Burma Day 5: A New Year But With Nothing New

(As stated before, information posted about inside Burma is strictly limited for obvious security reasons)

The fifth and final day of this trip inside – it’s been cut short due to a change in plan after the second day. Today is the first day of Thingyan and whilst the real festivities don’t start until tomorrow you can already sense a very small wave of euphoria in the air… but with it a very big increase in police and miltary presence on the ground. Stepping out of the hotel yesterday to be confronted by armed police was an unwelcome surprise. It’s the only time of the year when all flights out of Burma are full and I’ve been on standby since Saturday. Finally today I have a flight out this evening. Off course I really don’t want to leave this beautiful country and the people I care so much about, but I have to. Every time I come back here I wonder if things are getting worse. But then can things really get any worse for these people? In the few days I’ve been here I’ve seen the same old shocking sights of poverty, corruption and intimidation. Of course I’ve been followed and watched by intelligence and their stooges – sometimes its so obvious that you feel like just wandering right up to them and taking their portrait from about 3 yards away! Even when you’re not followed, someone somewhere is always watching you or is scared of you being there next to them. It’s indicative of this climate of fear that prevails throughout Burmese society. Fear of retribution from this, the most brutal of ruling regimes. But then there are the times when you can just grab a few silent moments away from prying eyes and perhaps share them with The Lady, sitting silently across the lake.

Aside from the work that I managed to do here there were a couple of other moments that were highly entertaining and when the authorities could have had a field day. First off, an unbelievable incident at Shwedagon Pagoda where I bumped into a member of an ‘outlawed organisation’ whom I knew. It could have been the moment when the SPDC got two for the price of one! The second memorable incident was just hours before leaving and looking back now I can laugh, but at the time I’ll admit that for a split second I thought my time was up. I was in Kandawgyi Park killing time before heading to the airport to leave. There was a very heavy police presence – armed riot police everywhere throughout the park and on the road watching all the stages being built for the water festival due to start tomorrow. I paid my two dollars to enter the park and walked along the timber walkway by the waters edge past the 5 armed riot police sitting in the shade at the entrance. As I walked on I noticed in the distance a large group of people coming the other way – it was unusual because you have to pay to go on this walkway and it was blisteringly hot so why would so many people be out in this sun? I stopped to try to see what was going on and I realised it was a large group of police, military and plain clothes intelligence and they were walking towards me. I turned around and the police I had just walked past at the entrance were now all standing blocking the entrance to the park. My only reason of concern was that in my camera bag was all the photos and video that we had done in the past few days. Work that if found here and now would mean very serious trouble. I couldn’t go anywhere so I had to resort to just playing the dumb tourist card (not for the first time – ed) If they know who you are its too late to worry anyway. The group walked towards me and as they got nearer I made out that there was clearly someone of very high military rank amongst them – 5 or so senior military personnel, one with more medals stitched on his shirt than are surely possible to win. There were armed riot police, armed soldiers, 10 or so plain clothes military intelligence, radios crackling away, men in dark glasses… I tried not to smile as they all just walked on by past me, oblivious to what was hidden in my bag, oblivious of what I was up to. Dumb tourist… thanks for visiting our beautiful country and giving us your dollars. UPDATE AFTER THE EVENT – this was the exact location where the bomb went off 3 days later killing 9 people and injuring dozens more. Coincidence?? You decide…

Coming within touching distance of one of the Generals (or someone of similar high rank) was certainly not part of the itinerary when we planned this trip, but as always with Burma – expect the unexpected! As soon as they were gone in the distance I walked to a quiet area of the park out of sight and earshot and rang in to share the moment as I could barely contain myself with laughter. Checking in is all part of the procedure at times and this was an unexpected check in to have to discuss! It’s so bizarre because I had an almost identical incident when I was leaving last year. Let’s hope we’re not tempting fate and that it’s not a case of 3 strikes and your out when I come back next time. I make it to the airport without any other dramas or excitement, on the way passing by Khin Nyunt’s house where he is currently under house arrest, a casual glance in wondering if perhaps he’ll be available for a portrait next time I’m here! Safe flight back to Bangkok and mission accomplished… for now anyway.

Over the last two days I’ve captured a few images whilst wandering around killing time and you can view them here at the enigmaimages website.

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Burma Day 1: The Waiting Is Over

The most dangerous part of this project is working inside Burma. The risks are huge if caught – maybe not so much for me although you can’t be sure, but for anyone I’m with or is associated to me then it could mean paying the ultimate price and a very heavy prison sentence and all that comes with that. For these obvious reasons there is very little that can be talked about in this blog about the trips inside Burma (as with the trip last year) other than to state that no matter what these risks are, there are some very, very brave people indeed inside Burma who are willing to take them in order to tell the world what’s going on and in this case to tell the world that their colleagues currently detained in prison MUST be freed immediately. We take these risks because the message is too important and that is why I report back in a limited sense about what we are doing to let the world know that despite the risks we are doing what we can – there is nothing to be gained in staying silent. That’s what the Generals want.

This time I have a Visa-on-Arrival. It’s a new system introduced by the regime to try to lure more foreign visitors by making the visa process more simple – plus of course it costs more so they make more money… but I felt I might as well give it a go and on arrival at Rangoon airport, other than a few nervous moments when two military officials march across the waiting area with my passport in their hand and disappear into a small room, everything goes smoothly and I meet my official tour guide who has arranged my visa and we head into town – chatting about my forthcoming trip to Inle Lake, beautiful Bagan and all that wonderful Myanmar has to offer the newly arrived tourist. Of course I have no plans to go to any of these places and I’m purely going through the motions. I feel really sorry for her, knowing that deep down I know she hates her government as much as I do, but like so many, she is trapped here, unable to speak, unable to live an ordinary life. I get dropped off at my hotel by my guide and immediately jump in another taxi to another hotel once she is out of sight. Whilst your every move may be tracked by the regime and its intelligence officers, you might as well make it as hard for them as possible to know your exact whereabouts whenever you can. It’s a game of cat and mouse that you may not need to always play, but you can never be sure.

It’s incredibly hot here (40 degrees today) and everyone is gearing up for Thingyan next week. The rest of the day is spent taking in a few of Rangoon’s sites and several hours at the most beautiful of them all late into the evening – the Shwedagon Pagoda – one of my favourite places on earth.

A day being a tourist… after all that’s what I am aren’t I?!

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