Abhaya: Burma’s Fearlessness
Abhaya: Burma’s Fearlessness
Text and photography by James Mackay
with foreword by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Published by River Books, Bangkok, 2011.
Glossy coffee table books on Burma usually feature ethnic groups, Buddhist temples and monasteries, textiles and handicrafts, and colourful scenes of local life. With this book we get something completely different: what might be termed campaign political art, published at a time when Burma occupies the political limelight on the world’s stage of democracy movements.
The author, a documentary photographer who has worked extensively in Burma and its borders, has spent time interviewing and photographing former Burmese political prisoners across the world: in Japan, in America and Europe, in Thailand and its border camps and, under cover, in Burma itself. He has put together the testimony of some 250 former prisoners who were willing to be featured to raise awareness of the courage and suffering of their imprisoned comrades. Abhaya is dedicated to the release of political prisoners and commemorates their political experiences.
Abhaya – a Pali term meaning fearlessness, is one of the gestures (mudra) of Buddha images – and the book features double page, full page and half page colour portraits of Burmese political prisoners, past and current. Each individual is photographed standing with their right hand raised in the gesture of fearlessness, the palm facing forward, on which is written in large black letters the name of a political prisoner still – at time of publication – behind bars. Burma’s most famous former political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, occupies the front cover. The accompanying text alongside each portrait gives brief biographical/political details of both the individual former prisoner photographed and of the current political prisoner named on their palm. It is not uncommon to read that some prisoners have been sentenced to extremely long and harsh prison terms – among them the famous comedian Zaganar (now released) whose 2008 sentence of 59 years was later reduced to 35 years.
General Ne Win in his long “reign” raised a class called “mawkunwin” (revolutionaries; literally, entrants to the historical record), a culture spread from the USSR or Yugoslavia. In this way, the old dictator sought to ensure the allegiance and obedience of veteran comrades, as well as the legitimacy of military rule. It is impossible to know if the selection criteria of some of today’s western-based mawkunwin will stand the test of time, nor to judge the long term effect of support for the Burmese struggle for democracy from states and organizations abroad.
The history of the future of those featured in Abhaya remains to be written. The lives of many are linked with exiles and those still resisting inside. Some may change their political views within a decade or two, some may submerge themselves in private family life, while others may still go marching on. This handsome publication is a moving tribute to the courage and dignity of many Burmese who have in recent decades faced relentless political oppression and injustice. The book includes a one page statement by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a human rights organization set up in Mae Sot by former Burmese political prisoners, which ends “The Burmese people need your voice now more than ever”.
Since the book’s publication successive amnesties have been announced by the Burmese government and many, but not all, of the political prisoners featured therein, have now been released.
Reviewed by Bo Bo Lansin, a PhD candidate at School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London (researching the intellectual roots of the rise of the military in Burma)
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