DR: That was my biggest concern, not really my own safety—although there were moments when we were being marched back to the car where I did wonder, are we going to be shot and thrown in the river? But the local people—there’s a mandatory three year sentence for helping a foreign journalist in Myanmar under normal circumstances, and these were exceptional circumstances. So that was my real concern - could they end up in prison or even killed? That was the churning, awful sense of dread in my stomach as we approached the car. I thought, is this going to be something I regret for the rest of my life?
MB: Were you surprised by the amount of energy the government spent searching for you, given the situation?
DR: Yeah, I was. This is the largest disaster Myanmar’s ever had, I think. I found it pretty incredible that in the middle of this massive crisis—tens of thousands of people dead and many more homeless—they were looking for me. I mean, I wasn’t trying to score points against the government. I was reporting on a natural disaster. I was trying to tell people what was going on and what help was needed. I had been to Myanmar before. I knew this was a very secretive, paranoid regime. But I didn’t realize the extent.
MB: What do you think is the government’s motive for trying to block access?
DR: I suppose they want to manage the story so it looks like they are coping. They want the world to think the military government is doing a great job and everything’s fine. Of course, it is totally obvious having seen the pictures coming out of there that it’s not fine. It’s a total catastrophe.
MB: What hurdles, besides the secretive regime, do journalists face when it comes to covering the aftermath of the cyclone?
DR: Once you’re inside Myanmar, there’s no electricity in most areas. Some of the hotels have generators, but the power is only on a couple of hours a day—not much. Getting fuel for vehicles is also a nightmare. The queues for fuel are three-miles long. So we were constantly hunting for fuel and juggling charging batteries for our cameras and our computers. There are no telephone lines or telephone coverage because all the phone lines have been blown down, so getting back with our desk in Atlanta was also very problematic. There are other logistical problems, too: there’s no food or water down in the Irrawaddy Delta. All of that combined, and the added dimension of security and the fact that the government is looking for you, makes it exceedingly difficult just to get there and do your job.
MB: I believe you were the first to report from Bogalay, one of the hardest-hit towns in the Irrawaddy Delta, at a time when there weren’t any aid workers there yet. What was it like to be the only outsider?
DR: It was an extraordinary feeling being the only outsider amid such terrible destruction. No building there was left untouched. It was also very nerve wracking because we arrived just as a helicopter was landing, and I think it was carrying the prime minister. At any rate, it was someone very important. The entire town was crawling with soldiers, but they were so preoccupied by the imminent visit of the helicopter and the dignitaries that no one really noticed us driving into a side street. So we just jumped out and started filming. That’s where we filmed the terrible scene of the bodies being dumped in the river [by government employees trying to hide the death toll]. We also stumbled into an old monastery and found hundreds of people huddled in the debris. Then we jumped back into the car, filmed some things around town, and headed out.