Ben Rogers is the author of ‘Than Shwe – Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant’. He recently visited Burma for a week on a tourist visa but was subsequently deported by the Burmese authorities. He works for Christian Solidarity Worldwide. Mizzima interviewed him about his deportation, his experience in Burma before he was deported, and his book on Than Shwe.
Question: Tell us about what had happened in the process of deportation?
Answer: What happened was around 11 p.m. on Tuesday, I had finished my activities for the day and I was sitting in a hotel bar, there was some music playing, and I was just relaxing for a few minutes before going to bed. Somebody came to inform me that the authorities wanted to talk to me. They said that the authorities were waiting in my room. So I went up to my room and there were six people outside the room.
They said they were from immigration but my suspicion is that they were Military Intelligence (MI) because they were not in any uniform, and they didn’t seem like immigration officers. And I think it’s unlikely that immigration officials would come at 11 at night. So, my feeling is that they were intelligence people. They were perfectly civil and they treated me well the whole way through. When I arrived at my room, we sat down and the first thing they said to me was, ‘We have instructions from Naypyidaw to deport you tomorrow’.
Q: What reason did they give for your deportation?
A: I said ‘I am very surprised that you are going to deport me because I am here as a tourist, and I am just having a holiday in Myanmar and I have done nothing wrong. So what it is the reason for deporting me?’ They said, ‘We do not know the reason. We are just following our instructions’. But I did see that one of them had a file, which he was looking through and in the file was a photocopy of the front cover of my book about Than Shwe. So, they had that information, but they did not tell me. I just saw it as he was looking through the file.
First of all, they asked to look at my camera. The only photographs in my camera were of tourist sights because I had deliberately not taken any other pictures. They looked at my camera and expressed some surprise. They said, ‘these are only tourist pictures’. And I said, “Yes, I told you I am only a tourist’. And then they asked to copy the photographs, and I said ‘Why do want to copy them?’ They said ‘Yes, we have to copy them’. I said, ‘They are only tourist pictures, you don’t need tourist pictures’. And they said, “We have to show our superiors’. So I understood and I allowed them to copy them. They searched my other belongings. My suitcase. But I didn’t have anything compromising or sensitive, so they found nothing.
Around midnight they left, and they told me that I could stay in the hotel that night and they would collect me at 7 in the morning to take me to the airport.
I said, “I am booked to fly back to Bangkok tomorrow night anyway. I am leaving tomorrow anyway. Why can’t I just continue as planned and return, as per my schedule tomorrow evening?’ They said, “It has already been arranged for you to fly tomorrow morning’. So everything had been prepared beforehand.
Q: So were you not arrested? Or were you charged with anything?
A: No I was not arrested or charged with anything. They simply deported me.
Q: So were you not taken to a police station?
A: No, I remained at the hotel. At 7 the next morning, I was accompanied to the airport by two officials, one in uniform and one not uniformed. And I was met at the airport by a big group of officials, a few police, a few uniformed immigration people and a few plain-clothes people. And they processed everything and checked me in. They took a lot of photographs of me at several stages, first in the hotel and then in the airport. In the airport virtually every step I made they surrounded me with people with cameras photographing me. Probably four or five people with cameras, which was obviously I think intended to intimate and to harass a little, but having said that they were perfectly civil. They were not physically aggressive, but they took a lot of photographs.
Q: How much did your book on Than Shwe have to do with the deportation?
A: The most interesting part came after they had processed everything; I sat down with a few of them, and they said ‘Mr. Rogers we can now inform you of the reason for your deportation.’ And I said okay, please inform me. They said, ‘We know that you had written several books about Myanmar, including “Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant.” They actually quoted the title. And they said, ‘These books we have been informed give misinformation about Myanmar and that is the reason you are being deported.’ I decided I would just ask them some questions because I knew once I was being deported, there was no chance it was going to be reversed. And I did not want to go without saying something to them. But I remained polite and respectful. I was not confrontational.
First, I said, ‘Is it a crime to write a book?’ And they didn’t know how to answer that. And then I said, ‘I’m a little bit confused. In November, Myanmar had elections and I thought that Myanmar was now a democracy’. Of course, I don’t really think that but I was asking to see what their reaction was. I said, ‘In a democracy it is perfectly normal to write books freely. And it is very normal to write books about the leaders of the country. So what is wrong with your leader and does it mean that Myanmar is not a democracy?’ And then they became a little bit confused and they said, ‘Well, Myanmar will be a democracy one day but slowly, slowly. We are in a transition period.’ So then I said, ‘I thought Myanmar was changing, but the fact that you are deporting someone like me just because I’ve written a book, it seems that it is not changing. So is that true? No change?’ And then they looked at me and nodded and said, ‘Yes, yes no change, no change’.
I asked them what they thought about what had happened in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and they said they did not like what was happening in those areas. One man said: ‘I think it was created by al-Qaeda. Do you think so?’ No, I said, I did not. I acknowledged the risk of extremists taking advantage, but I said the movements in these countries were led by ordinary people who hate dictatorship. ‘But democracy gives al-Qaeda opportunities.’ No, I disagreed. ‘Democratic, open societies are a better way to challenge extremism and terrorism than dictatorship’.
After we finished talking, they said, ‘You can go through to the gate to wait for the flight’. I said okay, ‘Where is my passport’ because I still didn’t have my passport.
Q: When did they take your passport?
A: They took my passport and my tickets the previous evening. And they told me they would give them back to me at the airport. When I said where is my passport, they were a little bit confused, and I then I said, ‘Well, no passport, then I stay in Myanmar’. And then we laughed.
They actually shook my hand. And I then I said my last words to them: ‘Thank you for treating me well. I know your government doesn’t treat your own people well at all, but I am grateful that you have at least treated me well’. And they told me the airline would give me my passport, and the airline did.
Q: Which airline?
A: Thai Airways.
Q: When you said they were taking photos, what kinds of photos were they taking? Even in public?
A: Yes, in public also. In the hotel room, they took a few. And in the airport, I was surrounded by four or five guys taking a lot of photos. Every time I went through the security check or passport control or any time I stopped as a part of the process, lots of them were taking photographs.
Q: Do you remember the name of the person who was in charge of the deportation process?
A: I don’t remember. They did tell me the name, but I don’t remember. The other thing I said to them at the airport was ‘Do you deport many foreigners?’ And one of them smiled, and said, ‘yes’. And I said ‘Do you enjoy working for a government that treats the people in this way?’ And this guy said, ‘I enjoy my job’. That’s all he said. I said, ‘Do you think my deportation is justified? Do you think it is fair to deport me because I wrote a book?’ And he said, ‘I have not read your book, and I am only following my orders’. Then he asked ‘Do you have a copy of your book with you?” And I said, ‘No. Of course, I don’t have it now. But if you give me your address, I’ll send it to you.’ He did not give his address.
Q: Did you feel embarrassed or intimated at the airport surrounded by police and people looking at you?
A: Yes, of course, it is not a pleasant thing to go through both a hotel and the airport to a certain extent. Within myself, I was not sure of what was going to happen. I tried to be very calm and to be cooperative and polite and non-confrontational. But at the same time, I also raised some of those questions that I described. I would say that the atmosphere was not too hostile. Of course it was not a pleasant experience, but they did not treat me badly given the circumstances.
Q: You mentioned that you went as a tourist. So, your visa was a tourist visa. Right?
Q: I understand this is not the first time that you visited Burma. How did they notice you? You are sure that they deported you because of your book on Than Shwe?
A: I am sure the reason they deported me was because of the book on Than Shwe. I am not going to speculate on how they found me.
Q: Were you banned from entering the country?
A: In the passport, it said ‘deportee’. They stamped it on the page where my visa was issued. They did not issue me any formal written instruction that I was being banned. But one of them said to me personally that he thought I would have no chance of coming back to Burma. But that was not written officially.
Q: Are you surprised that you were deported?
A: On one level, I was not surprised because I knew that there was a risk of having this happen, after writing not just the book on Than Shwe but also other books and articles and being very active in the campaign for Burma. But it comes when you don’t expect it. And the event itself was a surprise in terms of it actually happening. I guess I was quite surprised that I was able to get another visa to enter the country, and I was sad that I was so close to completing my visit. I had spent one week there and had no problem and just on the last night they caught me. That was frustrating because I nearly made it.
Q: Why did you go to Burma this time?
A: I went there to learn about the current situation.
Q: How many times you have been to Burma?
A: All I would say is I have been there several times.
Q: How about the (British) embassy in Rangoon? Did it offer any assistance during the deportation process?
A: No. They did not, and I did not request their assistance.
Q: How did the media find out about this without you first informing the media?
A: I really don’t know. One thing I really want to emphasis is that I would have preferred to have stayed low-profile in regard to the deportation and I certainly did not seek publicity about this and I am surprised that the media picked up on it so quickly within a just few hours of my deportation. But once I knew media was reporting it, I decided to speak about it to clarify and avoid any inaccuracy or any rumours or misunderstanding. But I did not initiate the publicity, and I was surprised that there was publicity so quickly.
Q: How did you first get interested in Burma? And what are you doing now on Burma?
A: I first became interested in Burma more than 12 or 13 years ago. Actually more than that. I became involved in the work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide when I was a university student in 1994. So, that was 17 years ago. At that time I was not directly involved in Burma but CSW was working on Burma and so I became aware of Burma back in 1994. But my first active involvement in Burma was around 1997 when I was living in Hong Kong and I started to become more and more involved with Burma and started to travel first to the Thailand-Burma border. My first contact with people and issues in Burma was with Karen and Karenni ethnic groups. Over the years since that time, I traveled many times to the other borders – the Chin people on the Indian border, the Kachin people on the China border and the Rakhine and Rohingya on the Bangladesh border as well as the Shan and Mon and of course continuing to see the Karen and Karenni. And also becoming very involved and supportive and connected with the democracy movement both in-country and in exile. So, over the years my involvement had broadened to see Burma as a whole. The issue of ethnic nationalities and the democracy movement and trying to work and support all the people of Burma. In terms of my activities, primarily I am an activist with Christian Solidarity Worldwide and so my activities involve international advocacy and documenting the human rights violations occurring in the country and briefing policy makers and media and the general public on the general situation in Burma and trying to advocate for the international community to play a strong part in support of the people of Burma in their struggle for democracy and human rights. In addition to that, I do a lot of writing. I write Op-Eds and articles, and I have written two books and I just finished writing another book which will be published this year.
Q: Beside this book on Than Shwe, what are the other two books?
A: My first book was published in 2004. It was focused on the Karen. It was called ‘A Land without Evil’. My new book, which will be published later this year, is called, ‘Burma: A Captive Nation’. It focuses on the overall situation trying to piece together the story of Burma’s struggle for freedom looking at the democracy movement and ethnic nationalities along all the borders and also looking at the international response to the situation, with also some historical context.
Q: Do you think or did you see any evidence that people in Burma are aware of your book on Than Shwe?
A: Yes, there are certainly some people who are aware of the book both in the regime–that’s why they deported me–but also among other people as well.
Q: You said you did not notice any change in Burma when you visited there this time. How about the people you met? Did they think the same thing?
A: Yes they did. Interesting thing about the people I met. Everybody I met without exception expressed the same view that nothing has changed. People whom I met came from quite a broad variety of backgrounds, but they all have a common view that nothing has changed.