In an extract from Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads, author and human rights activist Benedict Rogers recalls his unceremonious exit from Burma in 2011.
In March 2011, I spent a week in Rangoon. I had arranged an appointment to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on my final day. At about 10.45 p.m. the previous night, having completed all my activities that day, I went into the hotel bar to listen to some live jazz. I thought I would relax for a few minutes. I had almost made it, and just had one more day, and the most important meeting, left. No more than five minutes after I sat down in the bar, I heard the words every activist in Burma fears: ‘Mr Rogers, the authorities want to speak to you.’ Outside my room, six plain-clothes military intelligence agents were waiting for me. Calmly, I finished my beer and went upstairs. Inside, I was apprehensive, but I tried not to show it.
I greeted the six men and invited them into my room. ‘I understand you would like to speak to me,’ I said. I invited them to sit down. ‘How can I help?’ Immediately, one man informed me that they had instructions from the capital, Naypyidaw, to deport me from the country the following morning. Initially, they claimed they did not know the reason, although as they searched my hotel room and luggage, I saw one of them flicking through his file which contained a photocopy of the front cover of my previous book, Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant, a biography of the previous dictator. They checked my camera. ‘These are just tourist pictures,’ one exclaimed. ‘Yes I told you I am just a tourist,’ I said. They asked to copy them, and I asked why. ‘We have to show our superiors something.’ They searched my luggage, but found nothing. They examined a large pile of books, including Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, which I had brought as gifts. ‘Nothing to Envy,’ one man read out slowly. Then he put it aside. The pile also contained a book and a film about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who stood up against Hitler and was executed. There was also a DVD called Nine Days that Changed the World, about Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland which sparked the Solidarity movement and ultimately led to the collapse of communism. They appeared not to know the significance of these. They took several photos. I reminded them that I had committed no crime. ‘Of course,’ said one with an insincere smile. ‘If you had committed a crime you would be in prison.’ Looking at my Bible, in a cover made by Karen ethnic people, they asked: ‘Is it an iPad?’ They examined my Kindle with interest and asked me to show them how it works. ‘Ebook?’ they exclaimed. Yes, ebook.
At midnight they finished, and told me to be ready at 7 a.m. They left, but five minutes later one man returned. ‘I left my notebook,’ he said. It felt like a French farce or a scene from Monty Python. After anxiously searching for a while he found it in my suitcase. He must have put it in there accidentally while replacing my belongings.
The following morning, I was escorted to the airport by two men, in a taxi. I asked again what the reason for my deportation was. ‘We’ll tell you at the airport.’ One man offered me a cigarette, which I declined. They paid for the taxi.
I was met by a large group at the airport – plain-clothes military intelligence, uniformed immigration officers, a few police. Every step I made I was surrounded by three or four men with cameras, and they took dozens of pictures. One unpleasant little man was a bit officious, barking orders at me and others, but most of the people were civil, and one or two were quite cheery. I said I wanted a cup of coffee, and one of them fetched one for me.
When the procedure was complete, two men sat down with me. ‘I can now inform you the reasons for your deportation. We know you have written several books about Myanmar, including Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant.’ With no sense of irony, he quoted the title in full.
I decided to ask them a few questions. Paul McCartney’s song ‘Freedom’ was echoing in my head. I remained polite, but my conscience would not allow me to go silently. I wanted them to know what I thought, but also that I didn’t blame them personally, I blamed the system. ‘Is it a crime to write a book?’ I asked. He looked surprised, and confused. Then, feigning ignorance and naivety, I continued. ‘In November, Myanmar held elections. So I thought Myanmar was becoming a democracy. In a democracy, it is very normal to write books freely, and very common to write books about leaders. Some books are positive, others are critical. But the fact that you are deporting me for writing a book suggests that Myanmar is not a democracy. So, I am confused. Can you tell me, is Myanmar becoming a democracy or not?’ He hesitated. ‘Myanmar will be a democracy one day, but slowly, slowly. We are in transition period.’ OK, I said, but transition implies change. ‘I thought Myanmar was changing. But deporting a foreigner for writing a book suggests no change. So is that correct – no change?’ He nodded enthusiastically. ‘Yes yes, no change, no change.’
I asked if he deports many foreigners. He smiled. ‘Yes, many.’ I asked if he thought my deportation was fair. He said he had not read my book, so he could not comment. ‘Do you have a copy of your book with you? I would be interested to read it.’ I laughed, and said I did not, but I offered to send it to him if he gave me his address. He didn’t take me up on the offer. He asked whether I had any plans to write more books about Burma, and I told him I had just completed another, which had not yet been published. With his pen and notebook at hand, he said: ‘Ah. What is the title?’ I wasn’t going to help him that much, so I told him he could wait until it was published. This is the finished product.
I told him it was a shame they were deporting me, because if they had allowed me to stay just one more day, I may have gone away with a more positive impression. Now, I would have no choice but to tell my friends that the regime in Burma was not changing at all. He looked at me impassively. I asked if he enjoyed working for a government that treats its people so badly, and if he knew that the ethnic nationalities in Burma were particularly suffering under this regime. This drew no response.
I asked what he thought about the events in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. ‘I don’t like this kind of change. I think it was created by al-Qaeda. Do you think it was created by al-Qaeda?’ No, I said, I did not. I acknowledged the risk of extremists taking advantage, but I said the movements in these countries were led by ordinary people who don’t like dictatorship. ‘But democracy gives al-Qaeda opportunities.’ No, I disagree. ‘Democratic, open societies are a better way to challenge extremism and terrorism than dictatorship.’
Then they told me I could go through to the gate for boarding. But they still had my passport, which they had taken, along with my air tickets, the night before. I reminded them that they had my passport, and they had a few minutes of confusion over what to do. I said with a smile: ‘No passport, I stay in Myanmar, OK?’ and we all burst out laughing.
They shook my hand and said goodbye. Looking them straight in the eye, I uttered my last words before leaving Burma: ‘Thank you for treating me well. I know that your government does not treat your own people well at all, but I am grateful that at least you treated me well.’ I know that if I had been Burmese, I would have been treated far worse. I might not even have survived.
Extract taken from Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads by Benedict Rogers (Rider).