Award-winning journalist Christopher Gunness, a former BBC correspondent, was in Myanmar during the nationwide pro-democracy uprising in 1988. He conducted clandestine radio interviews with several Myanmar students and activists that were broadcast to millions across the country, and the military government accused the reports of triggering the August uprising. The Irrawaddy caught up with him in 2003 via email and asked about his reporting experiences from 1988. Now, as the country commemorates the 30th anniversary of the uprising, we look back at what he had to say.
When you worked in Burma as a reporter in 1988, did you get the sense that the sporadic student protests early in the year would flare up into a nationwide uprising?
I was in no doubt at all that Burma was a bomb waiting to explode; the only questions in my mind were, “When and what would be the trigger?” In 1987 there had been sporadic trouble because of the demonetization, and the students were clearly aggrieved during the early months of ‘88. I firmly believe Ne Win also felt that huge problems were going to flare up, unless he acted. I’m not suggesting that he was acting without self-interest, but in a pragmatic way, to protect his own interests. I believe he knew there would be major challenges to his rule unless he did something bold—which is exactly what he did, in announcing multi-party democracy and a pluralist economy. He recognized the problem, but like the administrations he spawned, had neither the will, ability, decency or imagination to find a solution.
You interviewed female students who said they were raped in prison, but the government later exposed the charges as a total fabrication, and many activists back those claims. Do you still believe the stories of your interviewees? How did it affect your work as a professional reporter?
I have no doubt at all that the women I met had been raped. Their body language was unmistakable, and having met rape victims—subsequently in the Balkans—there are no doubts in my mind at all. The treatment of these women has also been confirmed subsequently by several unimpeachable sources. As far as government accusations are concerned, nothing the generals say will ever affect my work, except to make me more determined to keep them accountable to world opinion, if not to the people of Burma itself. I have been the subject of frequent vitriolic attacks and I take this as the highest possible compliment. It is a continued sign that my reporting is accurate and that the truth continues to irk the Burmese generals and those in East Asian governments who continue to support them.
What frustrations and regrets did you experience working as a journalist covering Burma from Rangoon?
The greatest frustration and regret is for my friends in Burma who have suffered so much. And I regret the fact that the international community has done so little to promote change. There has always been a cause of greater interest to the men who really run the world, in Washington, European capitals and in places like Tokyo and Beijing. Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan or wherever has always forced Burma off the international agenda. But I think things are changing, and since Iraq, toleration for rogue states is diminishing. And while I find the methodology of the hawks in Washington problematic, if their agenda of promoting American liberal values all over the world is followed to its logical conclusion, this can only be of benefit, ultimately to Burma.
Are you still blacklisted from visiting Burma? Have you tried to return? Do you want to? If you could, what would you do?
Yes, I am banned. I have had it made clear to me by ambassadors in London that a visa application would not be successful. However, I have been across the border through Thailand on one occasion, but it is very frustrating not being able to go to Rangoon. If I could visit, I would be extremely careful about who I spoke to, as I have little doubt that the military intelligence would arrest anyone talking to me. If I could go, I’d try to report on aspects of Burma that touch peoples’ lives rather than bang on about democracy and human rights. Although human rights are important, I would like to tell some human stories about how people have survived through 15 years of oppression. The story of modern Burma is a story about the enduring nature of the human spirit. The struggle for democracy is only one aspect of that.
Both dissidents and the regime acknowledge that your reports during the build-up to the uprising played a key role in triggering the public’s outrage. How do you feel now that the name Christopher Gunness has become part of the 8.8.88 legend? What was your role as a reporter?
The truth is that I feel very embarrassed for several reasons. Firstly, I think it is wrong. People were already outraged, not by my reporting, but by what the government was doing. To suggest that what outraged over 40 million people was the reportage of a very inexperienced BBC reporter is to miss the point about what was happening and to diminish the role of the Burmese people in those events. The Burmese people themselves rose up. They are the true heroes of 1988. All I did was report on it. Secondly, to overplay my role in the ’88 events is to play into the hands of the generals. It is all too easy for a corrupt, inefficient and greedy government to blame a single reporter. It suggests that the problem is not them, but a foreigner—a classic but crass attempt to find an external scapegoat. In addition, it subtly plays on old fears and memories in East Asia about British colonialism. What I did was not neo-colonial; however, much the government would like to believe that the BBC has a specific agenda in Burma. It does not. It is my role as a reporter and the BBC’s role as an international broadcaster, to hold a mirror up to Burma. If the generals don’t like what they see, they have only themselves to blame.
What is your assessment of the current situation in Burma? Do you see any parallels with 1988?
When a place is an information black hole, it is almost impossible to say anything meaningful about it. How can one assess the situation in Burma, when the government controls information so tightly and where the opposition isn’t free to operate and talk to journalists? But I do think the situation is different now. In ‘88 there was a genuine question mark over the decency of the army and about whether the army would bow to the overwhelming will of the people who it served. That question mark was dramatically removed when in September ‘88, the army showed that it was prepared to slaughter thousands of people, including unarmed women and children. And today, that remains the reality. So I think it unlikely that there could be a popular uprising like 1988. But on the positive side, I think the international climate is changing. US-led action in Iraq and Afghanistan does serve notice to tyrants everywhere that they could be next. And once the argument shifted away from weapons of mass destruction to the human rights record of Saddam Hussein, it was easier to hope that those who violate international humanitarian law, like the generals in Rangoon, will be held to account.
In commemoration of the 15th anniversary of 8.8.88, can you share some of your memories of Burma’s struggle for democracy?
I remember the kindness and bravery of the Burmese—those who contacted me clandestinely and, in spite of the all-pervasive military intelligence, risked their own lives to help me. And of course I remember my Burmese friends who have suffered and died.
Do you have any words for the people of Burma?
A: That’s a bit grand, isn’t it? But if I have a message at all, it is that no suffering is ever in vain. Looking back through history, even the mightiest of empires, with their lofty values and noble institutions, come to an end. And the Burmese regime is anything but mighty and lofty. It is bankrupt, literally and intellectually. The other thing I would want to stress is that though it must often feel horribly isolated to be Burmese, the outside world is actually looking. People are recording your suffering and the deeds of the Burmese generals, and when justice comes, as it inevitably will, the world will be prepared.
This interview was originally published by The Irrawaddy on September 1, 2003.