Aid workers aren’t the only ones having trouble getting into Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis. The nation’s secretive military regime is withholding visas from journalists and going to unusual lengths to root out those foreign reporters who manage to slip into the country. CNN correspondent Dan Rivers, just back from Yangon, spoke with Mariah Blake about close calls, lucky breaks, and the huge obstacles reporters face when it comes to covering the crisis.
MB: How did you find out that you were being hunted?
DR: The first indication came when a local fixer [who was working with us unbeknownst to officials] was asked by the government to report any foreigners staying with him. They were specifically looking for me. We were aware before that they weren’t keen on journalists going in to cover the story, but as soon as we heard they were looking for me things started to get a bit more worrying.
MB: I can imagine. What did you do after hearing this news?
DR: All the standard things you would expect: being very careful not to stay in one place too long, changing vehicles frequently to make sure we weren’t being followed, driving round and round in circles getting rather paranoid, looking over our shoulders the whole time.
MB: Did you have any close calls?
DR: We had some extraordinarily close calls. There was one incident where my crew were stopped and questioned by a government official. Luckily I wasn’t with them. I was having lunch in a restaurant nearby when this immigration official came over to them and asked for their passports and started comparing their passport photos with a photograph of me that it appears they had taken from a TV screen. That was fairly worrying for everyone else knowing that I was just around the corner.
They managed to talk their way out of that one and get away. Then we pushed further south into the Irrawaddy Delta and we hit a checkpoint. Luckily I was in the back of the car. It was an SUV, and I was in the very rear hidden under a blanket. At the checkpoint my team was told that the immigration official who had just questioned them wanted to see them again back in that town. We decided to turn around, but instead of going back, we drove off the road—there was this jungle track. We drove into the middle of the jungle, parked the car, hopped out and climbed into two small boats, which we took down the river.
After we passed down the river, we got to a village in the Irrawaddy Delta where we did some filming. Then we were trying to get to the far side of this island, where we were told there might be a speed boat, which we could use to get out of there. And that point this guy just appeared out of nowhere with a walkie-talkie and told us, “You’ve got to go back. The police are waiting for you back where your car is.” So we were basically marched back to our car.
When we got back there were two policemen and they questioned us earnestly for about half an hour, forty minutes. Then they asked for our passports again. Thankfully, when they asked for my passport, they let me hold it, and I held my thumb over my first name and my surname, so it was just my two middle names that were showing, and it was those two names that the officer wrote down in his notebook and radioed ahead to the next checkpoint. Since “Dan Rivers” wasn’t radioed, they let us through—an exceptionally lucky break. From there, things improved because they thought, okay these guys are not Dan Rivers. We got waived through the checkpoints back to Yangon.
MB: I understand one of your biggest concerns was the safety of your local fixers. What special dangers do they face?
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.