An Altogether Fouler Fowler Experience (a bookend to Robbie)
Updated: Jul 16
As the sun goes down this afternoon there is stillness, serenity, and peace. Why now? This feeling, it was not there this morning, nor yesterday, nor the day before, nor before that. Then there was fear. But this, now, is it prescience, a deep abiding calm before a storm?
Outside the bus in which I sit there is such richness in colour. Again, it seems richer than yesterday. Shadows are longer, a man’s skin is more golden brown. He musters cattle up a track towards the main road between Mandalay and Rangoon, the white cows with big humps on the back of their necks, the cows of Asia and Africa. The cows at the front stop and eat but the rest of the herd walks along the track, goaded by a piece of bamboo. There is beauty in the simplicity of the scene. It captivates me.
When I embarked on this bus, it was not the bus I thought I would be boarding. ‘Sorry,’ a man had said, ‘mistake, we overbooked.’ And so I do not board the big coach with a smattering of tourists on it. Instead I am ushered on to another bus, a more run down bus full of soldiers in military uniform. Later I will realise that there has been no mistake, but for the moment, while I find my predicament of some concern, I can deal with it. Only two days ago I was sitting and eating coconuts with a group of soldiers outside a Burmese military battalion compound in Shan State. They had waved me down to share their food. On the same day I had lunch actually inside the compound of another military battalion. The second group of soldiers had told me that they had just returned from the front line and that they would be stationed here, safe, for the next four months. They had said to me, “You are the man who was filming in the market.” “Yes,” I replied, but later we talked about other things. One of the soldiers, an older man in his late 50s, used to be a geography teacher and he talked about the climate, the flora, the fruits and the vegetables that we have in Australia. He is pleased to talk in English about a subject in which he has obvious interest.
On this trip, filming in Burma, the Burmese military have been what I have feared most. It was the same on my first trip, writing and taking photos. These are the bad guys. But when they sit you down, one on one, they seem very much like any other Burmese: they share their food, they are friendly and they are happy to talk to me about both their country and my own.
Now, on this bus full of soldiers, I am concerned for my personal security but I have dealt successfully with soldiers before.
I walk down the aisle and find that my seat is at the back of the bus, on the right hand side, the aisle seat, not the window seat. There is a man already sitting in it and he is talking to the man in the seat beside him. They look at me with hard faces and sharp eyes, a sentence is exchanged with the two men in the seats in front, and then the man sitting in my seat moves. I see that both he and the man sitting next to the window are wearing jeans and western style shirts. In Burma in 2001 it is a sign of wealth or importance or at least of people who want to show that they might be wealthy or important.
When I sit in my seat, I think to myself, I know these hard faces, I have encountered them before. These are the faces of military intelligence. Hard and cold but still I do not feel too threatened. Then a peculiar thing happens. When the bus starts the man sitting in the window seat pushes his elbow hard into me. As he does this I see that there is a gap of almost six inches on the other side of his seat, between himself and the window. He has his hand braced on this part of the seat so that he can push harder. It is very strange behaviour. I do not understand. There is ample room for us both.
I do not confront the man but instead brace myself and push back. I begin to sweat, such is the exertion. This cannot be comfortable for him either.
This lasts for many minutes and we are well into the beginning of our journey before the man shifts himself into the middle of his seat and sits in a normal position. It is a relief and I look past him and out of the window. Sunset in Burma, a time when the rural workers return from the fields, a beautiful time of day.
I do not know how the conversation begins but I start talking to the man. He is surprised that I can speak some Burmese and as I ask him whether or not he is married he looks at me quizzically. He asks if I am married and I say that I have a girlfriend but that she cannot travel with me because she is working in Australia. I ask, ‘Do you have children?’ and he says he has two. ‘What are there names? How old are they? Do you like children?’ I ask in Burmese. He answers and I tell him that I also like children.
This man sitting next to me, he is military and probably military intelligence but now we are talking person to person about children and families. And for the first time there is an ease in his manner and warmth in his face.
After dark the bus stops at a restaurant, the dinner stop, and when I disembark the man asks me if I will join and him at a table. We sit down and he asks me what I would like to eat. I say I will get my own food but he persists and I accept his offer. ‘Pork curry thank you,’ and with that he departs. When he returns we eat and as we do so he shows me a chain with a feather on it that he is wearing. He asks if I like it and I say yes. Then he offers it to me as a gift but I do not accept: it seems too substantial a gift to accept and I still have misgivings for the bizarre elbowing incidents that had occurred.
When dinner is finished we return to the bus. However, once the bus continues on its way the strange pushing behaviour begins again. There is no more talking and the man pushes against me as if wanting to make my journey as uncomfortable as possible. But this time the problem is easily solved. At the back of the bus there are two seats on either side of the aisle. But between these two sets of seats, slightly recessed in amongst the baggage is another seat. This seat is now empty and so, without further ado, I move from my seat into this one.
When I sit down the man who had originally been in my seat when I got on the bus turns and looks back at me from down the bus. His face is again hard and I remember this image clearly. But after this I do not remember much at all.
It is no more than twenty minutes after our dinner stop and they put a video on the television at the front of the bus. It is ‘The Gods must be Crazy II’ and I would like to see this film as I haad enjoyed the first film. But then I slump forward. I pick myself up. ‘I would like to watch this film’ I am thinking to myself but I cannot keep my eyes open. I try, even to the cartoon-esque extent of trying to hold them open with my fingers. This is not normal. I sleep very little on overnight bus rides. But tonight it is eight o’clock and I cannot keep my eyes open. Then I pass out.
When I wake up next it is still dark, the bus has stopped and there is no one inside. It is breakfast stop at 5:30 in the morning. I get my camera bag and get out of the bus. I sit at a table only a few metres away, order some coffee, but then people begin boarding a bus. I join them but as I walk up the steps, the bus driver waves me away. This is the wrong bus. I am confused and go off to find my seat on the correct bus. Then, when the bus starts, I open my camera bag. My camera is there, my sound recording microphone is there, all of my blank tapes are there: US $8,000 worth of equipment, a lot of money in a country where public servants and members of the military are paid US$10 a month. But all of the video tapes which I have been filming on have been removed.
Some days earlier I had been talking to a friend of mine, an old, well educated Burmese man with a history of confrontation with the Burmese military. He had said, ‘Military intelligence will be keeping track of you. You have been to this country before, you have a three month visa, you spend too long in places where tourists spend much shorter times, you have a video camera and you take pictures that tourists do not take. They will be watching you. They will leave you alone here in Shan State but you must be careful when you go back to Rangoon.’
It is still dark and the bus drives on. I sit and think slowly, very slowly. It is like my thoughts are a quagmire through which I am consciously plodding, one laboured step at a time. I realise what has happened – I have been drugged and whilst asleep my recorded footage has been taken. I am not scared by this, not now, in fact I am bizarrely relaxed but this is almost certainly the effect of the drugs. I sit and try to work out what to do. Then we pull into a military compound. A group of soldiers walk around the outside of the bus and stop near the back windows, looking in at me. Another six soldiers get on at the front of the bus, walk about a third of the way down the aisle and then stop. The man at the front, a solid man with a big face asks someone for papers. They are produced and he looks at them and in between looks up at me. The soldiers disembark and the bus drives on.
It is getting light now and I think, ‘Should I confront the man I was sitting next to?’ But what would this achieve? Any confrontation will only make things worse. I sit and look at him. He is sleeping or pretending to sleep in a half curled up position with his back towards me, maybe so I cannot see his face? I don’t know.
Like at sunset last night, outside there seems to be a pervasive sense of peace. The sun is rising over the hills and the rice paddies and people are getting ready to begin the day.
We reach Rangoon and the bus pulls into the Northern bus station. The man and I have not spoken but outside the bus I go to him, touch him on the arm, and ask him for a cigarette. It is a simple gesture - I do not want him to walk away from what has happened without any further communication. He does not look at me, does not speak, but he gives me a cigarette before joining the two people that had sat in front of me and the man that had originally been in my seat. Together they walk to a white car with dark tinted windows and a Burmese flag on the front left hand side. It is an important car. They get in and the car drives off. I find a taxi to take me to my regular hotel in Rangoon. About half way through the journey my state of mind changes sharply. Adrenalin kicks in and my plodding fogginess seems to dissipate in almost an instant. My heart races and I am scared. I am well aware that apart from a few international representatives that have been hand picked by the military, foreign media is not at all welcome in Burma.
Once I am at the guest I check into a room. I have known one of the staff for years. I tell her that I have had a problem with the military. She calls a young waiter and they lock the front doors of the guest house and pull across the curtains. The waiter stands on one side, peering out through a small gap. I go upstairs and destroy all of the notes I have taken on this trip. I block the toilet in my efforts. I unblock it using my hand. I try to work out when the military will come, how long it will take them to realise that there is footage of working conditions in a tea factory on the tapes, footage of child labourers. It is hard to think in any way clearly at all. I must go to the British Consulate. I need help. That is the best I can come up with.
I arrive and give a brief explanation of what has happened. A short phone call and I am immediately taken into a room to be interviewed by the vice consul. She is very angry with me as I explain what I have been doing in Burma and what has happened in the last 12 hours. She says that it is very difficult for the British consulate to protect its citizens when they are taken into custody by the Burmese military. Do I know what happened to James Maudsley? Now I am angry back. I am not a fool and there is a responsibility to try to get information out about this regime. ‘Yes, of course, I do,' I say. It took the British consulate six months to get him out of a Burmese prison. Then she says that I must leave Burma immediately, today, within the next few hours if possible. She will organize my ticket, have it brought to my hotel, and I am to call when I have arrived in Bangkok.
Three hours later I am on a plane out of Rangoon. I am very nervous passing through customs but there is no incident. By nightfall I will be safely in a hotel in Bangkok. On the way to that hotel, for no comprehensible reason other than being terribly confused, I disembark the airport bus in a completely unknown part of Bangkok. I am not sure why.
This has been probably the most unreal 24 hours of my life, but through it all I still have this intensely vivid memory of the peace and serenity of Burma at sunset and then again at sunrise. And the memories of the guy I had been sitting next to.
One of the essays that I had destroyed in the Rangoon guest house was a piece about the burdens that rest upon the shoulders of everyone in Burma. Many of these burdens are borne by the civilian population – poverty, economic mismanagement, restrictions on movement, speech, freedom of information, oppression, a myriad of human rights abuses at the hands of the military. This is a burden of fear. But there are other burdens that arise because of the current regime and its nature. Talking to a Burmese friend in a restaurant, with a table of soldiers sitting nearby, he had said to me, ‘No one likes soldiers. People do not talk to soldiers. People do not have friends who are soldiers because then you are “a friend of a soldier” and this is something that you do not want to be. It will make people suspicious about you. Soldiers support the government so we do not talk to soldiers.’ Soldiers know this, they know they are hated, and because of this they are isolated, ostracised by their own communities. This cannot be something which gives them happiness. This, then, becomes the burden they must bear and it is not a small burden. And military intelligence, they are the most hated people in Burma. No doubt this is why they have developed such characteristically hard faces. But the man sitting next to me on the bus, he has a family and two children and when he had talked about them to me his face had softened. I am sure that he would rather be soft and smiling than wearing his hard face. And when I think about him, I think that he is not such a bad man, he is just another person in Burma, suffering, in his own way, with another burden to bear.