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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 October 2007, 13:21 GMT 14:21 UK
Burma changing, slowly but surely
Returning to Burma 10 years after his last visit, Fergal Keane discovers that despite the military crackdown, there is still a feeling on the streets of Rangoon that regime change could happen.

Burmese troops on the streets on Rangoon on 2 October
The military has been guarding sites which had big demonstrations
Flying into Rangoon I felt a familiar dread rising.

I had experienced it before crossing into Mr Mugabe's Zimbabwe, into the apartheid South Africa of the 1980s, and here in Burma when I last visited a decade ago.

For I was going to a place which did not want me or any of my kind. A state that loathed journalists, and into which we could only venture by pretending to be something else, most usually tourists.

Yet as I looked out of the aircraft window I felt a parallel emotion, no less strong than the fear.

Through the rain I saw the golden domes of the pagodas rising above the skyline, and beyond them, out where the suburbs dwindle into the countryside, the first of the rice fields on whose wide shimmering surface the monsoon clouds were reflected.

And seeing this, I felt a surge of longing. I was so glad to be back.

Democracy hope

For the last 10 years the physical details of Rangoon have been slowly erased in my mind.

Stepping off the plane I saw that the shabby old airport had been replaced by a featureless lump of steel, concrete and glass.

How I would have loved to have been able to act freely here, to talk to other human beings without being circumscribed by fear
On the approach to the city we passed a golden arch which bore the words: "Welcome to the Golden Land."

I remembered that it had been there on my last visit, when there had been glimmers of hope that the regime was preparing to enter serious negotiations with the pro-democracy movement.

Watchers

Rangoon is an untidy place, its colonial-era buildings are mildewed and crumbling, and washing flaps from the windows.

A cyclist on a street in Rangoon
Burma has a population of 50.7 million (Source: UN 2005)
Step off the main avenues and you will find streets that are cracked and potholed, filled with cars, motorbikes, bicycles, rickshaws, mangy dogs and crowds of people - Burmese of many ethnic backgrounds... the ethnic majority Burmans, the Indians, the Karen and the Shan, the Chinese, and many others.

There is even a population of Burmese Jews with their own vibrant synagogue.

How I would have loved to have been able to act freely here! To talk to other human beings without being circumscribed by fear, mostly the fear for what might happen to the locals if they were spotted in conversation with a foreigner.

That is the great dilemma for the reporter in this totalitarian state, the disaster which you might bring down upon the heads of those whom you meet.

The watchers are everywhere, though you can often spot them for they are conspicuously well dressed.

They wear clean and well-pressed shirts and are sleek with good living. Unlike most Burmese, they do not smile back when you smile at them.

A monk walks at Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon
The Shwedagon Pagoda is one of Burma's holiest sites
A team of three of them shadowed me through the great Pagoda of Shwedagon. One whispering into a walkie-talkie, none making any attempt to pretend they were anything other than secret policemen.

In the daily newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar - the junta's name for Burma - there are full-page advertisements attacking foreign media, with the BBC singled out for special venom.

Reporters are denounced as killers, saboteurs and - most woundingly of all - "slickers".

I learned long ago that it is as well never to take any of this too personally.

A secret policeman is in the business of fear. He must intimidate you and - more importantly - the general population, so that there is no flow of reliable information.

For the journalist, the punishment is usually arrest and deportation - although the military have killed one Japanese photographer - but for the general population the stakes are much higher.

The spook has the weapons of torture and secret detention and he will willingly expand this to murder on the orders of his superiors.

Public anger

In Burma they have had years to perfect this intimidation. There is not a sentient person in Rangoon who is not aware of the potential consequences of speaking about the regime with foreigners.

The protests have been crushed for now but nobody should make the mistake of believing that the moment has been lost
Yet both civilians and Buddhist monks vented their feelings to me and to colleagues.

And I am not just talking about the clandestine meetings we had with the Buddhist clergy or democracy activists. I mean the everyday conversations in markets or at tea stalls, where public rage against the regime was expressed in forceful terms.

That is so different to the Burma I remember, where one studiously avoided political conversation.

Map of Burma showing the capital Rangoon (Yangon)
The protests have been crushed for now, but nobody should make the mistake of believing that the moment has been lost.

What I detected more than anything else was a society in ferment, still coming to terms with the unprecedented assault on the clergy, but awakened to its own potential to create change.

I left knowing that it might be some time before I would be able to go back. But it was not like the melancholy departures of the past.

A time was coming, I thought, when one might walk the streets of Rangoon, past the tea shops and the little restaurants, the sellers of jasmine and incense, and find a familiar face with whom to sit and drink tea and talk of the days of fear, knowing that they belonged to history.

Of this much, I felt sure.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday 11 October, 2007 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Country profile: Burma
25 Sep 07 |  Country profiles


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