Thu, May 15, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Myanmar: Where hunting down a journalist trumps saving lives

With corpses all over the Irrawaddy delta, one reporter learned first hand that the junta is more interested in keeping the eyes of the world out of the country

By Dan Rivers  /  CNN , BANGKOK

I realized we were in danger when our remarkably brave local contact told us the military government had put out a request to all hotels asking for a list of foreigners. We were told the regime had seen one of my reports and was furious I was in the country. They were specifically looking for me.

I was skeptical at first, but over the next few days it became apparent that despite the biggest humanitarian crisis in Myanmar’s history, the government was expending considerable time and energy trying to stop me from reporting on the true extent of the disaster. A colleague from the BBC had already been deported on arrival from the airport and it was clear they wanted me out next.

We started taking all the precautions we could: changing vehicles, changing locations and constantly staying on the move. But it was as we made our way into the worst affected parts of the Irrawaddy delta that I realized how serious the junta was in its attempts to stop me.

My colleagues had stopped to ask a local government worker whether the road ahead was clear. I’d decided to hide in a restaurant while this was happening, not wanting to be recognized. The civil servant said the road to Laputta was passable, but then a local immigration officer came over and started comparing everyone’s passport photos to a photo of me, apparently taken from my last report on CNN.

The others were shocked, but played dumb. The subsequent questioning lasted for an hour or so, but finally my team was released, the authorities presuming they were something to do with the aid operation in the area.

Meanwhile, I was pacing the streets, worried that they hadn’t returned and trying to remain inconspicuous, which was difficult when I was the only white face in town. Someone asked me half mockingly if I was with the CIA. I just laughed nervously and hoped the curiosity would die down.

Eventually I was reunited with the others, who were now all very concerned for our safety. We decided though to push on further toward Laputta, along many kilometers of dirt roads, until we spotted a checkpoint at a bridge. I hid in the boot of the car under a blanket, my cameraman scrambling to throw bags and boxes on top of me to disguise my contorted, lanky form. I was sweating heavily and frankly by now rather scared.

The three policemen on guard turned us back, saying the senior civil servant in the last town wanted to speak to us all again. We were now convinced that the authorities knew we were a TV crew and during the drive back we decided we were driving to certain arrest.

Our last gamble involved veering off the road along a jungle path toward the river. We hid the vehicle as best we could and managed to persuade some bemused villagers to take us across the river in two small boats. It was while walking out of that village that we were caught by a gruff, fat man who was barking into a walkie-talkie. I was horrified.

He told us we weren’t allowed any further and that the police were waiting for us at our vehicle. We were marched back, ever more alarming thoughts of what might happen swirling through my mind.

The police were at first angry and suspicious, but emolliating words, cigarettes, water and snack bars seemed to calm things down. They insisted on checking all our passports. I felt a churning sense of dread as I prepared to hand mine over. My greatest concern was for the local members of our team, who faced possible imprisonment and beatings if we were found out.

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