In a more subversive form of protest, I left behind my drivers license and iPod, which was stocked with the complete soundtrack of Glee.”
It’s coming up to one year since I was deported from Myanmar. A year since I took a government-funded cab ride to Yangon International. A year since the ink dried on the fancy black “Deportee” insignia in my passport. And a year of having the episode mercilessly appended to my name in social situations (“This is Kyle, he was kicked out of Burma”) and feeling obliged to follow it up with the story behind my ignominious departure – a half-hearted account of visas, and politics, and The Myanmar Times that starts with “Well, you see, it kind of happened like this” and usually fizzles out in the second act like an episode from the end run of The Nanny.
I was deported on October 9 2010; one month shy of the first Myanmar election since 1990, and a few months before Benedict Rogers, author of Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant, upstaged me by getting booted out of the country with a far superior internal monologue.
“In the moments before I met Burma’s military intelligence for the first time, I could feel something in the atmosphere. It was intangible, but something did not feel right,” he wrote for the Democratic Voice of Burma. “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…Looking at my Bible, in a cover made by Karen ethnic people, they asked: ‘Is it an iPad?’ No, I told them, it’s a Bible. What I should have said is that it is a book that contains a mandate to challenge injustice.”
Unfortunately, my thought process at the time was not as engaging. No hard questions were asked, no biting bon mots about freedom and democracy were formulated. It also suffered from the lack of a soundtrack.
When the hotel lobby phoned my room to tell me the immigration police had arrived, I was busy packing my stuff, nursing a hangover and thinking about a piece of advice a friend had given me the night before. “Just go limp,” he said.
“I should pretend like I’m asleep?”
“No, no, just go limp. Make yourself so floppy that they have to drag you to the airport.”
As a strategy it had its charms. I was staying in one of the city’s best hotels, on a floor that afforded a beautiful view of the streets and pagodas, and on my last night I rued that like so many expats I’d never really taken the time to see them from a supine perspective, which being hauled by the ankles would definitely afford.
But in the end, I spared the police that last act of defiance and opted to walk to the taxi instead. Though in a more subversive form of protest, I left behind my drivers license and iPod, which was stocked with the complete soundtrack of Glee. Let the roboticised cover of Don’t Stop Believing be forever traded clandestinely.
Like the election itself, the whole chain of events that led up to my deportation remains bleary and surreal to my eyes.
Nevertheless, to mark the near-anniversary of both, here is how it all went down.
You see, it kind of happened like this.
I touched down in Yangon on March 13, 2010, to start what was supposed to have been a three month internship at The Myanmar Times – a weekly, dual-language journal, and sister paper to The Phnom Penh Post. I had previously done a six-month internship at the Post’s Siem Reap bureau, but nothing could really prepare me for working for the media in Yangon.
For journos lucky enough to score a business visa in Myanmar, a semantic ballet is still usually necessary for the “Occupation” tab on the form. Reporters tend to be officially in the country as “computer technicians” or “Internet repairmen” or something.
I was in town as a “tourist”, meaning I was spared a certain amount of scrutiny about my purpose in the country, but the application form did require some artistic licence. Instead of listing my true address, which had links to the company, I put down the name of the only hotel I knew, which happened to be high profile and staggeringly out of my price range. As far as immigration knew, I was Kyle Sherer: playboy tourist.
I was met at the airport by a colleague, who took me straight to the office so he could check out the paper. Every week on Friday, a finished printout edition was sent to the government, where it’s jiggled and squeezed by expert hands at the nip/tuck wing of the Press Scrutiny Board, which is responsible for censoring local media. The board sends back a censored version the following night, with cuts labelled in red texta, and the paper is reshuffled accordingly and printed for public consumption on Monday morning. I’d heard of the newspaper mantra “If it bleeds it leads” before, but at the Times it was sadly the opposite. If it led, it bled. The front-page articles would usually get the worst of the surgeon’s knife.
I started leafing through the early edition while my colleague talked in hushed tones to one of the staffers. One of the pages had the banner “State Opinion” and a story headlined “The Brightness of the Sun”, which discussed how under the glorious light of the sun, people see things as they truly are, and cannot mistake a mountain for a valley, or a river for a lake.
“They get pretty poetical on this page, don’t they,” I said.
“They make us print that shit,” he said, without looking up.
A few months on, I knew the score – or presumed to think so. The newsroom contained dozens of young, talented reporters churning out stories, some of which I was privileged enough to help with or sub-edit. I wrote about the partial collapse of a building, which left a teenage girl dead, and an entire block of flats exposed like a dollhouse. I wrote about a spirit festival, and a market fire, and a kite-fighting competition. But as the year wore on, and I stayed past my three months, it slowly became clear that there was only really one story in 2010: the election.
Fearful and loathsome on the campaign trail
I was sitting in a bus about two hours from Yangon when the anxiety began to take hold. The bus was headed to a political rally for an opposition party, but it had been stopped at a regional checkpoint so that police could inspect everyone’s papers. Flanked by a reporter and a photographer, with no passport and the wrong visa, “Kyle Sherer: playboy tourist” was in trouble.
The rally was to be my third experience in the political scene.
My first taste was a national gathering of candidates for one of the democratic opposition parties, held in their sauna of a head office. They had all gathered to give rousing speeches to the press; but as the speeches were all in Burmese, I was forced to rely mainly on hand gestures. After four hours or so of experiencing what were no doubt sensational salvos for democracy wash over my head, there was a merciful intermission that allowed me to corner one of the English-speaking candidates.
The candidate I interviewed was fluent in English, having lived in Los Angeles as an expat during the 80s. He was the only person there wearing a Hawaiian shirt.
I asked him what his first priority would be if elected, and he answered that he would commence talks with Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD, anti-government groups and student unions, to help bring international legitimacy to the new parliament.
When I asked him what his second priority was, he launched into a 12 minute rant about hip hop.
“Rap and hip hop music comes from the United States; rap music came into popularity 20 years ago. They never – yes, once in a while they top the charts. But most of the time, rock and pop is all over the board – all over it,” he said, with all the vigour and sincerity of a pre-election Obama.
“But in Burma media, Myanmar television and such, they say hip hop is…that it supercedes the whole world, something like that. It is not true, I know it. I’ve been there and I know it. Hip hop and rap is okay, but they are top of the charts once in a while only, not all the time. And also, I don’t like their dance.”
For the rest of the entire interview, resistant to any attempt to change the topic, the politician broke down the hip hop conspiracy tier by tier – a sinister plot that involved the US government, MTV, black people and the entertainment media. It was like something from a Dan Brown novel, if professor Robert Langdon had worked at a community college.
My second experience in politics was following that party on the campaign trail, as they knocked on doors, handed out leaflets and blasted party songs from their white van. The party canvassed voters in well-developed apartment blocks in the city, in compounds for military families, and in clusters of tiny houses in the muddy, unpaved outskirts.
Initially the public response was subdued, which one of the candidates blamed on the timing. “This is a Sunday morning,” he said. “Not many people will be awake.” But as the Myanmar proverb goes: it is hard to awaken those who are pretending to be asleep.
On the morning of the fateful rally, I arrived at the office at 4:00am. I met the reporter I was accompanying, roused the photographer from the sleeping bag under his desk, and took a lift with the reporter’s intimidating father to the bus station.
We caught the bus with one of the politicians who was preparing to speak at the rally – a stern, matronly woman who made brief small talk with the reporter. I mostly looked out the window, figuring that since I was up so early I’d force myself to appreciate the dawn scenery.
When they stopped the bus to check papers, anxiety clawed up my body and clenched my chest like a fist.
The Myanmar people on the bus all filed past the police with their ID cards, as the bored guards scribbled down notes. As I drew near the front of the queue, I started thinking of escape methods. Maybe if I acted confident and just walked past, they wouldn’t stop me. I could just seamlessly melt into the crowd of Myanmar passengers. Or I could just pretend it was a misunderstanding. “A journalist? No, no, I’m just a tourist. You mean this isn’t the bus to Shwedagon pagoda?” But unfortunately there was no escape. My tourist visa had long expired, and the police surmised that I was not on the bus for sightseeing.
The bus was stopped and I was told to sit on the wooden bench outside the small checkpoint. It felt as though I had been called to the principal’s office.
There were three cops inside, all writing down notes and talking to their superiors on the phone. Soon enough, the politician stormed up and chewed them out about the halted bus, which they then said could depart for the rally, sans me.
I watched the bus disappear over the horizon, and after about 20 minutes they called a jeep for me and sent me back to the office.
Later that day, the office was phoned by various government departments, and I was advised to move to the residency that I was “officially” supposed to be at – the expensive hotel. Fortunately for me, the publisher generously picked up the tab, making me feel obliged to go and thank him in person. The next day, I popped into his office.
As I entered he was looking out the window at a car that caught his eye. “Mate!” he said, “How’s the hotel?” A secretary poked her head in the door.
“Sir, I asked the owner, that car is 12 lakh,” she said.
“12 lakh!” he yelled. “That’s outrageous, that’s $1,200 a month just to rent it. What do you think about that?” he asked me. “For $1,200 a month you could get something better in Aus, couldn’t you?”
“Uh, it’s daylight robbery,” I said. “Now, uh, with my situation...”
“Unbelievable,” he said. “Do you know your case went all the way to the Minister for Home Affairs and the Minister for Immigration? Do these ministers have lives or what? And come on, $1,200 a month, for a car made in 1996?”
It remains the longest conversation we have ever had.
The publisher and the office really went to bat for me, giving me tremendous support for which I am still grateful. And, for a week, it even seemed that I might get to stay.
But the day came that I was informed that I would be leaving the next morning, and so I found myself looking at the city out the window of my far-too-expensive hotel suite for the last time.
Two officers from the Ministry of Immigration met me in the foyer and escorted me to the airport. I was initially determined to be quiet and implacable, but that façade became impossible to keep up under their relentless desire for amiable small-talk about family and Australia. In a daze, I was shuffled through the airport, taken to the immigration booth and escorted to the airport gate, which I wasn’t allowed to leave. And a mere couple of hours later I was standing in Bangkok, squinting under the brightness of the sun, and wondering if it would have played out differently should I have gone limp. After all, it’s hard to wake someone up when they’re pretending to be asleep.