Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and famed Burmese democracy advocate, is currently on tour in the U.S., where she’ll be feted and honored at every stop she makes. On Sept. 19, she received the Congressional Gold Medal and met privately with President Barack Obama. Suu Kyi spent the better part of two decades imprisoned and kept under house arrest by Burma’s thuggish military junta. But she was released in 2010 and now, as the junta has given way to a quasi-civilian government, is a ranking member of parliament. This week, the Burmese government released 541 prisoners in a new round of amnesties (87 of whom are recognized as political prisoners). Still, Suu Kyi bears with her the legacy of a half century of dissent and struggle in what was one of the world’s most repressive states, and warns foreign audiences that Burma’s path to a just society has a far way to go.
Working on a series originally entitled ‘Even Though I’m Free I Am Not,’ photographer James Mackay spent three years taking portraits of Burmese dissidents and democracy activists, including Suu Kyi. In each photo, the subject lifts his or her hand in the classic Buddhist gesture of the ‘abhaya mudra,’ a sign representing protection, peace and the dispelling of fear. Inscribed on their raised hands are the names of allies, friends, kindred spirits who were still in detention at the time the photo was taken.