Getting The Story

George Packer has a great post of reporting about Burma:’s a very difficult place to work. Impossible to talk to officials or visit a school, a hospital, a government office. Travel outside Rangoon is restricted by checkpoints, the secret police, and a pervasive network of informers. Phones and e-mail are believed to be under surveillance, even if the regime’s capacity isn’t as great as the people’s fear. In dozens of conversations, I met only two people who were willing to go without a pseudonym, and they had the defiant air of desperados.

One Burmese man I spent a great deal of time with always called me “G,” even when we were alone. Meetings were arranged in code, in out-of-the-way bars and private homes; one woman didn’t trust her own gardener and kept me out of view for the two hours of our interview. Burmese wrap themselves in an ever-shifting array of nicknames, pen names, and e-mail monikers; among the young, these often come from their intellectual heroes from the West. Least of all do they trust one another.

Yet for all their secretiveness and repression, not a single Burmese refused to talk to me. (It was expatriates who were reticentespecially the scholars, who fear losing their access.) People were not just willing but eager to speak, and in the most casual encounterswith a trishaw driver in Mandalay, my seatmate on a domestic flightordinary Burmese offered their views unprompted, with the calm, straightforward despair of people long used to going unnoticed and unrescued. There often came a moment when my conversation partner suddenly asked me for advice, an opinion on the future. When would things change? What should they do? I had no good answers, but I’ve never been anywhere I liked the people more and the government less.

I was there two decades ago and felt exactly the same way.