FF is one of the community leaders from the Arakan community. I was greatly surprised that one day, when I was brandishing around my 2nd hand digital SLR camera at one of the refugee events, he came up to me and pronounced proudly that he used to be a photographer back in Myanmar. With glee he borrowed my camera and started to go around snapping pictures left, right and centre, carefully composing his pictures, looking at the light and angle, and sometimes telling people how to pose. I thought to myself, how did this photographer end up seeking refuge in my country?
His journey here to Kuala Lumpur and the circumstances leading to it were quite unfortunate. FF hails from one of the many islands off the coast of Arakan State, and his father used to be a trader and own some land to farm. He remembers his fathers boat, which used to ply the islands and rivers bringing goods and supplies. He used to farm his father’s paddy fields too, when he was younger. But at 18, he moved to the city, wanting to learn something.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to learn, but there was this photography course and my elder brother was a photographer, so I took it”.
For two and half years FF learned the finer art of photography, bleaching his hands white with chemicals. As soon as he graduated, he headed to Nagpli beach, which he called “the best beach in the whole of Myanmar”. People from all over the country and even overseas visited Nagpli beach back then. “Italians and Germans were there too”, he said. There, at the beach, FF worked as a photographer, and during the rainy season went to a fishing village and found work there. But they only gave food and board at the fishing village, and after a few years FF found that the money he saved working at Nagpli beach will be depleted during the rainy season.
And so he moved to Rangoon, the capital city of Myanmar. There he had friends at university, and thus took pictures at graduations, birthdays, farewells, weddings, monkhoods as well as picnics. He could survive, but business slowly went down because of the rising costs of film and processing.
“In 1993, I could live for 1 week for every roll of film I shot. By 1995, it was down to 2/3 days”.
In 1997, he had to sell his beloved camera, a Pentax. In 1998, desperate, he heard he could register as a sailor and managed to with his experience at sea as a fisherman. Borrowing money from his friends, he paid a broker who put him on a ship in Malaysia bound for Colombo. Unfortunately, the ship was in bad condition, listing to one side. It broke down in Sarikei, Sarawak.
“After that I worked in Bangkok at a Burmese seafarer’s union. Somebody told me later that I cannot go back to Myanmar because I had worked at a union”.
“And now I have demonstrated 3 times in Malaysia, because of the Daewoo gas exploration of the Arakan coast. My face came out in the newspapers. If I go back to Myanmar, they will arrest me”.
“I want to go back but I cannot. I want to see my father and my mother. They are very old. The last time I spoke to my father, his voice was not very strong”.
At this point, tears fell from FF’s face.
“I have no money. I cannot marry. I cannot go back… “