In the final part of our three-part feature series detailing life in Burma one year on from the pro-democracy protests, Robert Carry gives a personal account of how he entered and fled the stricken country.
The de facto ban on foreign journalists put in place by Burma’s ruling military junta left media outlets across the world screaming for information from the handful of reporters who made it into the country in the wake of cyclone Nargis. I was working for an English language magazine in neighbouring Thailand at the time and had actually been planning a trip into Burma when the storm hit. Posing as a tourist, I applied for a visa via a Bangkok travel agency two days before the disaster and was told my visa-stamped passport would be returned to me within a week. However, when the reality of how severe Nargis was started to emerge the number of people trying to gain entry – both aid workers and journalists pretending to be aid workers – made visas practically impossible to secure through conventional methods.
Luckily, I came across a Yangon-based travel agency offering a ‘visa on arrival’ service. All I had to do was email a flight confirmation, some digital passport photos and a completed form. They sent me a document, entirely in Burmese, which as it turned out was enough to get me onto my flight from Bangkok to Yangon without a visa stamped into my passport. It wouldn’t be enough to get me through immigration in Burma I was told, but the plan was that a representative from the agency would meet me at Yangon airport and arrange my visa on site. Things ran like clockwork until I disembarked and found no one there to meet me.
Worse still, was that my passport was stamped with a Thai work permit which featured the word ‘media’. I felt that with the proper paperwork the risk associated with trying to gain entry was a reasonable one, but without an entry visa my passport would be scrutinised and I would have effectively handed myself to one of the most paranoid, brutal regimes on the planet – which also happens to have a particular bugbear against western journalists. Realistically, deportation after a brief detainment was the most likely outcome had I been discovered. Less than a year ago however, Burmese soldiers shoved 50-year-old Japanese photographer Kenji Nagai to the ground on a street in Yangon and shot him at point-blank range in broad daylight in front of thousands of witnesses.
When I presented my visa-less passport at the immigration point I was barracked by an official and sent to an interview room banked by armed soldiers and filled with green-clad officials. Luckily, just as my grilling was about to get underway, a girl from the travel agency I had been in contact with knocked on the door with a sign bearing my name. She chatted briefly with my interviewer and after much shuffling of forms a visa was stamped into my passport and I was, thankfully, sent on my way.
Fascinating stories were rising out of the cracks in Yangon’s shattered streets as its recovery from cyclone Nargis got underway, and I spent my time gathering up as many as I could. However, I was also planing to take a trip into the Irrawaddy Delta region, where storm damage was worst and casualty figures highest.
Burma’s tourist industry practically collapsed when the junta brutally suppressed last year’s monk-led pro-democracy demonstrations. Since then tour guides with too much time on their hands have been hanging around street corners hoping to come across an un-escorted foreigner – a commodity which has all but dried up since Nargis finished the job the junta started. However, every time I attempted to broach the subject of how one might gain entry, ostensibly to make a small donation to the aid effort in person, I was met with the same answer: “Impossible.”
As it turned out, the military had set up roadblocks on all roads leading south from Yangon to the delta and all foreigners were being turned back. I eventually convinced a guide, sent to take me of a tour of Yangon by the travel agency I had been dealing with, to have a go at getting me into the delta. ‘Pha’, ever eager to subvert the authority of the junta he despised, telephoned a monk who was an active figure in the pro-democracy movement that swept the country this time last year. His monastery, located deep in the delta, had been badly damaged and the village around it practically wiped out. The monk agreed to host us should we arrive, and would back up our story if necessary.
The plan was that we would buy packs of food, rent a car and head north before looping back down towards the delta, hopefully avoiding the roadblocks as we went. Sadly, in the two days before we were due to leave, we noticed a car following us as we made our way around Yangon. The driver and passenger made no attempt to conceal themselves, and would come inside and take a table whenever we stopped for a bite to eat. We returned to my hotel the night before we were due to head into the delta to find a group of soldiers standing directly across the street from its main entrance. I’m not convinced they had any firm evidence to suggest I was a journalist, but there were hardly any foreigners in Yangon at that time. I fit the profile, but there were so few non-Asian visitors that they could easily follow them all. Either way, the game was up. A visibly furious Pha was convinced I was about to be arrested, and told me I should make my way to the airport at the earliest opportunity. I gave him the cash to make the donation to the monastery in his own time and bid my goodbyes. I went to my room and packed my stuff but couldn’t leave that evening because the army guys, visible from my window, remained where they were. At 5am the next morning I was ready to leave so after ensuring the coast was clear from my window I ran down stairs, paid the remainder of my hotel bill to a sleepy bellboy and grabbed a taxi to the airport. Four-and-a-half hours later I was back in Bangkok with a bank of stories of the junta, the cyclone and the people struggling to survive the terrors of both.
© Rob Carry. All rights reserved by the author.