Saturday, 30 May 2020

Evan Williams ( Frontline/world reporter)

It's nighttime and FRONTLINE/World reporter Evan Williams is on a tense drive along the Thai/Burma border with members of the Karen National Union guerrilla army. The guerilla group has offered to take Williams into Burma, where they are working with a humanitarian group called the Free Burma Rangers to dispense aid. Several hundred thousand displaced people from Burma are hiding out in the jungle, driven from their villages by the country's brutal military regime.

  

On foot, Williams travels under darkness to camps that have recently been attacked by government troops. The Karen foot soldiers know the territory well. Burma's military campaign against the Karen people has been going on for the past 50 years.

 

The terrain is dangerous and heavily mined. The reporter is guided to the village of He Daw Kaw, where he meets Nah Pi. She used to be the village schoolteacher and tells Williams what happened to her home.

 

"Burmese soldiers destroyed it while we were hiding in the jungle. I ran and left everything behind. I thought saving my children and my life would be enough for now."

 

These scenes of destruction, Williams says, have been going on for years. Thousands of Karen villagers have been killed in raids by government forces, and, in all, more than a million people from Burma have been driven from their homes.

 

Other villagers from He Daw Kaw come forward to tell their stories. "We saw the smoke from our burning houses and ran to search for our children. I looked down into the ashes and saw a small hand. My little son left me only his palm," says one man, burying his head in anguish.

 

The government soldiers who levelled the village are still close. Karen spies have taken video of them holed up in a nearby town. Everyone is worried that they will return.

 

As Williams moves deeper into the jungle with the Karen soldiers, refugees seeking safety join their patrol. Hardly a word is spoken as the group moves slowly and fearfully through the jungle's canopy, hoping not to be spotted.

 

After days of trekking, they reach safety outside the government-held area. Williams says goodbye to the families he has been traveling with. They will now start a new life in a refugee camp in Thailand, joining some 150,000 others. In all, over the last 20 years, more than 700,000 people have fled the world's worst military dictatorship, and many more have been internally displaced.

 

The military junta has ruled Burma from the capital, Rangoon, since 1962. Recently, the country's supreme leader, Gen. Than Shwe, moved the capital to Pyinmana, a remote town a few hundred miles from Rangoon. The general's astrologer advised him to move the capital on November 6, 2005, saying it would ensure everlasting military power.

 

The real reason, says Williams, is fear of his own people and one person in particular: Aung San Suu Kyi. She led the National League for Democracy to a landslide election victory in 1990, the year before she won the Nobel Peace Prize. But Gen. Than Shwe refused to accept her victory and has held her under house arrest in Rangoon for most of the past 16 years.

 

Williams travels to Rangoon to try to meet with pro-democracy members, who are under constant watch and are frequently arrested, beaten or worse. He arrives in the old capital, posing as a tourist. Ten years ago, while covering the democracy movement, Williams was blacklisted by the government, but he persuaded Burmese officials in London to let him into the country.

 

Knowing that Suu Kyi's compound is close to his hotel, Williams approaches four taxi drivers before he finds one willing to take him there.

"They made it like a jail," says the driver nervously of Suu Kyi's house, insisting the reporter's camera stay out of view. "If you take photos, it makes me big problems." Soldiers stand outside the gates, and Williams films fleetingly from the window as they drive by. It's hard to see and even more difficult to imagine what conditions are like for Suu Kyi, living in isolation behind the compound walls.

 

Next, Williams is dropped outside a restaurant in the middle of Rangoon. It was here, last year, that one of Suu Kyi's party members was dragged from his table by intelligence officers. Six days later, he was dead. Williams wants to speak to his widow, but it is too dangerous for her to come into the open. Through connections, she passes a videotaped message to him, in which she talks about her husband's death. "They said I had no right to see my husband's body. He had no disease and had never been sick. But in their hands, he could survive only six days."

 

Williams tells us that her husband is one of 128 activists to die in custody from torture or ill treatment since the current junta took over. More than 1,000 others are locked away.

 

Glowing reports on state-controlled television claim that state education is providing well for Burma's children, but Williams sees a different reality on the streets. Children approach him begging for money or food. People lie listlessly on the side of the street. Despite the nation's abundance of natural resources, UNICEF says a third of its children are malnourished. And the World Health Organization ranks Burma 190th out of 191 countries.

 

To see what conditions are like in other Burmese cities, Williams travels to Mandalay, Burma's second-largest city. On a billboard in town, a government slogan is unequivocal about those who oppose it: "Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy," it reads.

 

Williams has traveled here to meet two journalists -- neither of whom wants his face photographed or his name revealed. Both have just been released after seven years in prison for writing about democracy. "They crush an ant with a hammer," one of them says about the stark oppression here.

 

The city has several big hotels catering to tourists. The journalists tell Williams that some of the tourist attractions, such as the spectacular moat surrounding the Mandalay Palace, have been built by prison labor. "I don't want tourists to come to our country," he says, "because most of the money will flow into the pockets of the military officers ... they will get richer and richer through tourism." Among other attractions is a large collection of Buddha images. Williams reveals that the army stole the collection from a monk who had spent years collecting them. The museum housing the Buddhas was also built by forced labor, so the people call it the "museum of sorrow."

 

In footage shot secretly in 2005, hundreds of men, women and children are shown carrying army supplies. If they don't comply, they can be shot, raped or forced to walk ahead of soldiers in areas notorious for landmines. In different footage gathered by the human rights group Witness, an elderly woman is seen resting on her haunches covering a road with stones. "Grandma, are you paid for working here?" she's asked.

 

"No," the woman responds reluctantly, averting her eyes.

 

According to others who have filmed undercover in Burma, forced labor has also been used to clear land for a pipeline built by the French oil giant Total and the American company Unocal. Burma's natural gas fields, says Williams, are keeping the regime in power. The companies deny any collusion with or support of the junta; so, for now, the gas keeps flowing.

 

Back on the streets of Rangoon, one of the founders of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party has agreed to meet with Williams, even though it could mean his arrest.

 

U Sein Win has already spent 13 years in prison for opposing army rule, but he wants to speak out.

 

"If the people have no way out, if there is no decent means to express their sufferings, ... to express their desire to change the government, they will resort to violence." When asked if the army wouldn't just shoot to kill, Win responds, "But we have 50 million people; they cannot kill all the 50 million people."

 

Win is a frail man, breathing with the help of an oxygen tube attached to his nose. He speaks quietly but with certitude about his possible fate for speaking to the reporter. "It is very dangerous for me, and I know that, this time, when they come and pick me up, I will not come out alive."

 

Aware that Williams is meeting with dissidents, the Burmese military has come looking for the reporting team.

 

They head to the airport to fly to Thailand. This is where hundreds of Burmese political exiles have fled in recent years. It's also where Williams will meet Ibar, a man who went to prison for seven years after talking to Williams 10 years ago about the torture of political prisoners. Ibar was a close associate of Suu Kyi, and this will be the first time the two men have met since his release.

 

After they smile and greet each other, Williams poses the inevitable question: "During the seven years that you spent in prison did you ever regret giving me that interview?"

 

It could have been a difficult moment, but Ibar is unwavering in his response. "Not at all," he says. "Instead of hating you, I am happy to thank you. ... Because of the interview, I was able to let the world know that there was brutality and mistreatment and also torture in Burmese prisons."

 

Ibar shows Williams some of the last recorded images of Suu Kyi before she was put back under house arrest. They were taken at his wedding. He points to other guests as the video flickers on his television screen. One of them is Thet Naing Oo, a member of Suu Kyi's NLD party who had also spent years in prison. In March this year, he was beaten to death by government-sponsored thugs as he walked down a road in Rangoon.

 

Williams is shown more footage, this time of the man's funeral procession, his body carried openly in the streets as hundreds who knew or remembered him walked alongside. The injuries to his head are severe; the stitches that piece together his scalp are crude and large, like those a child would sew. Williams talks to a friend of the dead man who witnessed his death.

 

"Firstly they had some catapults [slingshots], and they used some steel balls and throw in his face. They were well prepared and waiting for his coming. He was also beaten by the long bamboo sticks, and he fell down on his face to the ground. At the time, they throw one big stone. And they crush his head."

 

For the last 10 years, pro-democracy activists have been to many funerals as the government continues to crack down on opponents, and most feel the country has reached a breaking point.

"If it happens again," says one activist, "I see another bloodshed, another mass detention, and it may lead to another ... civil war."

 

After more than 40 years in power, Burma's junta has amassed one of the largest armies in Southeast Asia. But, notes Williams, "It has no enemies other than its own people."

 

FRONTLINE/World reporter Evan Williams travels undercover to Burma (also known as Myanmar) to expose the violence and repression carried out by Burma's government against its own people.