John Simpson experiences Burma’s new “democracy”; dodging secret police through the streets of Rangoon after interviewing Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi talks on the phone to a reporter during an interview from her home Photo: REUTERS
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John Simpson, BBC News World Affairs Editor, learnt how to evade the Burmese secret police Photo: REX
John Simpson in Rangoon 8:00AM GMT 21 Nov 2010
Aung San Suu Kyi may have been released from her long years of house arrest, but she is still not free. The Burmese military government restricts her almost as much as ever.
Her son Kim is waiting in Bangkok, just over an hour’s flight away, but the Burmese authorities have not given him a visa to go and see her. She herself cannot leave the country, for fear that she will never be allowed to return. Her political party, the National League for Democracy, no longer exists officially. And she is under the observation of the security police twenty-four hours day.
Dr Suu Kyi’s officials assume that both her house and her headquarters are thoroughly bugged, in order to find out what her plans are and perhaps dig up further excuses to put her back under house arrest. Characteristically, her response is to take no notice. She certainly has not watered down her political line.
The government watches her obviously and aggressively, trying to cramp her style as she returns to daily life. Across the road from her headquarters, in a couple of shacks which are now an ad hoc police station, a group of plain-clothes security policemen is always gathered.
They are equipped with expensive stills and video cameras, and anyone who goes in or out of the headquarters is filmed and photographed. This is obviously a useful way of keeping tabs on any visitors, but it is also intended to intimidate Dr Suu Kyi’s supporters.
Characteristically, when I asked her about the activities of the security police last week, she maintained she had scarcely noticed them. This may not be literally true, but it is a statement of her state of mind. She insists on behaving as though she is completely free, and she seems to take no account of the police or the government’s sensitivities. Dr Suu Kyi is not a lady to mince her words.
Western journalists are not allowed into Burma, but a couple of dozen had managed to get tourist visas to enable them to cover her release. For us, the intimidation was pretty mild. The security police wanted to find out where we were staying and working, and taking our pictures was part of that process. Our mug-shots would be matched against the pictures on our visas, and at some stage we would be tracked down and asked, no doubt politely, to leave the country. Burma may be a police state, and an unpleasant one at that; but it usually sticks to the civilised norms with foreigners.
With Dr Suu Kyi’s Burmese supporters, though, the security police do not use kid gloves. This is why she stressed after she was freed that her own treatment under house arrest had been mild: she was anxious not to diminish the genuine sufferings of her party members who had been beaten and held under bad conditions in gaol for year after year.
Like secret policemen almost everywhere, the Burmese security are at one and the same time clever and grossly obvious. Like the Chinese security police, who seem to be in charge of training the Burmese, they are often good and often incompetent at following you. Good, because they are assiduous and there are large numbers of them; incompetent, because they know they have the power to do anything they want and this makes them stand out in any crowd.
Most obvious of all, many of them are equipped with garish little orange mopeds, made in China, which only the police can use in Burma. This means they can thread their way effectively through Rangoon’s heavy traffic in pursuit of their quarry; it also means that anyone riding an orange moped and staying tucked in behind your taxi is pretty certain to be following you.
It wasn’t hard to lose them. Rangoon is full of ancient, rusted taxis, and they are quick to respond if you wave at them. Fortunately, many of the main avenues are divided down the middle by railings. We learned to take a taxi in one direction, with our faithful orange moped behind us, then tell the driver to stop somewhere suddenly so the moped was forced to overtake us. Then we would jump over the railings and catch a taxi going in the other direction.
When we interviewed Dr Suu Kyi last Monday, our main concern was obviously to hold onto our tapes. The four of us – two cameramen, a producer and me – divided into two groups. We left her headquarters at the same time; two headed left while the others turned right. One of the cameramen and I jumped into a taxi and headed off, an orange moped close behind. At a big intersection we paid, jumped out, ran through the traffic, and jumped into another cab in the street at right angles to the avenue. As we crossed the avenue I spotted the orange mopedist at the lights, completely wrong-footed.
Our other team, who were carrying the main interview tape, had a harder time. Several policemen were following them, so they split up. The cameraman, who kept the tape, texted us to say he was having problems getting rid of his tail. At one stage he made his taxi-driver, who was extremely nervous, drive round a roundabout three times. Finally they stopped at a market and the cameraman vanished through it and out on the other side in a different street.
Compared with some places, Burma is relatively mild. The worst that would have happened to us was that we would have lost our tapes and been put on a plane out and blacklisted for ever more. That, I suppose will happen to us anyway. But having been banned from a range of countries in the past, including the Soviet Union to Czechoslovakia, Poland, China, Iran and Iraq, I know that times change and governments change with them. I expect I’ll be back in Burma eventually.
It’s even possible that Aung San Suu Kyi will be president by then.
John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor. His reports can be seen regularly on the BBC’s News at Ten, on the News Channel, and on BBC World.