Unmasking Burma's 'Democracy'
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Sunday, December 03, 2023

Unmasking Burma's 'Democracy'

By BENEDICT ROGERS Monday, April 4, 2011

A foreign tourist exermines at a souvenir shop in Rangoon's Bogoke market. (Photo: AP)

Just before 11 pm on my last night in Rangoon, I sat down in the hotel bar to relax and listen to some jazz. Five minutes later, however, I heard the words that everyone in Burma dreads: “Mr Rogers, the authorities want to speak to you.”

I went upstairs to find six plain-clothes military intelligence agents waiting for me.

“We have instructions from Naypyidaw to deport you tomorrow morning,” said one man.

After expressing surprise, I explained that I was a tourist and had committed no crime. They claimed they did not know the reason for my deportation and were just following instructions. But during the interrogation, one of them flipped through a file and I saw it contained a photocopy of the front cover of my book about Burma's junta chief, Snr-Gen Than Shwe.

The intelligence agents then checked my camera and seemed frustrated that it only contained pictures of tourist sites. When one agent said they wanted to copy the photos and I asked why, he responded: “We have to show our superiors something.”

They searched my luggage but found nothing, then took several photos of me.

It wasn't until after midnight that the agents finished, and they told me to be ready to leave for the airport at 7 am. Five minutes after they left, one man returned and said, “I left my notebook.” After searching for a while he found the notebook in my suitcase, where he must have accidentally placed it while putting my belongings back.

The following morning I was escorted to the airport by two men, who I also asked about the reason for my deportation. “We’ll tell you at the airport,” one replied.

At the airport I was met by a large group—plain clothes military intelligence, uniformed immigration officers, a few police. During every step I was surrounded by three or four men with cameras who took dozens of pictures.

When the procedure was complete, two men sat down with me. “I can now inform you the reasons for your deportation,” one said. “We know you have written several books about Myanmar [Burma], including 'Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant.'”

Amused that he quoted the title in full, I decided to ask a few questions. I wanted to remain polite, but not to go silently; to acknowledge they were just doing their job and not blame them personally, but to let them know that I thought the system was wrong.

“Is it a crime to write a book?” I asked, which seemed to fluster them.

“In November, Myanmar held elections,” I continued. “So I thought Myanmar was becoming a democracy. In a democracy, it is very normal to write books freely, and very common to write books about leaders. Some books are positive, others are critical. But the fact that you are deporting me for writing a book suggests that Myanmar is not a democracy. So, can you tell me, is Myanmar becoming a democracy or not?”

The man who had spoken about the reasons for my deportation hesitated, then said: “Myanmar will be a democracy one day, but slowly, slowly. We are in a transition period.”

Transition, however, implies change. “I thought Myanmar was changing,” I said. “But deporting a foreigner for writing a book suggests no change. So is that correct—no change?”

He nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, yes. No change, no change.”

Hearing this admission, I thought to myself that if there has been no change in Burma, then surely talk of lifting sanctions is ill-judged. Now is not the time to lift sanctions. Unless there is meaningful change, now is the time for the world to get tougher, to target pressure more carefully, to provide aid for the people and to investigate Than Shwe’s crimes against humanity through a UN inquiry.

“Do you deport many foreigners,” I asked.

He smiled. “Yes, many.”

“Do you think my deportation was fair.”

He said he had not read my book, so he could not comment. “Do you have a copy of your book with you?” he asked. “I would be interested to read it.”

I laughed and said no, but was willing to send it to him (He did not offer to provide an address).

Having established a conversation with the agent, I pressed further and asked if he enjoyed working for a government that treats its people so badly, and if he knew that the ethnic nationalities in Burma were particularly suffering under this regime. This drew no response.

Then I asked what he thought about the events in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

“I don’t like this kind of change,” he replied. “I think it was created by al-Qaeda. Do you think so?”

“No,” I answered. “I do not.” While acknowledging the risk of extremists taking advantage of the chaotic situations, I told the Burmese agent that the movements in these countries were led by ordinary people who hate dictatorship.

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