Share this article

print logo

Risking his life to let freedom ring; Human rights hero whose photos showed Burma's brutal military regime now works here 'as a fervent advocate of those who have no advocate'

Here in Buffalo, Law Eh Soe is a translator, earning $10 an hour and known among 6,000-plus Burmese refugees as someone who helps them deal with government agencies, schools and the courts.

But on the other side of the world, Law is a hero in the human rights movement of his native country, and known as a photojournalist whose images of the "Saffron Revolution" helped expose a brutal military regime.

One of his photographs ended up as the cover of a book by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Others were televised on CNN and printed in Time magazine, the International Herald Tribune and the Bangkok Post.

"Law is a fervent advocate of those who have no advocate. In Burma, those are the poor, rural people who live simply and were taken advantage of for decades," said Eva M. Hassett, his boss at the International Institute of Buffalo.

That advocacy nearly cost him his life. He was forced to flee Burma, and he dreams of one day returning to train aspiring photojournalists. But for now, his mission is to help fellow refugees.

"When I arrived here, it was noticed I spoke good English. That's how I got the job as an interpreter," said Law, who in Burma had taught himself English by reading an English version of the Bible and watching movies with English subtitles.

Last Friday, the military regime of Burma released political prisoners in a jubilant moment that prompted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to announce restoration of diplomatic ties with the Southeast Asian country.

A week before that, an uncensored international film festival showcasing 188 films was held in Rangoon. Among them was the documentary "Click in Fear," which chronicled Law's coverage of the Saffron Revolution in 2007. It won first place in documentaries.

Suu Kyi, who helped organize the festival, was reportedly deeply moved by Law's story and pushed for the film to take top honors in a field with 35 other documentaries.

One of Law's most famous images ended up as the cover of her book, "The Voice of Hope," showing the monks marching on Rangoon.

Another image, however, caught the eye of the world.

On Sept. 25, 2007, amid a sea of saffron-robed Buddhist monks, one of the younger clergy raised his fist in defiance, but with a dark alms bowl covering his hand and seeming to enlarge the symbol of protest.

The revolution actually began a week earlier, Sept. 18, 2007, when thousands of monks flooded into Rangoon for the first of several marches -- 15 to 20 miles around the capital. Law said he was overwhelmed with emotion.

"The monks saw the people's suffering, and they didn't want to be silent," Law said.

Law was working for the European Pressphoto Agency in Burma. And when the monks arrived in Rangoon that September, he showed up with two cameras slung around his neck ready to record history.

For days, he ran ahead of them, snapping photos. He was easily noticed by military agents displeased with the anti-government activities. Bullets, tear gas and beatings often marred the efforts of the pacifist monks, who would not turn back.

As the only still photographer from Burma covering the Rangoon protests, Law stuck out, though a Japanese photographer was fatally shot, while Law and two Western photojournalists dodged the danger.

Law was with the Japanese photojournalist, Kenji Nagai, at the time he was shot to death by the military. And that killing is what precipitated Law's decision to flee the country.

"Three times, I ran for my life when they tried to arrest me," he said.

On Sept. 28, a day after the protests ended, Law realized that the government was not going to give up its pursuit of him, so he fled, first hiding in a remote jungle and then making his way to neighboring Thailand.

"At one point, Catholic nuns put me up. They prayed for me, and I started to cry. I could feel the power of their prayer. I told them I did not want to leave my country, but one of the nuns said, 'Law, God already has a plan for you. He's already used you in Burma,' " he recalled.

Law arrived in the United States on March 19, 2008, his 36th birthday, and joined his mother and two younger brothers who had already found a home in Buffalo years earlier.

"That year, we spent our first Christmas together in 21 years," he said.

In August, Law will become a father. His wife, Helen, a manicurist in training, is expecting their first child.

His dream was to come to the United States as a student and study photojournalism, but instead he made a transition into the job of interpreter, allowing him the chance to help fellow Burmese refugees.

Today, sitting in his second-floor apartment in Riverside, where a lawn chair is part of the furniture, Law pushed aside notions that he is a national hero back in Burma, which under the regime is known as Myanmar.

"I know who the real heroes are. They didn't know me, but I know them. We were on the same mission to change history, and now we see it is happening," Law said. "It was an obligation I had to take those photographs. My photographs were to become part of historical records."

In the spring, an exhibit of his work is expected to take place at the CEPA Gallery, 617 Main St.

"We'll also have a screening of 'Click in Fear,' " said Hassett, who is working with CEPA to make the exhibit happen. "I think he sees his photographs as a way to tell the story of daily life in Burma that otherwise might not have been told."

Law, 40, still holds out hope of returning to Burma, though friends in his native land have told him he remains a marked man with the government.

In 1996, he received a law degree from Rangoon University but defied his father, a retired newspaper photographer, who still lives in Burma, and followed in his footsteps.

"I was crazy for the camera, but he never encouraged me. He was very proud when I graduated from law school and wanted me to be a lawyer or a judge. I simply said, 'Father, I want to be a photographer.' "

For 1 1/2 years, his father would not speak with him.

But his courage and tenacity, he said, eventually found favor with his father.

"He's proud of me now," Law said.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com