Bright future? A blazing sun backdrops the Shwedagon, Myanmar’s most holy pagoda. (Jerry Redfern)
When I left Yangon in May 2009, escorted onto a Thai Airways plane with a passport stamped “deportee,” the last commanding sight I saw was a smoky sky and a setting sun, round as a ball, red as flames. For nearly four years, that sun colored my memories of Myanmar. It guided my story of the place.
My husband, Jerry Redfern, and I were teaching nonfiction writing and photography courses organized by the US Embassy’s American Center—“nonfiction” was an alias for journalism back when journalism was a sensitive term there. Ironically, the Burmese government had approved our workshops, several short sessions over the course of a few months in Yangon and Mandalay. But on the last day of our last class, we returned from dinner to find our Mandalay hotel lobby full of police and soldiers. Their orders came from the capital, and the message was clear: No questions, no phone calls. Just pack.
Our Burmese colleague from the embassy stood on the pavement and watched us squeeze into a taxi headed for the railway. His face grew white, his eyes stitched with anxiety. This was a man who had suffered threats against life and livelihood. I worried about him. I worried about our students. Whatever might come to us could be far worse for anyone who had worked with us.
We spent 16 sweaty hours in a cramped cabin with one anemic fan and two quiet police officers assigned to deliver us to Yangon. Black grime soiled our skin and nails as the train clattered down the tracks. Our minders removed their uniforms and slept most of the night. There were few lights outside, just the smell of fuel and farms, the pitch-black backdrop of a land without electricity. After hours of wondering and worrying, I began to take notes. No one noticed.
The morning sun—that same fiery sphere—rose over banana trees and murky canals, a pretty scene in another context. Our captors brought us packets of cheap, moistened towelettes to clean our greasy faces. They allowed me a bathroom break, and along the way I saw one of my students in a nearby cabin. What a surprise! She wanted to chat. But I couldn’t talk, couldn’t tell her about the police or our detainment. She looked dismayed when I left. Later, I managed to slip her a note explaining. When we arrived at the Yangon station, I saw her standing at the window, her face somber.
US Embassy officials awaited our arrival. They had no information—they were as perplexed as we—and no power to intervene. We were relieved to see our colleague from Mandalay. He had taken a morning flight without hassle. Burmese officers taxied us around town, from the airport to Immigration to the airport again. Our passports were taken and we were invited to wait in a VIP lounge with snacks, drinks, and comfortable chairs. Through the windows I saw the red sun.
And that’s how it ended. We left without knowing why, without hope of return. We’d been living and working in the region since 1998; Myanmar had a strong pull for us. We made our first trip to Yangon in 2002 after meeting several Burmese journalists in exile who had told us harrowing accounts of their escapes to India and Thailand. They lived in limbo, far from their families, with fake names in fake passports. Many could not travel beyond their country of exile. They felt trapped in a quasi-confinement they had chosen over the imprisonment offered by the totalitarian government in their homeland.
For nearly four years, Jerry and I kept in touch with Burmese friends and colleagues through Facebook and Gchat. We took precautions, knowing our conversations might be monitored. I tweaked my name and invented a new email address. Then I’d stay up late, waiting for the familiar plink of Gmail alerting me to a message sent from afar. On good nights, our chats reached 60 lines or more. Other times the exchanges ended abruptly, inexplicably. But as far as Jerry and I knew, none of our students suffered because of us.
We continued to teach. In 2009, I led four Burmese reporters to New York and Pittsburgh to cover the United Nations and G-20 Summit. They told me they were the first group of Yangon-based journalists to do that. In 2011, we spent three weeks with eight Burmese journalists sent to the University of Montana for training in government reporting.