The man I wanted to see was in the garden. The rains had stopped and we sat in the tropical darkness of Rangoon. The intellectual had spent four years in prison. His crime: he had written an article praising the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and he was now understandably cautious.
"If Aung San Suu Kyi were arrested or killed, it would be difficult for people to crawl out of the military regime's repression. They have driven a wedge of fear between us all," he said.
The secret police are everywhere in Rangoon. The hotel telephones are usually bugged, and there are informers in every government office and university building.
The waiters in the tourist restaurants are also skilled eavesdroppers. Even the family compound where Ms Suu Kyi lives is being watched by agents of the dreaded Military Intelligence (MI). So the Burmese are naturally jittery about being spotted in conversation with a foreigner.
I never saw any secret police following me in Rangoon, but my dissident friends assured me that I probably was being tailed.
Giant signboards have sprouted around Rangoon, proclaiming the "People's Desire". The fourth point of the "People's Desire" is: "Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy". Because the posters were in English, it is safe to assume they were a warning against nosey visitors like me.
At worst, the authorities would expel me as "a destructive element". But if my activist friends were caught, they would face a long and extremely painful spell in prison. To elude the MI agents, my pro-democracy friends had perfected dodges: we avoided the main avenues and instead stuck to the hilly back lanes. We sneaked through restaurant kitchens and strange little shops to meet dissidents.
Considering how cruel the ruling military can be with their own people, it is surprising how many risks some Burmese are willing to take. One well-known comedian, released after several years in prison for supporting the pro-democracy movement, tells his audiences: "Some of you may have heard that while I was in jail, they broke all my teeth. Well, it's not true. See?" he says, reaching into his mouth and pulling out a pair of dentures. "My teeth are beautiful."
Stay in Rangoon long enough and you begin to see subversion, or at least surreal anomalies, everywhere. Take the state-run newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar. A headline reminded readers of the "blood and sweat" that the military had sacrificed for the country, which is a very noble sentiment, except that it accompanied a photograph of five generals teeing-off on a golf driving range.
The ruling military council seems to vacillate between xenophobia and an almost childlike craving for affection and understanding.
Most of the construction going on in Rangoon is hotels for tourists, for the generals are rightly proud of their scenic country. But the junta's thuggishness frightens off many visitors, so hundreds of these new hotels are empty. Building hotels in Rangoon is an accepted way for "surrendered" Burmese druglords to launder their heroin money.
The most notorious of all the Golden Triangle heroin smugglers, Khun Sa, is enjoying the junta's hospitality in Rangoon. His transportation expertise, along with his narco-millions, are being put to good use by the generals. He has reportedly been given permission to operate a public coach line through Burma into China. Some anti-drug experts believe this is a government-sanctioned front for Khun Sa to expand his heroin-smuggling empire into the Far East.
While the ruling military council is willing to shield druglords, its cruelty towards its less influential "law-breakers" is chilling.
In the delta region of the Irrawaddy river, farmers must give 50 per cent of their rice crop to the army. Pro-democracy activists in the region said that recently one farmer's crop was destroyed by storms. So the farmer ran away. He was hunted down by the military commander and publicly strung from a tree. "After they hanged the farmer," said the activist, "the soldiers then chopped down the tree, as if to pretend that neither the farmer, nor the tree had ever existed."Reuse content