Myanmar: Open Military Camps, Closed Teashops

Apart from a brief introduction to the Chief of Staff of the Kachin Independence Army, we spent our first day in
Myanmar locked inside a hotel room. Our Kachin hosts were apologetic but firm. For the moment, it was too risky to go outside.

The Kachins are a group of predominantly Christian tribes who live in the Himalayan foothills of northern
Myanmar. From 1961 until 1994 they fought a guerrilla war against the military government of Myanmar, which is dominated by ethnic Burmese.

The junta changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, partly in order to legitimize their rule over parts of the country like Kachin, which are home to ethnic groups who have waged fierce insurgencies for much of the past five decades.


Photo: KIO member Lum reads a Human Rights Watch report on the Myanmar government's crackdown on monk-led protests last year.

Myanmar – or Burma , call it what you will – is a closed society with one of the most repressive and corrupt governments in the world. Travel in Myanmar is possible, although the opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has asked visitors to stay away, but journalists can't just waltz up to the border with camera gear and voice recorders.

The junta is exceptionally paranoid about international media, and nearly all foreign journalists must enter the country on tourist or business visas, concealing their true intentions and avoiding contact with police or other government officials.

Much good journalism has emerged from Myanmar in recent years despite the lack of openness, including a recent project by Jacob Baynham, which was funded by the Pulitzer Center
. Most of this undercover journalism is characterized by hushed teashop interviews, references to George Orwell and the occasional interrogation and deportation.

Our trip to Myanmar was different. We didn't pretend to be tourists or businessmen. In fact, we didn't bother with Myanmar visas at all. We were guests of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which controls small pockets of territory along the Chinese border.

The KIO micro-state is an oasis of relative freedom in a repressive part of the world.

While the Burmese imprison journalists, the Kachins asked us to teach journalism workshops to young people. Likewise, while the Burmese fear international media coverage, the Kachins are desperate to share their story with the outside world.

However, free KIO territory is not totally closed to Burmese, and the Burmese secret police were out there in civilian clothes, skulking around like – well – like journalists in Myanmar.

If the Burmese got wind of our presence, it could lead to a delicate diplomatic problem for the KIO. Likewise, the Chinese on the other side of the river would not approve of two journalists sneaking into Myanmar without going through the proper formalities at their border post.

Thus, we were locked in the hotel room, visited at times by a friendly military intelligence officer named Lum who brought us noodles, showed us his side-arm and asked, in hesitant English, if we had read Thomas Friedman, Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama.

"Friedman argues the world is flat," Lum said as we watched a propaganda movie about opium eradication on the KIO television station. "But the world is not flat in

The three of us gazed wistfully out the window at the Chinese hills.

We might be the first journalists to leave
Myanmar without conducting a single teashop interview. We were not able to visit any teashops. Towns were off limits, and when we traveled from one place to another it was always in the backseat of a car with tinted windows, hats pulled low over our faces.


We did, however, enjoy full access to the sort of places that are normally off-limits to journalists in

We slept in a bamboo house outside of town with a KIO volunteer and Senior General Than Shwe, a friendly dog named after the leader of the
Myanmar military junta.

We were invited to KIO headquarters, where an official told us to ask him anything we liked.

"Let's have a frank and open discussion," he said, and we did, staying in his office until after 10 pm.

We visited military headquarters high in the mountains and drank rice whiskey with soldiers, who drove us on twisting mountain roads to within a few hundred meters of a
Myanmar military position, where we hid in the bushes and spied on the soldiers with binoculars.

On the army bases we were free – no Burmese intelligence there – and nobody minded us wandering around, filming and asking questions.

Once, at the Kachin military academy, our hosts invited us to take target practice with new recruits.

The closer we got to the most sensitive elements of the Kachin Independence movement, the more freedom we enjoyed. But there was always the return to town, driving past the teashops with the windows rolled up and our heads ducked down.

We did manage to meet and interview many civilians, but never in a busy public place. Everything that would be open in
Myanmar was closed to us in Kachin, while everything that would be closed was open.

Someday I hope to visit a Burmese teashop, but after these articles are published I doubt a visa of any sort will be forthcoming. Perhaps some day it will be possible to travel across Kachin state openly, but I'm not holding my breath. The Kachins face an uphill battle in their struggle for freedom. Their numbers are few and their rifles tend to jam.

But one thought gives me hope. Apart from the freedom of journalists, there's one more way in which KIO territory represents the polar opposite of the rest of
Myanmar. The Myanmar government is doing everything it can to hold its people down. In their cramped pockets of territory, the Kachins are doing what they can to lift their people up.

That's the story it's now our job to tell.

Photos are by Ryan Libre, all rights reserved.