Wake up and smell the corruption

'Making a film in Burma is like successfully executing a military operation underwater, or in treacle'
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The Independent Online

In 1987, I spent what seemed like half the year in Burma, making a film for the BBC series Great Journeys. Well, I say "making", but I was only the presenter. All the hard producing and directing was done by a man called David Wallace, and watching him at work, I thanked my lucky stars that I was only the speaking head, because I came to realise that making a TV film may be as hard as executing a successful military operation, but making a TV film in Burma is like executing a successful military operation underwater, or in treacle.

In 1987, I spent what seemed like half the year in Burma, making a film for the BBC series Great Journeys. Well, I say "making", but I was only the presenter. All the hard producing and directing was done by a man called David Wallace, and watching him at work, I thanked my lucky stars that I was only the speaking head, because I came to realise that making a TV film may be as hard as executing a successful military operation, but making a TV film in Burma is like executing a successful military operation underwater, or in treacle.

Nothing in Burma was what it seemed. Promises, even when kept, were not kept in the form expected. Costs for things changed every time you took your eyes off the bill. Timetables were made of india rubber. It wasn't a question so much of moving goalposts as of moving the entire football pitch, because the Burmese have had to get used to living in parallel universes or alternate sets of truth.

For instance, we brought our own film crew, but the Burmese government kept insisting that they, the Burmese, should supply the cameraman, sound-man etc. That was clearly out of the question for us: we couldn't have a film made by local technicians who didn't have the right technique or equipment nor any knowledge of the English language. But it seemed that the Burmese government wasn't interested in having the film actually made by Burmese technicians; it was interested only in having us pay money to Burmese technicians for a week or two.

So, for the duration of the film-making, we had to transport these redundant Burmese technicians round, and pay for it all, even though they weren't doing any work outside the occasional humping of equipment. We had two film crews: one British, doing all the work, one Burmese, doing nothing.

It was a symbol of the whole country, in a way, because everywhere you looked, you found that things were operating at two levels. The economy itself was divided into two economies - the official economy, with official prices and official supplies, and the black economy, with real prices and unofficial but real sources of supply. What the government told you was nothing like what really happened. It had to pretend that everything was officially controlled and organised at government level, because even corrupt government officials have their pride and their face to save, but it knew that people were really getting their petrol and food and necessities in the black economy.

It knew that, because it was getting its own cut from the black market. Government officials who had access to petrol had a privileged position from which to make a few bucks themselves, and never failed to take advantage. I have done bits of business in Latin America and bits in Soviet Russia, and I have even had a little experience of Welsh local government, but there was more of a smell of corruption and profiteering in Burma than anywhere else I have been.

A smell of fear, too. The military thugs who ruled the country and didn't want their snouts taken out of the trough by anyone else seemed to have instituted a far-reaching system of spies and informers throughout the country. One of the friendly Burmese who worked with us was convinced that one if not all of the Burmese film crew we were carting round with us was a spy, set to report on our movements...

Well, the military thugs who were in power then are still in power now, still bleeding the country dry to line their own pockets, still torturing people, still ruling by fear and greed. Their only achievement has been to turn a country once rich in oil, a fertile place once known as the rice-bowl of Asia, a lovely place full of lovely people, into a place of poverty and suppression and fear. It takes no little stupidity, arrogance and corruption to do that.

Next time you read about Burma, remember that. Oh, and next time you hear or read anything said by the Burmese government, remember that it is lying through its teeth.

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