Al Jazeera’s Veronica Pedrosa on reporting from Myanmar – a country normally closed to foreign journalists
|Finding the truth behind the postcard scenery
is a challenge in military-ruled Myanmar
One golden rule of journalism is to be true to yourself.
If at the end of an assignment I can look in the mirror and say, truthfully, that my team has done a job that we are happy with, then I have passed my own threshold for accuracy and impartiality.
And it was these two things that we were at pains to point out to the military leaders of Myanmar.
We asked to go in, and – some months later – they eventually agreed. To them, Al Jazeera English is an unknown entity. But they were hoping for a hearing – an avenue to get their views across.
We gave them a hearing, but we also underlined the fact that we would be impartial, balanced and fair. No more fair to them than to anyone else – but not quick to judge, either.
The first three days we were there, we appeared to be getting the kind of access that none of us anticipated. We appeared able to speak to ordinary people. We also seemed to be able to go places if we asked.
But it became clear to us that our very presence in Myanmar showed a power struggle in the heart of government.
Those who granted us permission appear to be doves from the government who recognise they have to engage the outside world. There are opposing voices, though, who believe in Myanmar’s self-reliance.
|Propaganda billboards emphasise
the military’s firm grip on the country
Those who let us in did not insist that we had a meticulous and detailed agenda imposed on us, even in terms of where we went day by day and hour by hour.
After a few days, our lack of a timetable seemed to be giving our minder cause for concern. Please present us with a wish list of where you want to film, they said. So we did.
We wrote them a list, which included, among other things, the house of Aung San Suu Kyi the leader of the opposition and Nobel Peace Prize winner who has spent most of my adult life in prison or under house arrest.
The Yangon street on which she lives is open to cars 12 hours a day, from 6am to 6pm. It is patrolled by soldiers carrying guns, and has a checkpoint at either end.
We also asked to film around Insein prison – not to go inside, but just around the area. This is the place that holds many of the country’s political detainees.
By lunchtime it was clear that this did not go down well.
A senior official from the ministry of information came by our hotel, and gave us a very polite, but firm, dressing down.
We should understand the sensitivities of the country. We cannot rush to judge. It would not be possible to film outside the house of Aung San Suu Kyi. That kind of thing.
A meeting with a government minister was cancelled at the last minute. The timing seemed more than coincidental.
|Aung San Suu Kyi’s house is one of many
locations off-limits to journalists
My colleague, Veronica Pedrosa, made it clear that if they stopped us from filming the house, we would be forced to do it secretly (which we did, leaving our hotel on our last day in the early morning mist, and filming with a small camcorder).
Our polite but firm official introduced us to a second minder, who would be pleased to help us during the remainder of our stay in Myanmar. So by day three we had two minders. This was OK – we were three, they were two.
However, during our filming of ordinary street scenes, our new minder stood in front of our camera. Why do you want to film this building? I told him to step out of the way.
It later turned out the building had a sign for the opposition party, the National League for Democracy. The office the building once housed has been closed down – along with every other office bar one that the NLD has ever owned.
Even the mention of the party’s name is cause for concern for the leadership. Our minder stepped out of the way, but it set the tone for the days that followed – do not film this; we cannot allow that.
Then we had a turn of luck. We were invited to Naypidaw, the new capital.
Its new streets, smeared with the mud of building sites, had never seen a foreign camera crew before.
We were the first ones there. They had knowingly granted us a world exclusive just by letting us in.
But by the time we returned to Yangon we had acquired another minder, and inexplicably another driver. It seemed to us we had three official minders and two others whom we could not quite be sure of.
In the course of our visit to Myanmar, our local fixer – someone who was willing to set up our filming requirements – was intimidated into not working with us.
Another person, representing a foreign businessman we wanted to interview – was warned in no uncertain terms not to talk openly to us. A third person we wanted to translate for us was told, I believe, not to talk to us.
The intimidation was not aggressive and open. It was hidden and insidious.
|Fear rules in virtually all levels
of Myanmar society
However, a foreign diplomat provided a flash of insight. There was our minder, a bright young thing from the foreign ministry with his entire career ahead of him, minding his own business, when along comes a foreign reporting team asking awkward questions.
She pointed out that everyone was scared, through every level of society.
In being forced to put his head above the parapet because of our presence – and we were, after all, in his charge – our minder was suddenly exposed, and probably very frightened. It might not excuse his actions, but gives some reasoning for them.
But just as the intimidation is not open, neither is the repression.
Ordinary people are willing to talk and be candid, if they are certain they are talking in private.
Turn on a TV camera, and the shutters come down.
The repression is not enforced by squads of secret police or crack troops roaming the streets. But people have long memories of the Tiananmen-style crackdown against pro-democracy marches in 1988.
You don’t have to see troops to know they exist. You don’t have to shout opposition slogans from the rooftops to know that direct disobedience will get you into trouble – or worse.
Even Aung Sa Suu Kyi’s name is not uttered, for fear of being overheard.
When I asked one man to name the most famous person in Myanmar, he nodded knowingly.
What? I asked.
He raised his eyebrows.
“I think you know who,” he said.
In Myanmar they call her “The Lady”, but they do not say her name. No-one has banned it, but people know the price of opposition.
We had to shake our minders to get an interview with an opposition spokesman. In one short trip I met a number of courageous people willing to stand up and be counted, despite the risks to themselves.
After just a few days there I became paranoid about every word spoken, every phone call and every email. But in the end, we could just leave. Others take risks because they know things will not change unless they do.
As we were checking in for our return flight, our minder asked me where I would be in a year’s time. Probably on base in Kuala Lumpur. And him?
In Korea, on a study tour sponsored by his ministry, he said.
North or South? I asked.
South, of course. He looked, for just a moment, genuinely hurt.
And what was he studying? Globalisation.
Even a military government wants a piece of the action.