Rebel With A Cause
by Kim Gooi, 1994
[As far as rebellions go, Myanmar (Burma) is unsurpassed in the world. Jokes aside, the country could easily claim the title ‘Mother of Most Rebellions’. It is the country with the highest number of, and longest on-going rebellions. Apart from all that they also have ethnic conflicts. I would recommend Guinness World Records make an entry for the country].
Since its independence from Britain in 1948, Burma has been beset by countless rebellions. Ethnic groups like the Karen, Shan (Tai or Thai), Kachin, Karenni, Chin, Mon, Wa, Arakan Muslim (Rohinga), and the Burmese Communist Party took up arms against the Rangoon government of the majority ethnic Burmans who are of Tibetan stock.
The fire of rebellion is still burning today despite a quasi peace treaty which has been signed with some groups in recent years.
Despite all the atrocities and oppression committed by the Burmese army against the minorities over half a century, Burma has been ignored for a long time by the world media. It is also due to the military junta shutting the country to outsiders.
Not until the emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi and the August 1988 massacre of pro democracy protesters in the streets of Rangoon where thousands were mowed down in cold blood, did the world take notice of the country. Suu Kyi or ‘the Lady’ has become the Burmese icon of pro democracy movement in the country.
She is the daughter of slain independence hero Aung San and had spent most of her life in the West. Her father and the entire Cabinet were gunned down during a cabinet meeting on the eve of independence. Oxford-trained and married to the late English scholar, Michael Aris, Suu Kyi became the symbol against the oppressive junta and an instant hero of the western press.
Beautiful, charming and articulate in impeccable English, she is the embodiment of the West’s perception of courage and fearless sacrifice, risking all for freedom and democracy. She is, what many would say, the Burmese counterpart of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.
In 1994 after five years of house arrest in her lakeside bungalow, she was released. (Today she is in for the 3rd time since being taken into custody in 2003).
The media was in a frenzy. There was a mad rush to Rangoon to interview her. Bangkok is the gateway and nearest air-hub to Rangoon, foreign correspondents based there, had been anticipating and waiting for such eventuality.
On the morning after news of her release broke out, the Who’s Who of Burma watchers and members of the news media were queuing at the Burmese embassy for visas. Bertil Litner (author and Burmese expert) was turned away. He said he was not surprised as he half-expected it, because he had been black-listed by the government.
After securing the journalist visa from the embassy, I was onboard Burma Airways plane with ABC Australia and Evan Williams, heading for Rangoon. Making up the team were cameraman Derek Williams and Mark Laban, each with a Betacam and tons of video and lighting equipment.
I was told that Evan had spoken to Suu Kyi on the phone and she had given him assurance that ABC would be the first to interview her. It would be a scoop of sort, beating the rest of the world to it.
The ecstatic Evan had hired two cameramen to shoot simultaneously during the interview instead of the usual practice where one camera would suffice and you shoot the cut-away after the interview. I was hired to handle the sound equipment and recording.
No expenses were spared to ensure the best production possible. Among tons of equipment were two 500-watt Photoflood lights that would bathe any dimly lit room in artificial daylight. Compared to TV crews like CNN, BBC, ABC News, the Japanese and European networks, (with single or two-men crew) scampering to Rangoon, we were like a Hollywood production.
Burma Airways is now managed by Singapore Airlines and no longer drab and spartan like its ‘socialist’ days. We were in first class and the champagne flowed. The charming stewardess left a whole bottle of red wine for cameraman Laban and me to savour.
The Traders Hotel was where most of the media stayed. It too is Singapore-managed, but owned by infamous Golden Triangle opium warlord turned entrepreneur Loh Hsing Han.
The hotel restaurant and coffee house was noisy and loud, as the whole Bangkok foreign and local press corp and the world media had descended upon it. As is usually the case, there were plenty of good cheers and comaraderie as old friends meet. Toasts and drinks were aplenty as most were on expense account. Time to catch up and find out what the others were up to, and share a joke or two.
That night our team must have slept well and contented, secured in the fact that tomorrow we would beat all the other newsmen and be the first to broadcast the story and pictures to the world.
To our horror, or more so Evan Williams’, a lone BBC correspondent had flown in from London with a tiny Video 8 camera and beat us to the interview. As we were ushered in to meet the Lady after getting through the huge crowd outside her house, we were told the BBC had just left. We realized prestige and name mattered.
Aung San Suu Kyi could not resist the name and prestige of BBC London to carry her story to the world. At the last minute, ABC Australia was delegated the second place.
To make matters worse, it took time to set up all the lighting equipment and sound recording gadgets. And horror of horrors, midway through the interview the whole house was plunged into darkness as the electrical fuse box tripped. The two 500-watt lamps were too powerful for the household electric supply.
It happened three times before the interview was finally concluded to the relief of the Lady’s many helpers and bodyguards and the large crowd of journalists waiting for their turn. A lot of time was wasted. Needless to say we earned the ire of the hordes of impatient newsmen.
In terms of camera work and sound quality, we might have had the best pictures, lighting and sound but when it comes to news broadcasting, speed matters most. Camera work and sound need not be top rate; as long as it is broadcast quality, like that of the tiny Video 8, it is acceptable.
A lone one-man-band ‘parachuted’ in out of nowhere with a simple, small camera and beat a group of guys with fancy and expensive gear.
Moral of the story: More Is Not Necessarily Best