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A British human rights campaigner and author of a biography on Burmese junta chief Than Shwe has been deported from the country after officials, suspected to be military intelligence, tracked him to a Rangoon hotel.
Benedict Rogers, East Asia team leader for Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), had been in the country for a week before being ordered onto a Bangkok-bound flight on Wednesday morning.
“In some respects it’s a sign that they’re even more [paranoid] nowadays,” he told DVB from a taxi in Bangkok. “I’ve been in several times before and haven’t had any problem so it suggests that they’re watching people more closely now.”
Rogers, whose book ‘Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant’ was published last year, had been in the bar of his Rangoon hotel on Tuesday evening when he was notified that authorities wanted to see him.
“I went up to my room and there were six people outside the door who said they were from the immigration department. I found that hard to believe – they were all in plain clothes, and must have been from MI [Military Intelligence]. They said, ‘Mr Rogers, we have instructions from Naypyidaw to deport you tomorrow’.”
Surprised, he asked why, claiming he was just on holiday in Burma. The officials replied that they were just following orders and then began searching the room. “They looked at my camera but I had no sensitive pictures on there.”
They then demanded to copy the photos despite appearing surprised that the only photos were of tourist sites. Questioned why, they said: “We have to show our superiors something”.
They also looked through his Kindle and searched his luggage, and after finding nothing untoward seemed to agree that he was “just a tourist”. But, said Rogers, he noticed one of the men flicking through a file and on one page was a photocopy of the front cover of his book.
The officials left around midnight, but told him to be ready by 7am the next morning and said he was allowed to stay in the hotel.
Rogers said that the cordial treatment he received from the officials reinforced his belief that “the issue is the system and not all the people in the system”.
The next morning at Rangoon airport he was met by large group of people – “MI, I’m sure, as well as genuine immigration officials and police”. He said the consistent photographing of him at the airport was “perhaps the most disappointing and unnerving aspect of the whole experience”.
One of the officials from the previous night then showed up and informed him of the reason for his deportation. “We know that you have written several books about Myanmar, including ‘Than Shwe: Unmaking Burma’s Tyrant’,” Rogers recalled.
Is it a crime to write a book, Rogers asked? And hadn’t Burma had elections in November and isn’t it now a democracy? He said the official was somewhat stumped. “He said, ‘Well, no no, Myanmar will be a democracy one day, but slowly, slowly.’ But I thought Myanmar was changing? is there no change? And he said, ‘No, no change’.”
The official then said: “I would be very interested to read your book – do you have a copy with you?” Rogers replied that he didn’t, but offered to take his address and send one, “and he didn’t respond to that”.
Questioned also whether the Burmese government deports many foreigners, the official smiled and said, “Yes, many”.
The activist, who has monitored the human rights situation in Burma for a number of years, added: “I would like to emphasise that I did not seek media coverage of my deportation, and at no point did I inform the media or request anyone else to do so. I am only commenting on it because somehow the media had already been informed and I then felt it important to clarify what actually happened.”
He finished that his deportation was symptomatic of the fact that it was business as usual in Burma. “From everyone I met, it’s abundantly clear that there’s been no change; that everyone from quite a range of perspectives was of the view that the elections have been incredibly disappointing, even more than people expected, I think.”