As my taxi crawls from the airport through downtown Rangoon, the repression in the air hangs as heavy as the night's humidity. Speed bumps slow the traffic, and along both sides of the street, hundreds of soldiers with bayoneted rifles stand every 50 paces. "They are preparing for Armed Forces Day," explains the driver. But that's three weeks from now. What could so many heavily armed men be preparing to do? Isn't it scary? "No, we are used to it," says the driver, resigned to the police state that 10 years of military dictatorship in Burma has produced.
The sight of such weaponry makes me clutch my bag a little tighter, for it contains dangerous contraband: I am carrying a message, given to me by an intermediary, from exiled Chinese political prisoner Wei Jingsheng to Burma's pro-democracy leader and Nobel peace prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. "We find ourselves struggling for the same goals--namely, the rights and happiness of our people and the peace and progress of humanity," the message, written in Chinese inside the cover of Wei's book, The Courage To Stand Alone, begins. "Let us unite, hand-in-hand, to continue our struggle against dictators." In this heavy atmosphere, the book feels electric, as if it carries a power greater than all these guns combined.
That Burma ended up like this is a tragedy. Fifty years ago, this country was the most developed in Asia. It was rich in oil, gems, and hardwoods, and almost every adult was literate. Now, Burma--called Myanmar by the military regime--is one of the least developed nations on earth, synonymous with repression, civil war, and human-rights abuses.
Hard-line generals have suppressed dissent for more than a decade, imprisoning and torturing opponents and refusing to honor the results of 1990 elections. In them, the charismatic Suu Kyi, despite being under house arrest, won an overwhelming majority. She has not been permitted to take power, even though many regard her as the rightful ruler.
At the hotel, I make plans to deliver the message. I pack a change of clothing, and in the backseat of a taxi, I pin my blond hair up underneath my baseball cap. Using instructions given to me by contacts back in New York, I direct the taxi to stop a block from the home of an intermediary who will give the book to Suu Kyi and arrange for me to meet her.
It's nearly 9 p.m. when I hammer on the gate out front. I try to avoid giving the government security men, parked across the street behind tinted windows, a glimpse of my face. The dogs begin howling. A woman comes out and then runs back in. It is several minutes before they open the gate--heart-pounding moments during which, I later learn, the occupants decide I am not the late-night knock at the door that they fear might ultimately take them away.
PRECAUTIONS. They warn me that the generals in power seem particularly jumpy lately. I should take precautions. So on the way back to my hotel, I stop en route to let down my hair, change into a dress, have a well-needed drink, and, I hope, throw off anyone who might have followed me.
With the meeting set for a few days later, I have some time to see the city. I find it full of people starved to speak English, to have contact with the world outside. At the central market, I ask one young man who wants to practice his English what he thinks of Suu Kyi. He looks alarmed but says quietly: "Very good." When I press him for his political views, he places a finger to his lips, looks nervously from side to side, and puts his wrists together as if he were being handcuffed. "Spies everywhere," he says. It is illegal for Burmese to discuss politics with foreigners, or even among themselves.
But what he is most angry about, he says, is that it's hard to make a living under the military regime. People earn one-tenth of what they need to survive and must hustle for extra cash. The price of rice is double what it was last year. The currency has fallen more than 40%, in line with currency depreciations in the rest of the region. Foreign companies for now have stopped investing. "I want to go to your country," he says. "U.S.A. is very good."
Two days later, I meet Aung San Suu Kyi. I go again to the intermediary's house, but this time it is daylight and there are security agents out front waiting to take my photo. I put my hand over my face, and they do not get a clean shot. I wait for Suu Kyi to arrive.
GRACEFUL. I am expecting a slender, articulate woman with an air of calm tranquility. She does not disappoint. If there is a definition of gracefulness walking, she is it. She hurries me into her white Toyota, and we sit, tense and in silence, as the driver races to her home. Agents from five branches of internal security and military intelligence pursue us at high speed. I crane my head to look. She warns me not to turn around. The government cars follow until we pass the barricades surrounding her white University Avenue home, where she spent six years under house arrest. Technically, she has been free since 1995, but heavy surveillance cripples her every movement.
Over lunch of rice and fish, she talks of the importance of maintaining U.S. sanctions against the military regime and of her hope for a democratic Burma. "People who come and invest now are not doing the people of Burma any big favor," she says in Oxford-accented English. Her voice is soft but firm. "If companies from Western democracies are prepared to invest under these circumstances, then it gives the military regime reason to think that, after all, they can continue violating human rights."
Although I tape our discussion, I transcribe it by hand immediately, smuggle the pages out of the compound in my underwear, and walk in the glaring sun toward the armed men at the barricades.
I am stopped for questioning. Name? Passport? What are you doing here? What is your occupation? They are businesslike and insistent. Hotel? Room number? Departure flight? The questioning takes place in full view of one of the many billboards posted around Rangoon. It reads: "People's Desire: Crush All Internal and External Destructive Elements as the Common Enemy."
Am I an external destructive element? Would security men be waiting at my hotel to crush me? Trembling, I hail a cab and decide to leave immediately, 32 hours ahead of schedule. At my hotel, the desk clerk stops me. "You leave now?" she says, suggesting it more than asking. But just this morning I had arranged to stay another night. Someone, obviously, has been asking about me. "Free car to the airport," she says, pointing to a van with its motor running.
At the airport, each stamp of the immigration counter, departure tax, and customs brings a growing sense of relief. Even so, boarding is delayed until well after nightfall. My anxiety grows again. Are they searching the passenger lists? As I step out from the terminal onto the tarmac, my fears are confirmed. Internal security agents are waiting with cameras. Flash. In a split second, I had held my U.S. passport like a shield over my face to block the picture.
Am I clear? I don't yet know it, but a black-clad security agent is stalking me in the dark under the plane wing. Flash. Full on this time. There can be no mistaking my identity. My heart beats wildly as I climb the steps to the plane. Would they cruelly allow me to take my seat and then come to take me away?
I fumble for the seat belt and think of home. Land of the free. I try to be brave. The captain apologizes for the delay--my delay. As the plane begins its taxi, my breath comes more evenly. I close my eyes. When I get home, I think, I will not take my liberty for granted. I will cherish my freedom. I will vote in every election. Maybe I will write a letter to the White House, just because I can.
My thoughts turn to the Burmese people, those struggling for democracy who cannot leave, who endure this haunting repression every day of their lives. According to Amnesty International, at least 80 "prisoners of conscience" are being held in Burmese prisons solely for the peaceful expression of their political beliefs. "You are so lucky to be American," one of them had told me. Yes, I am.