James Mackay is a photographer and activist.
He has traveled in and out of Burma photographing former political prisoners.
His new book “Abhaya: Burma’s Fearlessness” includes prominent activists such as opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Anchor Marco Werman talks to Mackay, who says he chose that title for his book because of the tenacity of the former prisoners he met.
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Marco Werman: Photographer James Mackay has met many Burmese who were once political prisoners. His new book is full of their pictures. Some, like opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, are well known globally; others are not. Mackey says he chose to call his book “Abhaya: Burma’s Fearlessness” because of the tenacity of former detainees like journalist and opposition member U Win Tin.
James Mackay: He’s spent twenty years in prison, most of it in solitary confinement. He stood up for prisoner’s rights when in prison. He has always championed the cause of democracy and, in particular, political prisoners, and upon his release in late 2008, I had the privilege of meeting him in early 2009. Even upon his release, aged almost eighty, you know, he was still defiant against this military regime and demanded democracy and human rights and, in particular, it’s the issue of political prisoners itself that he has stood up for, and even now today, he still wears a blue shirt which is the uniform that political prisoners wear inside prison.
Werman: I mean what’s fascinating is they get out and they want to get right back into activism and being dissidents. How do you account for their fearlessness?
Mackay: I can’t put my finger on what it is, but it’s just supreme courage. To be able to stand there on the streets and give a speech or whatever it was at that time, knowing that that is what is going to get you into trouble, and they you’re arrested and you’re tortured and then interrogated and thrown into prison for maybe 20 years and they you’re released and the first thing that you do is to go back to what go you into trouble in the first place. It almost defies logic, but when you’ve been faced, I suppose, with the brutality of this regime, and the country is, you know, wracked with poverty. It’s an extremely dire situation in Burma, that without certain people taking that risk to stand up for what is right, for what we have every day of our lives, the country would disappear virtually under this military regime. So these people have taken this extremely brave action and you can only just take your hat off to them and admire their courage.
Werman: I want to know a bit more about your concept for the photographs, James. I mean these are images of former Burmese prisoners with their hands raised towards the camera, they’re looking straight into the lens, and on their palms are names. What do these names signify? Are those their real names?
Mackay: The idea was that I wanted to tell the story of the political prisoners, but I wanted to try and get a connection between those who had been jailed and those who are still jailed. So the people in the photographs that you see are the former political prisoners. Now they may be living all around the world in exile or on refugee camps perhaps on the Thai-Burma border and some still inside Burma. The name written in the palm of their hand is a current political prisoner. Now many of those names are perhaps their cellmates or even their family members or friends who they were jailed with at the time, and the pose that they’re adopting is a Buddhist Mudra. It’s called the Abhaya Mudra and it symbolizes fearlessness. So that provides a nice link because that after all is what these political prisoners have shown throughout their lives.
Werman: Right, and we’ve got some of those photographs on our website – theworld.org. Now you said, James, that over the past six months, the military has softened restrictions on the media and activists. Why do you think that is and what evidence is there of that?
Mackay: Since this time last year when Aung San Suu Kyi was released, there’s been a number of things that, there have been, you know, cosmetic changes, you could call them, and one of them is this sort of slight, it is very slight relaxing of media laws and other laws in the country. Now these aren’t laws that are changing the basis rule of law in the country, as in the laws that are changing are not going to stop people getting imprisoned every day, but a slight relaxing of the media laws is what perhaps people are seeing. Whereby that you can print photographs of Aung San Suu Kyi in the paper which was unheard of before, but the big thing, of course, they want is the sort of undoing of sanctions. So they’re playing a very cautious game and the world has to be aware of that. It’s very much sort of a give and take thing at the moment.
Werman: James Mackay, a photographer and activist. His new book documenting Burma’s political prisoners is called “Abhaya: Burma’s Fearlessness”. There’s a link on our website and some of its photographs from inside Burma on our website at theworld.org. James, very good to speak with you. Thanks a lot.
Mackay: Thank you very much indeed.
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