Watching the Watchers Where Intelligence Brings Fear
Downtown Rangoon and the taxi shudders to a halt. The streets are the same as last time and each time before that. Very little changes in this crumbling yet beautiful city or for that matter wider afield throughout Burma as a whole. Whilst several Western and Asian Governments and so-called academics proclaim that elections have and will bring real change to this ravaged country (they won’t – ed), what is certain for sure is that they bring no hope. Real hope may be simmering underneath with the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the belief that a new dawn of democracy may be on the horizon, but hand in hand with hope always comes fear. That is one thing that never changes here in Burma. Fear.
Plain clothed Military Intelligence officers photograph political dissidents and opposition party members during a religious offering of alms to monks
Every time I arrive in Rangoon I expect it to be my last. Not necessarily because of what I’ve done in the past or what I am here to do now, but because you can’t second guess this regime. Two thousand one hundred political prisoners, silenced in Burma’s jails, symbolise that fear that is endemic in Burma. You can sense it everywhere and yet fleetingly in moments of security where the watchers are not watching, someone will speak of hope. But once that brief moment of safety has passed, hope fades back under the covers of darkness for fear of retribution. Yet the brave both in the shape of the opposition movement including the NLD and other groups and dissidents of all political and social leanings across Burma continue to defy the regime through showing no fear. Throughout the country the ordinary people have been silenced by this regime for decades – fearful of talking, fearful of writing, fearful of meeting with one another or even more so with foreigners of any ilk. If silence is truly golden then there is no more fitting name for this country than ‘The Golden Land’.
Military Intelligence officers detaining a foreigner in a Rangoon Hotel
These trips inside are not taken lightly and planning is critical for everyone concerned, especially those who I am meeting. They are the ones who have real reason to have fear. Having been in Burma for no more than a few hours I was confronted first hand with Military Intelligence at work in the hotel where I was staying that night. Police and plain-clothes MI officers swarmed in the lobby before heading to the lifts to knock on some unsuspecting person’s door. Naturally I decided to follow, camera hidden but ready at hand inside my bag. I felt a small sense of relief as they passed my door and continued to the end of the corridor – it would have been a shame to have only lasted a few hours when there is so much to do and at stake on this trip. Later that day their ‘man’ had returned and was duely detained before being accompanied to the airport. Despite my best efforts unfortunately I could only manage to film the short clip shown above whilst sitting in the lobby without drawing too much attention to myself.
Despite your political or journalistic background you can slip into the country on a tourist visa yet still be detained within hours or days once they realise who you are (Dan Rivers of CNN despite being banned managed to make it to Naypidaw). Whilst it is easy to be of the opinion that Burma’s once famed secret service is now a faltering shadow of its once feared past when under the iron rule of General Khin Nyunt, you can underestimate them at your peril. Foreigners can almost rest assured that even if caught doing something they shouldn’t be doing then they will likely just be politely escorted to the airport after a fairly lengthy but not intimidating questioning (maybe even with a preceeding extravagant car chase apparently). State policy of torture and arbitrary detention is not on the agenda for those from outside (mitigating circumstances of course). That is left for those who you meet. There is no apology and a shake of the hand for them when Military Intelligence come knocking on the door in the middle of the night.
But one thing is certain and that is that you are being watched almost all of the time by someone. With that in mind planning is paramount and is done so meticulously by the network I am part of who have much more to lose than me with my roles of film. I live with the words spoken to me by U Win Tin in my thoughts whenever I am back working inside Burma – “You don’t like to go back (to jail) but you can’t help it, you see that depends on them, their idea and their intention”. And this is why there is still real hope deep inside Burma. Not because of any sham election that brought nothing to the country but a change of wardrobe to the ruling Generals. But because there are still many brave enough to speak out and operate in spite of what may come their way. With no rule of law in Burma it is impossible to play by any rules and know what their intention is other than to stop foreigners from telling the outside world what is going on or from acting as a voice for those they are trying to silence.
So once again here we are in Burma, continuing our work in an attempt to both tell the world and act as a voice for the silenced in the small way that we can. If today is the closest I come to Burma’s Military Intelligence then hopefully I will have some stories to bring back. Only time will tell.