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Nightmare in "Visit Myanmar Year"
- Subject: Nightmare in "Visit Myanmar Year"
- From: caroline@xxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Fri, 16 Feb 1996 20:21:00
"Nightmare in Visit Myamar year 1996"
"Visit Myanmar Year 1996" doesn't officially begin until this
October. This delay is a good thing as the government has some major
challenges to work out. But atleast Myanmar Immigration has been order to
"be nice to tourists". Apparently their officials have created great
difficulties for foreign visitors. Certainly they did for my cycle tour
group while we were in Burma, Dec. 31,1995 to Jan. 19, 1996.
My fiance, Tracy Horsman ( who is English, I'm American ) ,and I
had successfully led two bicycle tours of Burma last year, Nov. 1994 to
Feb. 1995. Our first visit to Burma was in Jan. 1994, when we met with the
Myanmar Cycle Federation ( MCF ) in Rangoon. We proposed the idea of bring
an English cycle team to Burma following year and in true Burmese
hospitality, they eagerly helped us set up the route. We cycled this route
along the Irrawaddy river to Pagan and Mandalay and fell in love with the
kind Burmese people we met along the way. The remainder of 1994 was spent
busily looking for the right sort of cyclist to take to Burma and happily
anticipating our return.
In 1995 MCF again extended a formal letter of invitation to lead
our cycle tour in Jan. 1996. We wanted to express our gratitude for all of
their previous help and this time we brought a new Italian track bicycle
for the MCF. The bike along with the other cycling gifts we brought
totaled US$1000. At a formal ceremony at Aung San stadium in Rangoon, our
tour group of 12 presented the bike to the Lt. General of the Sports and
Physical Education Department which regulates the MCF. A photo of Tracy,
the Lt. Gen, and the bike appeared in the "New Light of Myanmar" news
paper on Jan. 2. We would have preferred to present the bike directly to
the cyclists who would be riding it. But the MCF was as warm and welcoming
as ever and we felt this would indeed be an exceptional tour.
And it was exceptional in ways we never imagined. After three days
of cycling north of Rangoon, we were abruptly stopped by the police in
Aunglan Myo, Magwe Division. We were ordered by Immigration to return to
Rangoon immediately. No explanation. The next morning after a generous
breakfast in a friend's home, we were kept locked inside our rest house
where we had spent the night. Interestingly, that same night a Swiss
couple stayed there also. They were cycling to Rangoon alone. While we
were locked up, Immigration spent much time on the telephone to Prome.
The local general in Prome supposedly promised us that if we would all
backtrack to Prome, we would be given a mysterious "travel pass". Then we
could return to Aunglan Myo that evening and carry on one day behind
schedule. Meanwhile our friends, in Aunglan Myo were shocked and mystified
by our treatment. Tracy and I had stayed in their town five times
previously and corresponded with them throughout the year.
Eleven of us returned to Prome by cars that afternoon, leaing one
American, Chuck, in Aunglan Myo with our bikes and gear as he was ill. In
Prome we were dumped off in empty hall while our licensed guide ( who was
interpreting for us ) and Immigration went to talk to unseen higher-ups.
In true SLORC fashion, we were never to see anyone in command making
decisions who could explain the situation to us. An order came down from
Rangoon and the low men on the SLORC totempole had to enforce it.
This order demanded that we return to Rangoon. We were then taken
to the Prome Hotel eventually where we awaited for the arrival of Chuck
and our bikes. We phoned the British and American Embassies until we were
cut off from using the phone. At 11 pm two trucks pulled in with Chuck and
our bikes. Chuck told us how all the locks on our bikes and on our room
doors had to be sawn off, hence the delay. We had the keys in Prome. Our
expensive bikes were scratched and nicked from the bumpy truck ride. This
added to everyone disgust and we went to bed furious as numerous men in
longyis milled around our hotel for our "security". Suddenly at midnight
loud banging at our doors demanded that we board an overnight bus to
Rangoon. Sure enough, in front of our hotel was a dilapidated local bus
filled with Burmese. We again insisted to talk to a general and were told
he was sleeping. We retorted that we were sleeping too and slammed our
doors shut. The bus eventually departed without us.
The next morning no official in Prome materialized to offer an
explanation or apology. Still a multitude of men in longyis stood around
our hotel. Grudgingly, we decided to return to Rangoon to get some answers
from central government since it was they who were so eager to get us back
We boarded a bus which had been abruptly emptied of it's local
passengers, our bikes in yet again another truck. The seven hour trip was
made in sorrow and frustration. Why did we have to return to Rangoon? Why
we were being treated like criminals in "Visit Myanmar Year 1996"? No
answers were forthcoming.
To our amazement, after 48 hours of harassment to return to
Rangoon, no officials greeted us upon our arrival. It was late in the day
and scrambled to find a hotel for our group, wondering when we would get
an explanation. Little did we know then, we would still be wondering why
our tour was forcibly stopped when we flew out of Burma fourteen days
The following day was Sunday, Jan. 7. While I took our frustrated
tour members for a ride across the Pegu River, Tracy paid a visit to
Myanmar Travel and Tourism (MTT). The MCF representatives accompanied him.
At MTT they found that all officials were on the golf course. Since the
MCF was also in the dark, they went to the Ministry of Defense for
answers. To their surprise and dismay, they learned there was a new law
effective April 8, 1995. It forbade independent travel in Burma. After
much coercion, the MCF representative was allowed to see the law in
writing. Back at our hotel, he dismally gave us the news.
It was a law so secret that no one knew about it. Certainly not
the MCF, the Dept. of Sports and Physical Education, and not even Myanmar
Travel and Tourism! We were the victims of one of SLORC's evil tricks to
make up all kinds of laws and apply them on whim. On our three trips to
Burma, Tracy and I have seen hundreds of independent travelers, almost all
brandishing the "Lonely Planet" bible to independent travel in Burma.
An appointment was made to meet Htay Aung, the Director of MTT,
and Lt. General Kyaw Ba, Minister for Tourism, at 9:30 am Monday. Our
entire tour group was at MTT at the appointed hour. After a two hour wait,
Tracy had an unapologetic meeting with these two men. They accused the Lt.
General of the Sports and Physical Education Department of not informing
MTT about our tour and advised Tracy to "take the track bike back". We
were not allowed to our cycle tour route and we were wasting valuable days
waiting for vague excuses for our tour cancellation. Htay Aung said that
of course we could return to Burma next year providing we went through MTT
(who know absolutely nothing about cycle touring).
Meanwhile, four of our tour members were fed up with "Visit
Myanmar Year's" hospitality and flew to Bangkok on Jan. 9. Chuc, due his
recently diagnosed gout, opted to fly around Burma and travel
independently (which he did successfully). The remaining tour members were
two English couples on tandem bikes and my cousin, Dave. With MTT's
"blessing" we took the night train to Mandalay, arriving Jan. 10. At the
train station we were politely but forcibly detained for over one hour by
the local Sports Officers. Cars and motorbikes escorted us to our hotel.
Tracy and I know Mandalay quite well and we certainly didn't need help
finding our hotel. I took our group out for a cycle tour of Mandalay city
while Tracy tried to find reasons for all of this unwanted attentions. My
group was followed by a motorbike "for our security". These two men on
motorbike followed our every move, even regularly telephoning unknown
sources about our locations. This was frustrating not to mention
degrading. This motorbike was actually causing accidents to happen by
trying to keep people away from us. later they followed us up Mandalay
hill. One of our man lost his cool and yelled at them in exasperation.
They slunk off never to be seen again.
But there were plenty of other "security guards" watching over us.
We decided to get away from all this unwanted attention and take the
tourist boat to Pagan the next day. We bought boat tickets from MTT at
US$10 each. At 9:30 pm an Immigration official appeared at our hotel
stating we did not have "permission" to take the boat to Bagan. (This is a
boat for tourists and locals alike, Pagan is an open tourist area.) We
asked if we were under arrest? No. Then WHY??? The only explanation was
"orders from Rangoon".
Since it was apparent that we would be forcibly prevented from
boarding the boat at 5 am, we decided to stay in Mandalay and get some
clarification from Rangoon and contact our Embassies. (Pagan is Burma's
number one tourist attraction but it is in a telecommunication vacuum.)
The next boat did not sail for Pagan for four days. The following day
Tracy tried to distract our group with another tour of Mandalay (we were
absolutely NOT permitted to leave the city boundary, however all of
Mandalay District and city is open to tourists). Why were we denied assess
to tourist sights like Sagaing or Pwin Oo Lwin? Why were we followed
absolutely everywhere by men in sunglasses and longyis on motorbikes? Why
were one of our tandems threatened with handcuffs when they reached the
city limits? I sent a three page fax to Kyaw Ba reporting our treatment.
Htay Aung faxed back stating yes, we could take the boat to Pagan and no,
we could not cycle from Pagan to Thazi (again, open to tourists) to catch
the train to Rangoon. End of fax.
Meanwhile, Mandalay officials continued to tell us we could not
take the boat to Pagan. Secret police were posted in the building across
from our hotel and there was always a group of five to seven men sitting
in the tea shop next to our hotel, ready to jump on their motorbikes and
follow us. At one point, Tracy had five motorbikes following him. He went
directly to the MTT office and demanded to know why he was being followed.
A bus load of curious tourists took photos of his frustration at receiving
no answers. This stress was also manifesting in out tour members. Tempers
were short the oppression of out outright unexplained harassment was
draining our energy dramatically. I sent another fax to Htay Aung. Hours
later he replied, short and cut, he was not interested in our situation.
At this point we were in daily contact with our embassies. The
American Embassy told me not to get thrown in jail as they have no
consular agreement with Burma (meaning Slorc does not have to tell the US
Embassy if an American citizen is in jail). The British Embassy was
outraged at out treatment and said we had every right to take the tourist
boat to Pagan.
To try and salvage something interesting out of Mandalay, Dace
paid his US$5 and entered Mandalay Palace accompanied by the usual
shadows. he turned his back on his bike o take some photos, then
discovered missing from his handlebar bag were his passport, US$800. in
traveler's checks, US$200 of Kyats and US$500 of sapphires. When the
police eventually arrived, he was told hat he would probably get his
pasport and traveler's checks returned to him in the mail!
Finally on Saturday night, Immigration stated we were allowed to
take the tourist boat the following morning to Pagan. We had already
changed our ticket date and were determined to go. Two of our Mandalay
Cycle Club (MCC) friends were to accompany us, much to our delight. We
boarded the boat and our bikes were put under lock and key "for our
security" (Slorc was afraid we'd jump ship and cycle away from their
clutches). We elected our seats amongst other tourists when eight of our
usual secret police shadows sat down immediately behind us. I was livid
and demanded that they leave. I took deep breaths to calm myself,
reflected on Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi, and applied "passive
resistance." After two hours they went below deck for the reminder of the
15 hour journey. (The upper deck is reserved for dollar paying tourists) A
weight was lift off my shoulders temporarily.
It was dark in Pagan when finally arrived. We cycled alone to our
hotel that we always stay in and did not received our usual warm greeting.
Who knows what people had been told about us? Later I learned the hotel
staff were very worried and frightened for us. In Pagan no one followed us
constantly but at every exit point from the archeological area were
police, ready to stop us from leaving. Our friends from the MCC told us
repeatedly that the secret police and immigration officers were actually
nice people are were 'just following orders". Absolutely no one in
Mandalay District seemed to have any idea of why we were harassed
continually. But our contact was limited to those who do not make
decisions. Tracy and Dave had gone to the immigration office while we were
still in Mandalay. Men that saw them walk in all ran away. Finally n
English speaking officer meekly directed them to the main officer's
quarters. They were not permitted to see him as he was far too busy.
After two days in Pagan, we were basically forced to fly to
Rangoon. The xpected expenses for train, boat, and plane travel were
mounting up. Interestingly, we paid MTT our US$90 in kyats at the black
market rate of 126 kyats/dollar vs. the official 5.9 kyats/dollar for each
airline ticket. MTT normally only accepts US dollars or FEC's (tourist
currency). They were blatantly involved in the black market.
Back in Rangoon, still no answers. Tracy met again with Htay Aung
and kyaw Ba. They flatly denied our harassment and stated "of course you
were free to travel outside of Mandalay and Pagan." Then they hurried him
from their office as many men in uniforms were waiting for them. Sadly, we
did not see anyone from the Cycle Federation. it must have been a
tremendous loss of face for them.
I have purposely not described many of our Burmese friends and
their reactions to out ordeal. To say they were puzzled and astonished at
our treatment is an nderstatement. They were also worried for us because
we had the nerve to question and criticize our harassment. The government
has built up "Visit Myanmar Year 1996" to such an extent that some Burmese
started to believe 1996 would indeed be a perfect year for tourists. Many
Burmese were trying to cash in on tourism. We were stunned by the number
of news hotel in New pagan. many hotel owners will end up going bankrupt
as the promised hoards of tourists will simple not fill all those rooms.
>From what I've observed in my three visits to Burma, the generals grow
richer and fatter while the average citizens are increasingly less well
off. Inflation continues to increase while salaries remain low and
Obviously we will not be leading any more cycle tours in Burma
while Slorc retains it's evil grip on what I consider to be some of the
finest people in the world. We will not return bearing suggested gifts of
satellite receivers to bribe generals. We dream to see our Burmese friends
some day in a healthy political climate, living their everyday lives
without fear and paranoia, sharing our love of cycling together, laughing
together with the joy of freedom.
DAWN NEWS BULLETIN
Vol:6 No.1 January/february 1996
ABSDF (DAWN GWIN)