James Mackay is a documentary photographer based in Southeast Asia and the United Kingdom. He graduated from Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London and has worked extensively, often undercover, in Burma and its border regions documenting humanitarian and political issues in the militarily controlled country. Working in close collaboration with exiled Burmese organizations, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) and the Democratic Voice of Burma, as well as through underground networks both inside and outside of Burma, Mackay has been undertaking a number of long-term projects documenting the democracy movement, political dissidents, human rights defenders, and in particular the issue of Burma’s political prisoners.
His work has been featured in films, books, and a number of leading newspapers and magazines including the New York Times, the Independent, the Observer, the Guardian, the Bangkok Post, Irrawaddy, Vogue Japan, British Vogue, and Dazed & Confused. He has partnered with Amnesty International, exhibited in galleries in Bangkok, London, and New York, and received several awards.
His work on Burma’s political prisoners, Abhaya: Burma’s Fearlessness, features a foreword by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and was published in November 2011.
Burma—A country ruled by fear where torture is state policy and its prison system is one of the darkest hells on earth.
In 1962, a military coup against Burma’s democratically elected government brought in a succession of some of the world’s most brutal military regimes. Since then, thousands of people have been arrested, tortured, and jailed for their political beliefs and for daring to defy the dictators who tolerate no form of dissent or opposition. The struggle for democracy in Burma has been a long and often bloody one, led since 1962 by university student groups and joined in 1988 by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. Numerous uprisings in each decade have provided brief signs of hope, but have also resulted in the incarceration of thousands of determined and courageous Burmese who have called for change.
From distributing pamphlets to participating in a peaceful demonstration, almost any democratic activity in Burma can prompt the regime to deem people as threats to its power and result in arbitrary detention. Even after they are released, former political prisoners continue to be harassed by authorities, forcing many advocates for democracy to flee the country for fear of rearrest. Burma’s borders and its many refugee camps are awash with political dissidents. As of October 2011, there were more than 2,000 political prisoners in Burma who represent a full range of professions, ages, and genders.
Over the past three years, I have traveled the world photographing more than 250 former political prisoners who have come together to raise awareness for their colleagues still suffering in jail. This project is an attempt to document their stories and bring greater attention to the issue. I also aim to understand how and why the regime chooses to operate in this fashion and how the world continues to show indifference.
In my experience, there is an inextricable bond between political prisoners. I have tried to highlight this relationship by using photography to show how former political prisoners feel tied to their colleagues who continue to suffer in prison. Spending time with former political prisoners around the world is heart wrenching. But the abundance of dignity, determination, and courage displayed by those who remain in prison and those who were once there has inspired me to carry out this work. To have suffered such inhumanity yet remain so calm defies logic. It was this serenity that inspired me to explore how Buddhism, which is the common religion among many former and current prisoners, provides an important link between the worlds inside and outside prison walls. The Buddhist Abhaya Mudra hand symbol means fearlessness. In an act of defiant protest, those who are no longer in prison have written the name of an imprisoned colleague on the palm of their hand.
This project includes many photographs taken inside Burma which cannot be shown, and many of the project participants have taken huge risks by agreeing to be involved. The fact that they have taken and faced these risks for much of their lives puts things in perspective for many of us who lead less perilous lives. Working in Burma is difficult and dangerous. Without underground networks both inside and outside the country this project would not have been possible. Some people in Burma with whom I have worked are now in jail as political prisoners, bringing a personal aspect to the work that I could never have imagined nor have ever wished for. But these are not my stories. These are the stories of advocates for democracy and justice who refuse to be silenced.
The unconditional release of Burma’s political prisoners is an issue that is fundamental to the future of the country. It is a demand made by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy that is echoed by governments and human rights organizations across the world. There can be no national reconciliation in Burma as long as there are political prisoners. How can there be, when so many of the people who were chosen to lead the country and so many of those who can help shape its future—doctors, lawyers, teachers—are still in prison? Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said, “Please use your freedom to promote ours.” The future of Burma lies in its people.
—James Mackay, November 2011
Burma Project/Southeast Asia Initiative
The Burma Project was established in 1994 to increase international awareness of conditions in Burma and help the country make the transition from a closed to an open society. The Burma Project/Southeast Asia Initiative has helped activists call attention to denial of fundamental freedoms in Burma, military attacks on civilians, and the imprisonment of political dissidents. Burma’s military government prompted hopes for fundamental reform, including the release of all political prisoners, when it lifted some restrictions on the media and internet in mid-2011. By October, however, the government had only released 200 political prisoners and Burma Project grantees continue to advocate for unrestricted release of all political prisoners.