BANGKOK – Looking somewhere between flustered and bemused, the official at the Burmese embassy in Hanoi flicked through my passport, double-checking the
details on the main page and scanning through the stamps and visas.
“We will not be able to give you a visa for Myanmar”, she said, after a a couple of minutes brow-furrowing and mouth-pursing, and likely, careful thought about what to tell me. “Why is that?” I asked. We were both playing at faux-innocence, a game where each side knows that the other is bluffing, but both pretend that everything is being taken at face-value. She hesitated. “Em, you, em, need a multiple entry visa for Vietnam sir”. “Oh I see”, I replied, “but what has my visa for Vietnam got to do with travelling to Myanmar?”
It does actually, but I thought I should try some forlorn bluffing of my own and prolong the masquerade. My Vietnam visa was granted to allow me cover the recent summits in Hanoi, so she knew I was a journalist, trying like many others to finagle a way into Burma to cover the elections taking place today, in the guise of a tourist.
“We cannot issue visas unless you are entitled to stay in Vietnam for six months”, she said, more confidently than before. “Perhaps you can try your home country for a visa”. Ireland does not host an embassy from Burma, but seeing that the conversation was going nowhere, I didn’t bother to push the point, and thanked her for her time.
For the first time since the devastating 2008 Cyclone Nargis swept through the Irrawaddy Delta, killing around 140000 people, Burma is the top story on most of the international news networks. However, for many correspondents who cover Burma, the focal point for the elections today is the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCCT) in Bangkok, which has set up a hub for media comprising live updates from inside Burma as well as a feed from three Burmese state TV – which did not cover the elections. Burma analysts and academics are providing talking-head services, with Ambassadors scheduled to appear during the day to describe what colleagues and counterparts were seeing on the ground in Burma.
FCCT President Marwaan Markaar Macan said that event was aimed at providing “an information bridge” to journalists who could not access Burma.
While the journalists in Bangkok could not see what is taking place on the streets in Rangoon and elsehwere, the FCCT aimed to provide the next best option, with information relayed from inside Burma. According to Burmese exile media group Democratic Voice of Burma, which has a booth set up at the FCCT, the North Korean Ambassador to Burma led a delegation of election observers in Mandalay, where many polling stations were reported as closed by 10am, a mere four hours after voting opened. It is not clear if the North Korean Ambassador to Thailand will be briefing foreign media on his counterparts’ mission in Mandalay earlier today.
In an ironic turn, just as the Burmese military proxy parties were set to sweep the board in the elections, proxy coverage from outside Burma was highlighting the flaws on the process.
Some comments from inside Burma came from National Democratic Front (NDF) chairman Dr Thein Nyein, who, after a number of stillborn attempts at a phone-in to his office in Rangoon, told the journalists in Bangkok that he expected a final turnout of around 60%, contradicting reports from elsewhere of slow voting, with contacts on the ground in Rangoon estimating to The Irrawaddy that turnout was around 30%, with stations quiet by 130pm.
Some networks and newspapers have managed to get correspondents inside Burma for the elections, with most working anonymously or filing stories under pseudonyms. One American journalist said that the fear factor was high on the ground. “I had huge trouble even hiring a fixer for non-election coverage”.
While most media organisations have slated the elections as a sham aimed at perpetrating military rule under a quasi-civilian guise, many mainstream outlets are carrying comments from analysts with the optimistic prognosis that some form of “democratic space” may emerge in the post-election period, if the opposition parties can garner enough seats to make their voice heard. This attempt at ‘balance’ comes despite the flaws in the electoral process – described by US President Barack Obama today as “anything but free and fair”.
Not all international news agencies are prioritising coverage of Burma, however. Xinhua, the state news agency in China, ran an election story fifth from top on its homepage. The election, as Xinhua reports is being “observed regionwise by over a dozen groups of foreign diplomats and United Nations officials based in Myanmar.”, with “local and foreign newsmen stationed in Myanmar are also arranged to take news in different parts of the country.” A Chinese correspondent, speaking to me in Hanoi last week, said that “usually we cannot report on Myanmar”, or on other “sensitive stories”, unless specifically asked to do so.Show