Tense Moments in Burma

One Monday afternoon in August, my mobile phone rang. “Yanto,Ma Ja Nan says come to office now.” I received a call from Dwight,my Peace Communicator friend in Myanmar, his voice quivering slightly unusual. Outside, the rain was so heavy.

I then told my co-trainer Nan Shang, “I was summoned to the office now. I do not know what happened, but it seems very serious. I must go now.” Then I asked her what bus should I ride and what bus stop should I go down. On the way, I wondered, what is going on. Why was I called suddenly? There was no satisfactory answer, my mind just became very messy.

That morning, I and Nan Shang was monitoring a conflict prevention and peace building training by the Lokatta Cariya Foundation, a local Buddhist NGO in Yangon. We were monitoring that training because their trainers have attended the Shalom Foundation training of trainers a month ago. The theme of the training was ‘proposal writing training’, but all the training materials were on peace building. I think this theme was used to easily get permission from the government, because it is very difficult to get permission if we conduct training on peace. Even writing an article on peace may have bad consequences. In my heart I wondered, whether the phone call has something to do with this particular training.

As I arrived at the office, I first met Zau Lum, project manager of the Peace Education Unit. He revealed that I have to go to Bangkok the following day to extend my visa. After that, I met Ma Ja Nan, Shalom’s Assistant Director, and she told me, “You have to go to Bangkok tomorrow to extend your visa. Are you ready?” I said I was ready, but I wondered why we needed to go the following day knowing that our visa will expire on September. She explained that it might be difficult to extend the visa starting on September, so we have to go early. They already called Ricky, the travel agent in Bangkok that is responsible for renewing our visas. That time, we were anticipating two possibilities. One, if we get our visas, we shall return to Yangon the following week. But if not, maybe we need to stay longer in Bangkok or return to our home country. Therefore, we were told to prepare all our things and pack them in one bag so that it would be easy to carry. In case the second possibility happens, Ma Ja Nan will bring our things on her trip to Bangkok the following week. I was confused; I do not have a big suitcase or a sufficient container to prepare all of my stuff.

At around 4 p.m., Dwight told me that he will go to the Philippine Embassy. I stayed at the office and went home around 8:30 p.m. In the apartment, I packed all my stuff but they were packed in four full small bags. I felt that it would be difficult for Ma Ja Nan to carry it.

Interestingly, while we were having breakfast that day, Dwight told me that an Irish missionary who served in Pyin Oo Lwin was arrested and extradited just a week ago for staying with local residents in his apartment. The night before, two guests from Myitkyina arrived in our apartment. He was also thinking about the situation because our guests have to stay with us for a week. Dwight got the story from the embassy staff from their weekly activities with the Filipino community. Every week, Dwight always carried stories on the events that happened outside, such as the checking of the apartments of Filipino citizens by the military and government and the arrest and deportation of the missionaries. I don’t know the situation outside, because I just stay in the apartment, go to the market, to office, to Inya Lake, and to Nay Pyi Daw Cinema. Normally, I just shut up and listen to him, but this morning I responded by joking, “If there is a military or police that comes we can escape through the emergency staircase.” And he said, “But we don’t have the key”. And I also told him, “Oh, if the government arrests or deports us, we will famous in Philippines and Indonesia. It will be the headline of the national and local news.” We were laughing together. I continued “Do not forget to call the embassy immediatelly, if they come”. After breakfast, he went to the office and I and Nan Shang went to Lokatta Cariya Foundation.

The following morning, I saw that Dwight’s room was clean already. He have prepared all of his stuff much earlier. Then, finally, I decided to buy a large suitcase. That day, we went to office as usual. At 2 p.m., I decided to go home early and bought a new suitcase. I quickly returned to the apartment to pack my stuff. Then, I packed all of my items that I will be leaving into the new suitcase. I only took few clothes good for two weeks in Bangkok as it also fits my small suitcase. I’m confident that we will back as soon as possible.

Around 5 p.m., we went to the Yangon International Airport by taxi. In the first door, we paid 20 FEC for the airport tax (20 USD). Next, we got inside the airport, but we first have to go through the X-ray. I was about to take my suitcase, when a policeman came and told me, “Pe’syan pe’syan”, meaning ‘money’. I told him, “Pe’syan ma shi bu” (I don’t have money.). But he replied that I have money inside my suitcase as seen from the X-ray and he told me to open my suitcase. I was scared, I was sweating cold sweat. He asked for my ID card because he thought I was Burmese. But when I handed my passport, he was shocked because I am an Indonesian. He asked me, “You spoke Burmese, I think you are Burmese.” I spoke to him to allow me to go. I was trying to give him some money but he does not want it.

Dwight came and spoke to them also. And then, I went outside and contacted Tu Ja, a colleague from Shalom, so he can take my money. Meanwhile, Dwight called Ma Ja Nan, and she advised to take 20,000 kyats (20 USD) and leave the money in the airport. However, the policeman did not want to receive the money. I went out again to wait for Tu Ja or anyone who will come. While I was outside, Dwight, Nan Shang and Zau Lum were all calling me at the same time. Between panic and resignation, I thought of going back to the apartment to put it or if no one picks it up then I’ll decide not to go to Bangkok that day. And then, Dwight called again telling me to just exchange the money at the money changer. But not long after, Zau Lum and Moon Light, another officemate, came. I left my money to them, and entered the airport to check-in and pay for the immigration fee. Then, inside I asked Dwight, “Why they did not detain you also?” He told me that he exchanged his money to dollar before going to the airport. I already know that the government does not allow bringing kyats in large numbers overseas, because Pyone, our coordinator have warned us about it when we renewed our visas for the first time in June. However, I forgot about it, because of the sudden news of our visa extension this time.

The following day in Bangkok, Ricky sent one of his staff members to take our passports in order to extend our visas. Three days later, we got our visas but we did not immediately return to Yangon. This is because if we return to Yangon that day, then our visas would expire on November 5, two days before election. Pyone advised us to stay two more days, so our visa would expire on November 9 or two days after the elections in Burma.

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