How Burma's resistance cheated the secret police

Click to follow
The Independent Online
RUNNING OR, more accurately, fleeing, down a road leading off an intersection close to Rangoon University, I wondered, for a moment, just a moment, what would happen if I stopped and waited to see what the baton-wielding riot police would do to a foreigner who was clearly not part of the protest they were breaking up.

Looks of genuine terror on the faces of those around me quickly pushed this idea out of my mind. The Burmese military and police are not known for their subtlety.

I had been observing a student demonstration, the first in over two years. It was a small affair organised in great secrecy. I knew of its existence only because I happened to be in the area and a woman in a car called out that students were gathering near by.

Anyone contemplating open protest in Burma faces considerable risks. Even the woman in the car, had she been spied by the many informers out on the streets, could have been thrown into jail for talking to me.

Shortly after this demonstration Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition movement, told me: "If you do something that you're not frightened by I'm not sure it means that much but if you take part in a protest when you are frightened, that really is something.

"Fear and courage walk side by side," she added. "What we have to overcome is the fear." The NLD won an overwhelming parliamentary victory in 1990 but was not allowed to take its seats.

Only a fool would not sense the fear in Burma today. Yet there certainly is courage. Every single person at this demonstration faced the prospect of jail in horrendous conditions for many years. As I ran down the road three students surrounded me and hustled me into an alley, fearing that I was too conspicuous. I urged them to leave me but they insisted that I take shelter in a nearby house where I was admitted without question.

By the time I left the house, plunging into darkened alleys, we had a tail. The students guiding me out still refused to leave me alone. The military intelligence officer trailing us made little attempt to conceal his presence and hung around until I disappeared in a taxi. The students left in another direction. I very much hope they are all right.

When I went to interview Ms Suu Kyi, I managed to attract even more attention.

Not so long ago it was possible to go to her house in University Avenue where a cluster of goons surrounded the entrance, taking pictures of everyone going in and out. Now the part of the street where she lives is sealed off to foreigners, except diplomats. Her phone has been disconnected. To meet her, elaborate preparations have to be made through intermediaries.

It was finally decided to arrange a meeting at the house of Bohmu Aung, one of the country's national heroes, a comrade-in-arms of Ms Suu Kyi's father, Aung San. The central player in Burma's struggle for independence, Bohmu Aung is relatively untouchable. However, this did not stop the ubiquitous military intelligence officers swarming round his house with cameras and putting a tail on foreigners as they left the premises.

First we left on foot, with an officer close behind. Then we jumped in a taxi. A large black car instantly materialised to follow us. We headed for a hotel, leapt out of the taxi and into one of the lifts. The man trailing us just missed the lift. We fled down the fire exit.

The foreign media, usually described as "destructionists'' by the government propaganda machine, are an obsession with the regime.

The small band of mainly elderly Burmese journalists who work for foreign news agencies sensibly keep away from the visiting overseas media and stick to reporting stories that will not land them in jail.

Sending out stories and film involves elaborate circumnavigation because all phone lines are tapped, all fax machines have to be registered and their output is carefully monitored. The new Burmese Internet service is also subject to considerable surveillance.

Yet news seeps out, foreign radio stations are avidly listened to, word of mouth on the streets conveys information about protest activity.

The regime cannot seal every crack in the information network, even though it is doing its very best.