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Getting the boot from Burma

By Andrew Harding
BBC News

I flew into Burma on Monday morning from Bangkok. The smart new airport in Rangoon had finally reopened two days after the cyclone.

A fallen tree and damaged houses in Rangoon
About a million people are now thought to be homeless
Low clouds obscured the vast wetlands of the Irrawaddy Delta but, as we came in to land, I caught a glimpse out of the window.

There should have been a bright green jigsaw of rice paddies and villages below. Instead I saw a grey-brown smudge of water and ragged trees.

My mind flicked back to December 2004, flying into Aceh in Indonesia immediately after the tsunami, staring down at miles of pulverised coastline.

At this stage on Monday, the size of Burma's disaster was not yet clear.

Over the weekend, the military authorities - safe in their brand new capital city far from Rangoon - appeared to be playing things down.

A few hundred dead perhaps, the state newspapers still overwhelmingly preoccupied with plans to hold a national referendum the following weekend.

The headlines full of the usual semi-threatening calls for a big Yes vote.

But the cyclone's impact was already looking ominous.

Warning ignored

If the solid buildings of Rangoon had taken a battering, the bamboo villages in the swampy delta would be hopelessly exposed, especially since the storm brought with it a four-metre-high surge of sea water.

Burmese newsreader reporting on BBC expulsion

And the delta may be rural but it is densely populated, with perhaps five million people at risk.

It is always tempting to assume the worst about Burma's military rulers. Secretive, brutal and superstitious, they can usually be relied on to act against the best interests of their long-suffering people.

Sure enough, it was soon being reported that the authorities had been warned by India about the cyclone two days before it struck, but had failed to act on the information and evacuate, or at least alert people along the coastline.

And over the weekend, there were precious few troops cleaning up the storm-battered streets of Rangoon. Monks and civilians seemed to be doing most of the hard work.

Clunking bureaucracy

The authorities had been quick to send in the soldiers to break up last year's peaceful demonstrations. When it came to actually helping the population, they suddenly seemed much slower off the mark.

Burmese soldiers unloading aid supplies from a Thai transport plane
Neighbouring countries have been been flying in aid supplies

But perhaps that is not entirely fair.

By the time I arrived on Monday, the government's clunking bureaucracy seemed to have been jolted out of its stupor, acknowledging the scale of the disaster and the urgent need for something Burma has studiously shunned for decades - outside help.

This was my fourth trip to the country, if you do not count slipping across the jungle border into rebel-held areas in the east.

Over the past few years, I had managed to get in - like many journalists - by posing as a tourist.


I was in Rangoon last August when the first protests began, the defiant street demonstrations which would eventually be led by thousands of chanting Buddhist monks, and which were crushed so ruthlessly by government troops.

I heard from diplomats inside Burma that I had been blacklisted by the regime after that crackdown. So I was quite surprised when I managed to wangle another tourist visa last month.

Tens of thousands are dead... but the TV presenter put all that aside and spent several minutes solemnly describing my crimes and my expulsion

At Rangoon airport, it all seemed to go smoothly at first. An official stamped my passport and waved me through. I took a few steps forward, past a row of plain-clothed security officials lounging by the exit.

When the shouting started, I kept walking. Then a hand settled firmly on my shoulder.

It is just possible that Burma's current ordeal will prove to be a catalyst for political change.

The Chernobyl nuclear accident back in 1986 helped nudge the Soviet Union towards glasnost. The Asian tsunami played a central role in pushing both sides to end Aceh's long civil conflict.

Burma is certainly a hard nut to crack.

The generals may allow international aid in but they will want to control it every step of the way.

Still, the political situation in the country is more fluid now than it has been for years.

This weekend's referendum on a new constitution is part of a controlled shift towards democracy. It will not be fast and it will not be perfect. In fact it could well be a surreal sham.

But no regime lasts forever.

Making the news

My deportation was a strangely silent affair.

The immigration officers had either recognised my name or my face. They photographed me then pulled out a big black file with the word "blacklist" on the front and found my details.

Ten minutes later, the lady from Thai Airways escorted me to my seat on the plane with a sympathetic smile.

The next evening, Burmese state television broke away from showing pictures of generals handing out aid to announce important news.

Tens of thousands are dead, millions may be in need and foreign aid workers are still waiting impatiently for visas, but the presenter put all that aside and spent several minutes solemnly describing my crimes and my expulsion.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 8 May, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Aid arriving in cyclone-hit Burma
07 May 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Burma
25 Sep 07 |  Country profiles


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