No freedom from fear
The quasi-civilian government is still closely monitoring political dissidents and people are afraid to speak out
‘He is outside here every day,” Moethee Zun said of the young man sitting in the tea shop across the street from his house. We were talking about the current reforms in Myanmar in his house in Yangon, where he now lives after spending half a lifetime in the student army and in exile. I had met Moethee Zun in 2012 in Thailand, when the possibility of returning was still unsure.
IN PLAIN SIGHT: A Myanmar state intelligence officer takes a picture of a journalist, in a further sign that people continue to be monitored by the government.
Now, back in the country he left 25 years earlier, I wanted to know what his life was like. The young man in the tea shop that he was telling me about was from the military intelligence, and has been posted outside his house every day.
“I’m not intimidated,” Moethee Zun said. “I feel bad for him; he doesn’t get treated very well.”
Moethee Zun was a leader of the student uprising in 1988 and for a while a chairman of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF). As a political analyst watching the carefully orchestrated transformation of Myanmar’s government, I was interested in hearing his opinion. We met in the house where his mother and sister had spent the years since his father died living in fear of the military, who they assumed were watching them closely.
“They covered the windows and they never go out because they are afraid,” Moethee Zun said.
He did not see his mother at all during his exile. Now his mother is getting old and she does not realise that the young man occasionally entering her house belongs to one of the myriad branches of the military intelligence.
“My mother does not know who he is,” Moethee Zun mumbled to me one time when the young man sat at the kitchen table next to his mother.
The conversation we had that morning in his house quickly turned from politics to his friends who had quite recently been released from prison. “They spent a long time in prison and now they are insecure and they feel useless,” Moethee Zun said. “I want them to study.”
He wanted them to learn about philosophy and current political affairs, which they had been unable to do while in prison. He asked me to talk with his friends and I committed myself to holding some discussions about political theory in the weeks to come.
We met again a few weeks later and went for dinner. Our car got stuck on the congested roads of Yangon and we decided to walk through busy Hledan junction to a little restaurant.
“Where is he?” Moethee Zun asked when we arrived. I thought it was only three of us going for dinner but apparently I had missed that we were four. When I asked who was coming with us he said, “My bodyguard, sponsored by the government.” I hadn’t realised that whole time that we were also being followed. The “bodyguard” arrived soon and sat down at a table outside while we ordered some food for him.
It is not surprising that the intelligence services have a special interest in Moethee Zun, said people who know him well. He led the student army for a long time and his actions have always been “unpredictable”, they said. Also, it provides a kind of security to ensure nothing happens to Moethee Zun — the government would not benefit from creating another martyr for the democracy movement. Moethee Zun might be right to refer to the young man as his “bodyguard”.
It is unsure if many others are monitored as closely as Moethee Zun, as most people in Myanmar don’t talk about it very much. Not out of fear but because they are not interested.
When I started coming over almost daily to Moethee Zun’s house to meet with the former political prisoners, the young man from the military intelligence sat in a tea shop with us in the morning and drank coffee with us afterwards. He joked around with the others and my initial discomfort with his presence disappeared quickly.
Once he joined our discussion. I was happy to show him that I was not promoting any kind of activist activities. Sitting on the wooden floor, closely watched by Moethee Zun’s mother, we discussed the Geneva Conventions and drank Chinese tea. Such a relatively open and friendly relationship with a member of the intelligence services would have been unthinkable only a short time ago.
One meeting particularly illustrates the changes that have taken place over the past three years in Myanmar. One day I visited the house of a friend who owns a large toy gun. The men I had come with were posing with the fake gun, a former ABSDF soldier, a political activist and a member of the military intelligence, in the house of a Muslim friend.
They were taking photos of each other and laughing, showing off their knowledge about guns. At times like that it seems that a window has definitely opened in Myanmar.
While the military was in power, talking about politics could get you into great trouble. Meetings had to be held in secret and anybody was a potential informant for the regime. A taxi driver says that only a few years ago taking a foreigner as a passenger in his taxi could mean that the police would visit his house later that day to ask what they had talked about and what he had said. “Now I try to take all the foreigners,” he said, and he likes to talk to them about politics.
However, the presence of the Special Branch, the civilian intelligence service, is still very high. They attend meetings organised by political activists and sit around in restaurants and tea shops. During a press conference of the Ta’ang Women’s Organisation in Yangon about the suffering of the Ta’ang people under an increased military presence in northern Shan state, a man in the audience takes a close-up picture of one of the journalists instead of the speakers. It is difficult to tell whether he was from the Special Branch and it was unclear why he was taking that photo. Often people in Myanmar will tell you someone is watching, but it is impossible at times to be sure as a blurring sense of paranoia has developed in years of living in the Big Brother society.
Even though some people still fear informants and remain cautious, many now speak out about political and social problems. Myanmar’s citizens know the Special Branch still watches them, but their fear is diminishing because collected information is not used anymore to arrest anybody who dares to criticise the government and the military.
Intelligence services will never disappear in any country, but what governments do with the information that is gathered through intelligence can change, said Desmond Ball, professor at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. “Intelligence is just as important in war as in peace time,” he added.
Some recent events have, however, raised concerns that the country might slide back into a more controlling form of government. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners reports that more than 100 activists are currently facing trial and journalists from a Myanmar-language journal, Unity, have recently been arrested for “disclosing state secrets” when they alleged that the government was manufacturing chemical weapons with Chinese aid.
GHOSTS OF THE PAST
For some people, the fear instilled in them during decades of oppression under the military junta has not yet disappeared, and they remain cautious. Thet Oo Maung, a freelance photographer and film-maker living in Yangon, knows all about fear.
“I have been living with fear since I was born. Our parents teach us to be afraid,” he said.
Growing up, Thet Oo Maung lived in a teak house next door to Aung San Suu Kyi, from where he was often given a front-row seat to the power struggle between the military and the pro-democracy movement. After the student uprising of 1988 his parents decided to sell the house because they had become afraid after soldiers were posted to the compound surrounding their house in order to monitor Mrs Suu Kyi. The house is still there but it has become derelict.
“I saw many brutal things when we lived in that house,” Thet Oo Maung said. One time he saw students walking in front of his house, on their way to see Mrs Suu Kyi. Before they could reach her house a military truck pulled up and armed soldiers charged at them, he said. “They could not run anywhere so the students ran into the compound of our house. Some were arrested but other students hid in the garage, while soldiers patrolled the street in front.”
After being stuck in the garage for a few hours the students decided to take their chances and leave the compound two by two. “They went out boy and girl, pretending to be a couple.”
As a little boy, Thet Oo Maung watched from the window of the second floor of his house how a group of people dragged someone down the street by a rope tied around the victim’s neck. “They dragged him or her, I could not see clearly if it was a man or a woman, to Kokine junction near my house. Then I could not hear what happened but they were shouting.
“The next thing I saw was that they hung a head from one of the electricity poles. This image is still fresh in my mind.”
He does not know which organisation this group of people belonged to, but he remembered that they did not wear uniforms.
Despite the vivid images of the brutality of the ’88 uprising imprinted in his mind, Thet Oo Maung decided to go out on to the streets during the 2007 revolution to take photos, feeling obliged to document what was happening in his country. “All journalists had a small digital camera, but I was not a reporter so I didn’t have this knowledge and I went out with a big camera,” he said.
The day that Thet Oo Maung went to photograph the protests he shot two rolls of film and then decided to go back home. When he walked away from the crowd, still visibly holding his big camera, he recognised a police officer he knew well. Their eyes met and, both unpleasantly surprised by the accidental meeting, they had a brief conversation.
“I saw that he had a digital camera in his pocket and I was sure he took my photo. I thought my life would be finished,” Thet Oo Maung recalled. “I was so stupid and so lucky.”
The two men had met earlier in a police station in the outskirts of Yangon, when Thet Oo Maung reported a stolen wedding ring. After solving the case the police officer had asked for money and Thet Oo Maung had paid him a small sum.
After his meeting with the police officer, Thet Oo Maung went home and told his wife what had happened. There were many rumours going around about arrests and people disappearing in the middle of the night. “We expected someone to come to our house any time. We bought two iron pipes to defend ourselves and kept them with us at night,” Thet Oo Maung said. Thet Oo Maung was not arrested and only in 2012 did he decide it was safe to print the films he shot during the revolution of 2007.
“I thought maybe there was an informer in the print shop,” he explained. He has now given most of the photos to a friend living overseas and is waiting for them to be developed. He is not sure why he was never arrested, but it may have been a good decision to pay the police officer who helped him with the stolen wedding ring.
FIGHTING FOR FREEDOM
Thet Oo Maung is not afraid any more, even though the police still try to intimidate him sometimes. In 2012, when he was shooting a documentary on a local market in one of the northern townships of Yangon, the local authorities tried to stop him.
“But in 2012 we knew our rights so I told them this is a public place and I don’t need your permission to shoot,” Thet Oo Maung said. “We held a discussion for half an hour and then they demanded to see some of the material, but we did not give it to them and we continued filming.
“If you fight, you can get your freedom.”
For his work, Thet Oo Maung often travels to the rural areas of Myanmar. He thinks that people in the rural areas are still more afraid of the police than people in the city and that the reason for that is their lack of knowledge about their rights.
“People in the rural areas have less access to TV and education about human rights,” he said. “The problem is people don’t know their rights and the government does not want them to know their rights because then they will fight back and then the government will lose control.”
For some people, the fear instilled in them after enduring decades of oppression has not yet disappeared and they remain cautious, which became clear one evening while I was having dinner with some friends.
That night, my landlady had called and told me to come home as she wanted to talk to me. Not willing to leave before finishing the bottle of wine we had just ordered, I told her I would talk to her in the morning. The next morning I knocked on the door of her apartment, wondering what could have been so urgent.
“Yesterday the police came here. They wanted to see your passport and asked questions about you,” she said and nervously waited for my response.
The reason they had given for their unannounced visit was that I was “talking politics to many people in a nearby township”, as the owner’s son told me in his best English. I explained what I had been doing and the owner at that time seemed to understand and even found it quite hilarious. We laughed about it and she assured me I didn’t cause any problems for her family. I left, feeling comforted that I didn’t get them into trouble.
A few weeks later, however, it turned out that I had been mistaken. After two friends visited my house the owner told me, “If you want, you can get your money back.” In other words, she was asking me to find a new house. She said my friends “looked like activists, they wore a short collar and glasses” and emphasised that she was afraid.
Even though her fear to me seemed unrealistic — she thought the government would take her house away from her — I felt bad. She had grown up in a country in which talking to an activist at some point was enough to get you arrested, so these kinds of fears were not surprising.
NOT EXACTLY THE NSA: A Myanmar policeman, left, photographs a cameraman as he conducts an interview in Shan state on the country’s drug trade.