Burma: State of Fear


Evan Williams

Evan Williams

“The most dramatic change, really, is the lack of change -- the terrible intransigence of Burma's ruling generals in refusing to even open a serious dialogue with the party the Burmese people elected to run their country. Instead, the military just employs more violence against
those who stand up to it.”
- Evan Williams

Evan Williams spoke with FRONTLINE/World's senior interactive producer, Jackie Bennion, about the difficulties of filming undercover in Burma. The veteran Asia reporter talks about the dilemmas faced by journalists when those who speak to them risk imprisonment or worse, and describes what sort of reality prevails in a country governed by fear.

Q: Jackie Bennion: How did Burma become an important story for you?

A: Evan Williams: For most of the 1990s, I was the Southeast Asia correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, based in Bangkok. Burma was part of the territory. The fact that it was a very closed country ruled by the military, with many pro-democracy leaders in jail, made it an intriguing story for me. It seemed like a very black-and-white situation that was being ignored. Here you had an elected government being refused power by greedy generals. As well as covering the elected "opposition," I spent a great deal of time developing high-level military contacts and getting access so I could try and understand what they were doing and why.

Q: How did you come to be blacklisted from entering Burma, and how did you know you were on the list?

A: I wasn't blacklisted until the late 1990s, when I did a story on the military's efforts to suffocate the pro-democratic opposition and on how Burma's generals were making money from exporting heroin and other drugs. These stories were republished in Thai newspapers. I knew I was blacklisted when the then-head of military intelligence -- he's now in prison after an internal coup -- issued a press release saying I was never to be given a visa to enter Burma again.

Q: So here you are back inside Burma. Did you literally walk across the border?

A: Yes, I walked across the border from Thailand, although there's a river in between so we had to go by boat for a small part of the journey. I was traveling with the Free Burma Rangers; these are medics and human rights investigators who deliver humanitarian aid to villagers attacked by the Burmese army, and they go deep inside Burma. They work within the armed wing of the Karen National Union, a guerrilla army that's been fighting for democracy and ethnic rights for 50 years. I was with a group of their guerrilla fighters. But the mission was to avoid the army in the area and just try to deliver aid.

Q: Did you have a contingency plan if you were discovered?

A: It would have been, quite simply, to run. We were often very close to government troops, especially when we had to cross government-held roads. There were some very tense moments.

Q: How has Burma changed in the years you have been covering the region?

A: The most dramatic change, really, is the lack of change -- the terrible intransigence of Burma's ruling generals in refusing to even open a serious dialogue with the party the Burmese people elected to run their country. Instead, the military just employs more violence against those who stand up to it.

Q: You mention in the story that there are hundreds of thousands of refugees, many living inside the Thai border. Did you visit the camps, and how is the Thai government handling the crisis?

A: In total, there are 700,000 displaced Burmese, including slightly more than 150,000 living in refugee camps in Thailand. The Thai camps provide shelter to people who would otherwise have none. But they're very controlled, cramped and sad places. The young Burmese especially feel they have no future. Some in the camps are used as cheap illegal labor in Thailand, where they have no rights, and yet they can't go back home for fear the military will accuse them of being insurgents. Thailand does its best to cope and allows in a lot of international aid through groups like the Thai Burma Border Consortium, which receives funding from the European Union and the U.S. government.

Q: How do you feel about the dilemmas facing journalists reporting on repressive regimes? You want the story, but you may put other people's lives in danger as well as your own.

A: All the people we spoke to, and in fact all the people who helped us, are putting themselves in grave danger and risk many years in prison. Everyone made the point that they wanted to use us as a platform to speak to the world, to let people and governments know what is happening there. As a journalist, I would say that the dilemma is this: Do we deny these people the ability to speak out by deciding not to talk to them or not to show them once we have talked to them? If we deny that, I think they would feel the military had won.

Q: In fact, you visited a man you interviewed 10 years ago about the pro-democracy movement, who subsequently went to prison for seven years for speaking out. How did you feel about that visit?

A: I felt very uneasy. I really wasn't sure how he'd react. I thought, if that had been me -- with seven years of my life stolen -- I would be very angry and likely channel that anger toward the person who got me locked up. But he wasn't like that at all. He was the exact opposite. When I asked him about this, he thanked me because at the time he had talked about the military using torture in prisons, and he could let the world know this was happening through me. It still doesn't feel good, though. Rarely, as a journalist, do you meet someone who's experienced this. It makes me question very seriously what we do and how we do it before proceeding in each case.

Q: When you interviewed the pro-democracy movement's rather frail U Sein Win, he spoke softly but defiantly about the regime, basically saying, “They can't lock up all 50 million of us,” and that this interview could put him back in prison for the last time. Have you received word on his safety since you left Burma?

A: From all we know so far, U Sein Win is still OK and has not yet been arrested for speaking to me this time and telling us he would not come out of prison alive. We have mechanisms in place to let us know as soon as anything does happen. But right after we visited him, a police special branch went to his place and told him to stop talking to foreigners, so my fear is he'll at least be taken in for some heavy questioning. In some ways, his outspokenness could afford him some protection -- it would look even worse for the regime if they took him in now.

Q: You said the Karen resistance, for example, has been fighting 50 years for democracy in Burma. How long can it take?

A: It's very difficult to say how long the Burmese will tolerate repression. I think a deferential Asian culture and the Buddhist religion actually have quite a lot to do with why they have put up with it so far. But Burma has a history of people putting up with a great deal for a long time and then blowing up. It's mainly the economic situation that will force people into the streets again. That's why the jailed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has urged all foreign investors and traders, no matter how small, not to engage with Burma while the present regime is in power.

Q: There's been a large "Free Burma" movement working for years to bring international pressure on Burma to reinstate Aung San Suu Kyi and her democratically elected government. But the situation seems to be getting worse, not better.

A: The only really effective intervention in Burma would come from the United Nations Security Council. But democratic countries are prepared to allow themselves to be cowed by China and Russia, Burma's two biggest allies, which both appear so far to oppose any motion that would have a meaningful impact on the release of pro-democracy people and an end to military rule.

Q: Have you been able to interview Aung San Suu Kyi in the past? And, given that she has spent most of her time since the election under house arrest, what do you think she represents to the Burmese people today?

A: I've interviewed her a number of times. She represents democratic rule and the wishes of the majority of the Burmese and the ethnic minorities. She's been criticized by some for failing to engage with the military and reach a deal that would lead to a lifting of sanctions and so forth. Yet most people inside Burma insist that she knows she must be careful because a deal could lead to a tainted transitional government that just allows the military to continue to rule. She could also leave the country but refuses to do so because she feels that pressure from within is the only way to force eventual change.

Q: There are still people traveling to Burma as tourists, and there's plenty of criticism of this. Is there enough normality in the country that you can visit and not be aware of the oppression there?

A: Yes, I think it's possible to visit Burma as a tourist and not really be aware there is anything untoward happening. But it will take only one conversation with a local waiter, taxi driver or shop keeper -- and probably your first conversation at that -- to know that they are very, very unhappy.

Q: This was clearly a difficult story to film. How do you prepare for these sorts of assignments, and what draws you to them?

A: I haven't reported on as many flash-point areas as many other journalists. But I think conflict zones do reveal a raw reality of human life. They expose so many intersecting political, social, historical and economic crosscurrents. These are places where you see the world as it really is and humans as they really are. Also, these are stories that should be told, from people who want to be heard. I think I have changed dramatically from being quite happy to feed the daily news machine to wanting to really get under the skin of a subject and reveal it in a compelling way that shocks people about the reality of a place or a situation. I don't want the story to come from government spokespeople or business briefings; I want to go out and put a whole situation in its full context and tell people things they don't know.

Q: Is the world a much more dangerous place to report in now?

A: The world is much more dangerous to report in mainly because journalists have become targets of various groups, and that never used to be the case. I think our job as Western journalists is to try and show the West how our policies affect people living a long way away. I'd like to go and speak with, and film the lives of, say, Shiite or Sunni communities in Iraq or Muslim separatists in the southern Philippines. That used to be a lot easier than it is now because some factions are targeting us to make a political point. I ask them to allow us free and safe access so we can help tell their side of the story as well.

Back to top Back to Top