As the plane descended into Rangoon’s international airport, I noticed a slight change in my heartbeat. I felt calm, but also excited, knowing that I was about to return to Burma for the first time in 24 years.
Inside the airport, a young immigration officer smiled as I gave him my passport. He was quite chatty, asking me about The Irrawaddy – how we gather news from inside Burma, how we designed our website. With a smile that betrayed his betel-chewing habit – his teeth had a telltale tinge of red – he said he visited our site as often as possible. Meanwhile, the people waiting in line behind me grew impatient as they were made to wait until my friendly interrogation was finally over.
A TV crew from Al Jazeera that came to film my arrival was soon joined by officers from the Special Branch who also wielded cameras. They politely snapped a few photos, and I smiled back at them. I also jokingly told them to make sure they reported the correct information about me to their superiors. They assured me they would, asked me my age, and then left me alone.
Finished at the airport, I made my way to my hotel downtown. Looking around at the city where I had spent the first 20 years of my life, I was struck by how much it had changed since 1988. Thoughts of my final days there also crowded my mind. At that time, Rangoon was in a state of upheaval, with soldiers everywhere, gunfire crackling all around and blood staining the streets. Fear and anarchy gripped the former capital.
But even during my years in exile, I never truly left Burma. Day and night, it was always in my mind. I closely followed events in my country from neighboring Thailand. I wrote about developments there on a regular basis, first for Thai newspapers and then for The Irrawaddy, which I founded in 1993. I also made frequent visits to the Thai-Burmese border, where I occasionally slipped into rebel-controlled territory to get a very different perspective on the country of my birth.
In my dreams, I returned countless times to my home and family in Rangoon. But these dreams always ended as nightmares, as I found myself surrounded by secret police and local informers.
My grandmother, who is now in her 80s and living with me in Thailand, was genuinely worried when I told her that I had received a visa to return to Burma. Like most Burmese, she has a deep mistrust of the authorities. She advised me to chant Buddhist sutras to ward off any misfortune that might befall me.
By the time I arrived at the hotel, the slight tension I had felt earlier had dissolved. The spirit of Burma embraced me, and I began to ease into the feeling that I was back home.
But even at this moment, some things seemed strange. The sound of hotel staff greeting guests with a cheerful “Mingalaba,” for instance, was slightly jarring to my ears. In my childhood, it was a word we used only when speaking to our teachers; now, however, you hear it every time you enter a restaurant or hotel.
After a lunch meeting with a group of editors and publishers in downtown Rangoon, I rushed to meet Tint Swe, the deputy director general at the Ministry of Information. The reception was warm. Without beating around the bush, we quickly jumped into a discussion about the changing media landscape, the draft media law and many other issues surrounding media development in Burma.
It was a bit of a surreal experience, since we usually derided the press censorship board in our publication. And yet, there I was, sitting and speaking with a senior censorship official in his office—in a building known to most Burmese writers as the headquarters of the “literary Kempeitai,” because it had been used during WWII by the Kempeitai, Japan’s notorious wartime military police force.
After that meeting, I went to a market near Shwedagon Pagoda, where several people grabbed me and asked me to sit down for a chat. They spoke to me as they would to a long lost friend. Some recognized me from “Dateline Irrawaddy,” our weekly TV program broadcast via the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma. They said they read our website, which became accessible in Burma last year after the government lifted a ban on the exile media, and had heard about my visit on the radio.
This happened quite a few times, in restaurants, markets and offices. People would come up to me and suddenly start talking about the political situation in the country. When I asked one restaurant owner who approached me what she thought of the recent reforms, she answered bluntly in English: “It’s all just for show.”
My next meeting that day was with senior writers and editors. As I sat down, I could feel their anger toward press censorship board officials. The mood only got worse after a few whiskeys. When I asked some of them if I should try to set up a publication inside Burma, they warned me that it would involve entering into an “unholy alliance” with the authorities. I recalled something a censorship official had already told me: If we wanted to work in Burma, we would have to go through the censorship board.
Other members of the exiled media who have visited Burma since the government started relaxing press controls last year have come away with the same impression that I got during my trip: They say the government wants to present itself as more press-friendly, but in reality, it still isn’t ready to allow us to operate freely inside Burma. In one form or another, restrictions will remain.
Another problem we would face in returning to Burma is the fact that the media there is already dominated by relatives and cronies of senior military officials. Although most are apologists for the military-dominated government, many are also opportunists, eager to use photos of Aung San Suu Kyi to boost circulation. In short, they are completely unprincipled, and see the media as just another way to make money. As Dr Phone Win, the founder of the NGO Mingalar Myanmar, warned me, we would be swallowed up in seconds if we tried to enter this market unprepared.
My misgivings about working inside Burma were also reinforced by a casual remark made by a retired senior intelligence officer I happened to meet on that first day. “Can’t you tone it down? If you want to come back again, you have to be less critical,” he said in a friendly voice. It was a message that made my first night’s sleep in Burma an uneasy one.
Open Talks in Naypyidaw
Early the next morning, I received an urgent message: “Come to Naypyidaw as soon as possible.” We quickly jumped into a van and sped off. The road to the new capital was empty and wavy—after a few hours drive, we stopped at a rest area where we had a wonderful lunch.
After a few more hours in the van, we finally saw the “Welcome to Nay Pyi Taw” sign. It was a welcome sight, as it was already 3:30 pm and we were worried that we would be late. As we entered the city, I recalled how many stories I had written about the many secrets surrounding Burma’s new capital. The biggest mystery—apart from the reason for creating it in the first place—was how many billions of dollars had been spent on this monument to military supremacy.
After a brief handshake with Information Minister Kyaw Hsan, who was leaving the ministry’s compound as I arrived, I went straight to the office of Ye Htut, the director general of the ministry.
The former colonel was a well-read man who had written several articles and published a few books, including a translation of “Decision Points,” the autobiography of former US President George W Bush. We spoke for a few hours, and I was impressed by his candidness, even if I wasn’t convinced that the government wasn’t about to usher in a new era of media freedom. As I left the building, I met other officials, including a deputy minister who sounded like he was an avid reader of The Irrawaddy.
That evening, I met the director of the president’s office Zaw Htay. Over dinner, we discussed various issues related to Burma, including its role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China’s influence, US sanctions, ethnic conflict and Aung San Suu Kyi. We didn’t agree on many issues, but that wasn’t our purpose anyway. I just wanted to offer my perspective as a journalist, and felt that the exchange of views was worthwhile.
At 4 o’clock the next morning we left Naypyidaw for the long trip back to Rangoon, where we were scheduled to meet Aung San Suu Kyi at noon. The beauty of the dawn landscape as we drove through central Burma made it impossible for me to return to sleep.
When we reached the headquarters of the National League for Democracy (NLD), we had to wade through a large crowd to get inside to see the party’s famous leader. During our brief meeting—which had to be kept short to fit into Suu Kyi’s busy campaign schedule—she explained that the party had decided to join this year’s by-elections despite boycotting the vote in 2010 because the political situation in Burma is changing everyday. We also spoke about the international reaction to recent changes. As we parted, she said that we have to keep working for the good of the country no matter where we are.
Before leaving the NLD headquarters, I met with two other senior leaders—Win Tin and Tin Oo—for a lively chat that was, unfortunately, repeatedly interrupted by other visitors and phone calls. Though they are both in their 80s, they are sharp and full of energy. I noticed that Win Tin seemed to be always thinking about the long-term survival of the party and how to rebuild.
During our meeting, Tin Oo flashed a copy of The Irrawaddy and said that he used to get the magazine when he was under house arrest. Saying how much he enjoyed reading it, he asked with a broad smile: “I wonder how many years I would have gotten in the past if I was caught with this magazine?”
Later that day I met with 88 Generation leader Ko Ko Gyi, a former student activist who is now 50. I noticed that he was also a strategic thinker who always kept abreast of events. Released from prison in January as part of an amnesty that included hundreds of other jailed dissidents, he said he didn’t want to end up back behind bars. He said he wanted to go abroad and see the world—and prepare for Burma’s next election in 2015.
My five-day stay was passing so fast that I barely had time to notice the city where I grew up. At one point, I passed Rangoon University, where I had been a student in 1988, and my heart sank to see the state it was in. The dormitories were empty and tall bushes grew up around all the buildings. Its decrepitude was a sad legacy of military rule—the former ruling generals, including ex-intelligence chief Khin Nyunt, who once chaired an education committee, had systematically destroyed Burma’s proud tradition of higher learning because they feared student unrest.
Another product of Burma’s era of direct military rule was the rise of super-rich cronies of the generals. Business people I spoke to said that these multi-millionaires, who thrived in Burma’s closed economy, now dread the prospect of sanctions being lifted, as that would open the floodgates of competition.
During my trip, I also noticed that no matter what the subject of discussion, there were always very different versions of what was really going on behind the scenes. Whether we were talking about the supposed split between reformists and hardliners, the influence of retired generals Than Shwe and Maung Aye, or any other subject, my interlocutors—senior officials, editors, diplomats and other well-informed individuals—often offered wildly different interpretations of the “true story.”
The only thing that anyone can say with certainty about the current political situation in Burma is that there is a new dynamism now that could take the country in any number of different directions. As one businessman told me, we’d better have a plan B if we want to return, because “You never know what will happen next.”
When I asked Mingalar Myanmar founder Phone Win about the recent return of some exiles, he said: “The ones who left Burma [in 1988] are coming back to become advisers to the president, and those who remained in Burma will soon become rebels.”
On the last day of my trip, I followed Suu Kyi’s campaign tour to Kawhmu, the impoverished Irrawaddy Delta township where she is running for a seat in Parliament. There is no doubt that for many Burmese, Suu Kyi is their greatest hope for real, positive change. Everywhere, her supporters came out in force to greet her as she made the grueling journey from Rangoon to Kawhmu. Even a coffin that passed the crowds on the way to the cemetery was bedecked with NLD flags.
Before catching the plane back to Thailand, I met Ludu Sein Win, one of Burma’s most respected journalists. It was a good way to collect and assess my thoughts about all that I had seen and heard, because I knew that he would offer a wise and honest analysis.
Critical of both Thein Sein and Suu Kyi, he warned that it is never a good idea to put too much faith in one person—advice that he also gave to Suu Kyi, who appears to place a great deal of trust in the president. He added that Burma’s military leaders were cunning and manipulative, and would not give up power easily.
In answer to the big question in my mind—whether The Irrawaddy should move to Burma—he said the best and safest course was to maintain a base in Thailand and continue to produce independent journalism.
To my delight, he blasted some naïve foreign analysts and governments who were rushing into Burma. He said that many of his own articles were still being blocked by the censors.
I wished that I could have spent more time with him, but I had to go. In parting, I said that I hoped to return to see him again soon. But I joked that whether that will be possible will probably depend on what I write about my trip when I return to Thailand.
As my plane rose over the city, I looked down and noticed that many of the small temples surrounding Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma’s most sacred shrine, were covered with gaudy lights. I wished that I could write something about this in the local press, but I knew that that would have to wait for another day.
After 20 years away, I could see that Burma has changed, but perhaps not enough. My only hope as I returned to Thailand was that my first visit to my home country in nearly a quarter of a century wouldn’t be my last.Five days in Burma,