Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

FILM: Political Prisoners Are Burma’s Unsung Heroes

Christian Papesch

NEW YORK, Oct 27 2011 (IPS) - In a move that highlighted its sub-par human rights record, the government of Burma announced Oct. 11 that it would release 6,359 prisoners, but how many of these will be drawn from the country’s estimated 500 to over 2,000 political prisoners remains uncertain.

Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch, Jeanne Marie Hallacy, director of "Into the Current", and Thet Moo, former Burmese political prisoner Credit:  Christian Papesch/IPS

Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch, Jeanne Marie Hallacy, director of "Into the Current", and Thet Moo, former Burmese political prisoner Credit: Christian Papesch/IPS

The following day, Burma, officially known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, set free the first 200 prisoners.

Among them was comedian and activist Zarganar, who was arrested in June 2008 for speaking to foreign media about the precarious situation of millions of Burmese left homeless in the Irrawaddy delta following a devastating cyclone. Five months later, Zarganar had been sentenced to 59 years in prison for public order offences.

Even though international activists and organisations such as New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) generally appreciated the initial wave of releases, they remain critical about the actual reach of the announcement.

“It is a positive step in terms of those individuals and their families, but in terms of bigger amnesties they should really release all prisoners unconditionally,” Elaine Pearson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, told IPS.

“It is really quite a small step forward. These people are not bargaining chips or hostages for the military to play with. They’re people who have been unjustly imprisoned.”

Into the Current“, a documentary by Bangkok-based American filmmaker Jeanne Marie Hallacy, portrays some of those prisoners and gives an overview of the political and social situation in Burma, a country that was under military rule from 1962 to 2011.

“The most challenging aspect of the film was that we knew that we had to rely upon memory,” the director said in an interview with IPS.

“It was really challenging for us to find a way that we could be provocative and evoke the kind of deep emotion and passion that people experienced in prison without having visual evidence of what they actually experienced,” she explained.

But this lack of visual imagery also lends itself to the oppressive and alarming atmosphere of “Into the Current”. By relying on statements made by former prisoners, the political terror of an oppressing regime acquires a face, a voice and a destiny.

One of the thousands of prisoners who endured the cruelty of Burma’s jails is Thet Moo, imprisoned for seven years for being a member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), which helped organise the 1988 pro-democracy national uprising that was violently suppressed by the military junta.

In prison, “we don’t know our future,” Moo told IPS. “I don’t know if I can get out alive or not.”

Not only are mental and physical punishment the order of the day for the majority of prisoners, but filmmakers like Hallacy along with journalists supporting her work in Burma also face serious daily threats.

“Working inside the country is extremely difficult for journalists and media,” the director, who has not been granted a Burmese visa since the late 1990s, said.

“We have seen Burmese journalists who have been sentenced for 65 years for one story. And we have gotten corroborated information that they have been tortured in order to have them spill out other information about their colleagues in this underground network of media who gather information.”

For this reason, a lot of the material used in the film is old footage shot by Hallacy during the 1990s, secretly filmed recordings or personal statements and objects – portraits of families, letters to friends or a song sung by a prisoner himself.

“People respond to stories of individual human beings – people who are fathers or mothers or have sisters or brothers who are in prison,” Hallacy said.

“They’re numbed by numbers,” she elaborated. “If you cite a statistic, it’s meaningless to most people. But if you try to bring into focus a few of these heroes and heroines and their acts of courage it speaks on behalf of the whole.”

The broader image that “Into the Current” draws of Burma is a negative one, but the film’s message is not completely pessimistic. At the end, protagonist Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner who is currently in exile in Thailand, finally gets to see his wife and little daughter again.

Even though their family cannot yet lead a normal life in Burma, hope for a better Burma does exist, especially after last year’s election of a new government.

“The problem of the new government is that their bureaucracy is very slow,” Thet Moo explained. “We are waiting for them to change. If they are changing, everybody would want to return to Burma.”

For Pearson, the second largest country in Southeast Asia still has a very long way to go. “Burma has one of the most desperate human rights situations in the world,” she said. “We haven’t seen the new government really putting in the effort to effect change in the country.”

The great white hope of Burma – and one of the characters to which the film repeatedly refers – is Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese opposition politician and 1991 winner of the Nobel Peace Price “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”.

“The message of the film was to convey that non-violence is their path,” Hallacy pointed out.

“That’s what will prevail change – not vengeance, not hatred, not retribution but actual inclusion and responding to cruelty with kindness, because that’s what changes people. When you change people’s hearts, you change people’s politics.”

Aung San Suu Kyi has never been in jail, but she has been under house arrest for 15 of the last 21 years. This is one of the reasons why the politician has become a symbol of opposition against oppression for many Burmese, especially those who still remain in prison for their resistance against the governing system.

“We saw the release of 200 political prisoners, there is still another 1800 that remain in prison,” Pearson concluded. “These are people who have criticised the government, written controversial articles in the media, participated in demonstrations. They are not people who should be in prison. They are people who should be part of the community.”

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