fly. “They chose generosity, they chose love,” Hallacy said.

This is in line with the main message of the film the makers want to convey—that of metta, the concept of loving kindness in Buddhism. Not the same thing as turning the other cheek, Hallacy describes metta as the practice of goodwill and unconditional love toward all sentient beings. She noted that the practice of metta is what Aung San Suu Kyi speaks of constantly, “what makes her such an extraordinary leader.”

A second theme of the film, Hallacy noted, is forgiveness. Indeed, the prisoners in the film are remarkable for showing no sign of seeking revenge. Instead, Aung observed, they are bent on improving society and doing so peacefully. This is what their struggle is about.

Reported by Peter Slavin, a U.S.-based freelance journalist.

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