Page last updated at 06:00 GMT, Wednesday, 14 May 2008 07:00 UK

Escaping Burma's Special Branch

By Paul Danahar
BBC News

I woke up early, flushed my contacts and fake business cards down the toilet, sat on my bed and waited for the Special Branch.

They and the Burmese military intelligence had been after me for almost a week. I had become, briefly, the most wanted man in Burma.

Burmese prime minister Thein Sein (4th L) visits cyclone survivors living in makeshift tents in Hlaing Thayar township in the outskirts of Rangoon (10/05/2008)
Burma's leaders refused to let foreign aid workers enter the country

My photo had apparently been circulated to every military checkpoint. My name was being scoured for among all the records of foreigners travelling around the country.

My crime, as they saw it, was to report on the cyclone that devastated the Irrawaddy Delta claiming thousands of lives.

There were a handful of other journalists who had also sneaked into Burma as tourists but they were all working anonymously.

I had done something foreign correspondents do not normally do in Burma. I had put my name and face on the TV while I was still in the country.

The government was obviously furious. And so I had seemed to become state enemy number one.

They suspected I was hiding in the hotel because a few hours earlier they had deported the other two members of my team - producer, Annie Phrommayon, and cameraman, Arito Go.


Paul Danahar reporting from Burma last week

The first question they asked my colleagues when they began their interrogation was "where is Paul Allan Danahar?"

They had traced us because we had all three checked into the same hotel together on our first night, before I broke cover.

Since then I had been sneaking into places, staying in different people's rooms without registering. So the authorities started looking for Annie and Arito in the hope of catching me.

Despite several hours of questioning they stuck to their story about only having met me by accident. The authorities could not prove otherwise but were not taking any chances so they kicked them out.

Losing hope

While all this effort was being spent tracking down one lone journalist, one million people were stranded in the delta, cut off from the outside world by blocked roads and broken bridges.

The cyclone had brought in its wake a huge tidal surge that demolished entire communities living along the rivers and inlets.

Young survivors of the cyclone Nargis wait under the rain to collect relief food in Kyaiklat, southwest Burma (12/05/2008)
The UN says 1.5m people are in need of urgent help

Husbands and wives, mothers and children swept apart in an instant. Those that survived were living among tens of thousands of rotting corpses.

They had no food, no clean water, no shelter and must have been losing hope.

Disease had already got a grip. Dysentery was attacking the young and the sick.

But despite this, the military regime was blocking access to the region to international aid groups, people with the skills not only to deliver the aid but also to build an infrastructure to keep people alive.

The tragedy of this disaster may be that people died even though the means to save them was there.

The generals who run this country have shunned the outside world for years. Their choice was stark - open up the country to Western influence and save lives, or try to go it alone and risk people dying.

I had been warned by a diplomat that I could expect a 'hard time' from the authorities before they deported me

They chose option B - aid was welcome but not the experts who could deliver it.

As we drove through the delta, evidence of a relief effort of sorts was visible but so was the scale of the problem. And they were not up to it.

In the former capital Rangoon, itself badly damaged by the cyclone, one man summed up the frustrations of a nation.

"When we had demonstrations last year the soldiers were everywhere," he said. "Where are they now?"

Driving through the devastated communities, which five days after the disaster had still received no help, the generals' actions seemed morally bankrupt. By the time Annie and Arito had been caught we had realised they were probably physically bankrupt.

The military intelligence, or MI, made them pay the taxi fare for their own deportation.

Just before they dumped them on the plane one of the intelligence officers began complaining to Arito about his workload. It is hard to feel sorry for a man who works for one of the most repressive regimes on the planet when he tells you he has to do long hours.


The phone rang in my room. I knew it was one of the MI guys in the hotel telling me to come down. I grabbed my bag and headed for the back stairwell.

All the time I kept running my cover story through my head so I did not implicate a second BBC team that had just snuck in to back us up.

Packages of drinking water are unloaded from a US plane C-130 at the Rangoon International airport (12/05/2008)

Another MI official blocked the rear entrance. I skipped back up five flights of stairs and looked out over the hotel balcony.

I was in luck - the MI man covering the front had gone to bum a cigarette from a taxi driver and was standing to the left next to the long driveway that led to the exit.

I ran down the main stairs into the lobby. It was empty. Catching my breath I calmly strolled out the front door, turned right and waited for the intelligence officer to finish his smoke and go back inside.

After 15 minutes I walked back across the car park and headed for the exit.

You know how when you walk around foreign country you always get plagued by taxi drivers everywhere you go? Well it does not happen when the police are after you.

My aim was the airport. I did not want to get caught and taken to a downtown police station. I had been warned by a diplomat that I could expect a "hard time" from the authorities before they deported me.

I thought that if I made it to the airport early, giving them a whole day to question me, I had a better chance of not being kept overnight in a cell.

In fact, I got all the way to my seat on the plane before I saw a large man with a walkie-talkie stuck to his ear coming down the aisle.

I was led off the plane as six breathless military types came stomping down the walkway.

One man snatched my passport, the other began taking my picture. But no-one tried to drag me away.

The British ambassador told my foreign editor, Jon Williams, that if I were lucky, the Burmese would be so sick of me they would just want me out of the country. And so it proved.

The man who took my passport simply stamped it with the legend "deportee", shoved it back in my hand and growled, "go".

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