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Is it a crime to write a book?

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. When I came downstairs at about 10.45pm, a hotel security guard was hovering around the lift on the fourth floor. Strange, I thought.

I went into the bar to listen to some live jazz. I had spent a week in Burma and had one more day to go. I had a key meeting the next day, and would then fly out that night. I thought I would relax for a few minutes.

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. I greeted them. “Good evening. I understand you want to speak to me. Please come in.” Inside, I was apprehensive, but I tried not to show it.

“We have instructions from Naypyidaw to deport you tomorrow morning,” they said. I expressed surprise, explaining that I was a tourist and had committed no crime. I asked the reason. They claimed they did not know and were just following instructions. During the interrogation, however, I noticed one of them flicking through a file which contained a photocopy of the front cover of my book on Than Shwe.

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.”

I told them I was in Burma because I love the country, the people, the food. “Yes, I know you love the country and the people,” one man replied. “What food do you like?” Curries and mohinga, I told them. They laughed.

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?” 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. Within it were two photographs of my one-month old nephew, which I showed them. It brought a few seconds of light relief, and they asked me if I had children of my own. I said I hadn’t. “Single?” Yes, single. They examined my Kindle with interest and asked me to show them how it works. “E-book?” they exclaimed. Yes, e-book.

At midnight they finished, and told me to be ready at 7am. 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 accidentally while putting my belongings back.

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 got it 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.” In that case, I thought, surely talk of lifting sanctions is ill-judged. To lift sanctions now, without meaningful change, simply rewards the Generals for nothing. Now is the time for the world to get tougher, to target pressure more carefully, to provide aid for the people and to investigate crimes against humanity through a UN inquiry.

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.

If my book is a problem, I asked, “why did you give me a visa?” He looked at me. “We are also asking that question.”

He asked whether I had any plans to write more books about Burma, and I told him I had just completed another, which would be published later this year. 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.

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.

Within hours of my deportation, the news had reached the media. I did not seek publicity, but it had already got out. Only once the media were running the story anyway did I decide I should speak about it, in order to ensure that the story did not descend into wild rumours which could make things worse. People inside Burma also asked me to speak out, to let the world know that nothing has changed.

Four days later, I sat in a refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border and watched Karen students graduate from a Bible School. They sang the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah, in a bamboo church at the foot of a mountain. The contrast between such physical and spiritual beauty, the suffering that these people had endured, and the secret police I met just a few days before was hard to absorb. One young Karen gave a graduation speech titled “Rebuilding our land”. He said: “The dictators want to make our people disappear from this world.” The principal, Pastor Simon, uttered the cry of people across Burma: “We want peace, justice and freedom for all the people of Burma. We want the regime to respect and treat us as brothers and sisters, not as enemies or slaves. We want the whole world to help. We want to go home – please help us.”

In contrast, I hadn’t wanted to go home – I wanted to stay just one more day. But the fact that I was forced to leave has given me a deeper empathy with the people of Burma, and reinforced my commitment to support their struggle for freedom. One man I met told me I was “very dangerous”. But, he added, “I like what you do. Keep doing it. This regime is like a psychiatric patient, who needs electric shock treatment. You give them electric shocks.” As much as possible, I’ll go on giving them electric shocks, until the day when Burmese exiles, refugees and I can go back to Burma together.

Benedict Rogers is the East Asia Team Leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, an international human rights organisation. He is the author of ‘Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant’ (Silkworm Books, 2010).


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