Blacklisted: CNN reporter deported from Myanmar – again
By Dan Rivers, CNN Corespondent
The military government has clearly been stung by some of my previous reporting from the country and I understood that I was on the notorious journalist “blacklist,” which includes much of the Bangkok, Thailand-based press pack.
Perhaps before I explain what happened this time, I should explain my “past form” with the Junta.
When I first arrived in Bangkok in 2006, I was unknown to them. My first taste of the country many still call Burma, was in 2007 when our CNN team was officially invited to cover Armed Forces Day.
I was struck by the time-warp feeling that envelops you as you walk around the streets of Yangon, bereft of development as a result of Western sanctions, and, arguably the regime’s own actions.
We covered the “set-piece” military parade in the new capital Naypyidaw, which felt more like the set of “The Truman Show.” We also managed to film in a hospital in a small town outside of Yangon, and the scenes were pitiful and outrageous.
Myanmar spends less on health care than almost any other country on Earth, and it showed. After leaving, I understood that the authorities were incensed by my reporting at the hospital.
Later that year I was unable to report first hand on the pro-democracy rallies, dubbed the Saffron Revolution after the orange gowns of the monks who led the unrest. I was on air constantly from Bangkok, commentating on incredible footage emerging from citizen journalists among the crowds on the streets of Yangon. It would have no doubt further irritated the Junta.
But it was while covering the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, that I probably invoked the rage of the generals. CNN was one of the few western TV networks inside the country, and the only one to go live from the Irrawady Delta.
I felt strongly about the appalling scenes I was seeing and the obstruction of the Junta, which was blocking aid from getting to storm-ravaged areas. CNN decided to raise the profile of our coverage by allowing me to report on camera from inside the worst-affected areas.
After several days of playing cat and mouse with the Junta, which had gone so far as distributing my photo to checkpoints to try to catch me, I decided to leave. The Police Special Branch stopped me as I boarded the plane and I was officially deported.
So when I was told I was being given a journalist visa to cover this year’s Armed Forces Day I was flabbergasted.
We flew in on the same flight as most of the press pack from Bangkok. All of them managed to breeze through immigration without a hitch, but as soon as I presented my passport, the attitude of the smiling female immigration clerk changed.
Suddenly officials in uniform emerged from an office and took my passport away, urging me to “please wait.”
As the minutes ticked by I became ever more pessimistic about my chances of being allowed in. It appeared my name had been “flagged” on their computer system and I was convinced I would be immediately put back on the plane and forced to leave. I was therefore completely wrong-footed when after 45 minutes an officer emerged and gave me my passport saying I was free to go.
We didn’t hang around, in case they changed their mind. We spent the afternoon talking to sources, before embarking on the five-hour drive to the remote new capital, Naypyidaw.
Everything went smoothly and our guide seemed confident there would be no problems. We checked into a government-run guest house late Thursday. The next morning we followed our instructions and assembled at the Ministry of Information to get our accreditation for the military parade scheduled for Saturday.
But it soon became clear there was a problem. All of the other journalists received their documents without much of a delay. Finally only a BBC journalist, my cameraman and I remained in the ministry. More than an hour had passed and there was no sign of our accreditation. Then without warning I was asked to go into a room next door for a “meeting.”
Inside were four military officers and two special branch policemen. I shook their hands and smiled, handing out my business card, hoping that a sunny disposition would soothe their stern appearance. It didn’t. I was brusquely told that I had to leave “immediately.”
There was no explanation, no apology and no hanging around. I was ushered to collect my possessions and then taken to a battered station wagon for the long drive back to Yangon International Airport.
The two special branch police officers sat alongside me. An immigration officer was in the front passenger seat, another crammed into the trunk. Throughout our journey, the men were polite and courteous. They asked about my family and where I lived. I was unsure whether I was being gently interrogated or whether this was simply polite conversation to fill the silence.
At the airport I was whisked through immigration and my passport was taken. I sat guarded by an immigration officer for 90 minutes, and then at the last minute I was given back my passport and marched onto the airplane. The entire episode was filmed by the special branch officers.
When I finally breathed a sigh of relief I check my passport. “Deportee” had been stamped alongside my visa; the second time I have been kicked out of the country.
I can only presume the embassy in Bangkok had made a mistake in issuing the visa in the first place.
It is perhaps a microcosm of the mismanagement of the entire country that has been ailing under a military dictatorship since 1962.
Civil servants are terrified of their bosses, and their bosses in turn are paralyzed with fear of the generals above them. Small errors go uncorrected because no one dares to speak out.
It was fairly obvious that my name was on the “blacklist” – perhaps even at the top of it. But once the visa was in my passport, it would require somebody to assert an opinion, which in Myanmar is a dangerous thing to do.
Perhaps someone from the top finally grasped the nettle and ordered me out.
There can’t have been anyone more surprised than me to get a journalist visa for Myanmar since I’ve had a rather checkered past with the Junta.