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Myanmar: Trouble with the police

de gb-gray

(Thanks to Reed for reviewing this translation)

Trouble with the police

22. January 2014: ? to Salin, 87 km, 230 hm, 14,2 km/h

We have become more cautious, waiting until dawn to find a place for the tents, and making sure no one sees where we are setting up camp. So today we wait until there is no traffic before we turn onto a dirt track into the harvested rice fields. Only a man on a bullock cart approaches us and asks where we want to go. I make a gesture like I had to go to the toilet, which seems to ease / amuse him and he continues his way. We find a nice and hidden place behind a large pile of straw and pitch our tents.

Unwanted visit from the police

At about seven, it is getting dark, some policemen on a motorbike arrive. We have no idea who called them this time.

It is always like this:
First two local policemen arrive, no uniforms, no badges, no English. They are polite, write down our passport details in a book and make a phone call. Then they wait aside for the Immigration police. At first, they assure us we could sleep here and disappear.

For a few hours nothing happens. Maybe this time we can really sleep here? This hope is destroyed when I wake up at night to the sound of motorbikes. A quick glance at the clock , it’s almost midnight. I turn around and close my eyes. Anselm and I agreed not to give up so fast this time. We want to see how far we can go and what the police will do. Why can´t they come sooner rather than in the middle of the night?

It is a perfect camp spot.

I hear footsteps and voices. Someone is shaking my tent . “Hello, Police, police! Can I help you? ” That’s always the first question they ask, every policeman seems to learn at least this english question. I always answer this by ” Yes, you can help me by you just let me sleep here and go away,” which always makes them look puzzled.

The shaking and shouting doesn’t stop. So finally I crawl out of my tent and I´m surprised by what I see.  A big group of people with flashlights stands in a semicircle around my tent and stares at me. There are at least 25 people, which is surprising because we are far away from the next village. Most of the men wear a parka and woolen hat, and they look at me grimly. A few meters further two men  have taken some straw from the big pile and started a fire. The flashing shadows of the men and the surroundings create a eery scenery.

One man, the leader, says he is from the immigration police and would like to see my passport. The police here have no uniform, no weapon, and are not recognizable to us. I hand him my passport, but ask also for his identification. How do I know that this is really the police? Everyone could say that. Of course I don´t get to see any ID and no one is willingly to write his name, rank or department on a piece of paper .

I think in any other country I would be afraid if I were suddenly surrounded by policemen, at night, on a field. They could do anything with me. But this is Myanmar, and here it is slightly different. The police is very polite and give no direct commands or wave their guns. At least not against us, as tourists we have a special position.

So peaceful at night – before the police arrives.

After I have my passport back the discussion can start:

Policeman: “You can not sleep here!”

I: “Why not?”

P: “It’s dangerous.”

I: “What is dangerous? “

P: “Snakes.”

I: “No problem, they can´t enter my tent. ” (Point at the closed tent)

P: “It is dangerous, there are many thieves.”

I: “Oh, nonsense, Myanmar is very safe, and the people are friendly. And my bike is locked.” (Point at the strong bike lock)

P: (thinks) “You can not sleep here. The pile of straw could start to burn.” (Pointing to a few men who are supposed to be from the fire station)

I: “How can the straw start to burn if I just sleep here? Besides, what do these guys there then? ” (Point at the men who start the straw fire)

(Police officer instructs the men to put out the fire immediately)

P: “You can not sleep here. The landowner doesn’t allow you to sleep here.”

I: “Where is the owner, I want to ask him for permission.” (I can not imagine that a Burmese farmer would have really anything against it that we camp on his field, of course unless the police pressures him)

P: ” You can not, he is not here. But here’s someone from the Department of Agriculture and Irrigation. ” (Pointing at another man who nods)

I: ” Maybe we can call the landowner?”

Finally, they push an old man forward and say he is the owner. I have no idea if they are lying to me or not.

The discussion goes on. I declare that I’m tired after a hard day, that I slept already, that I feel safe here, that I do not need help. That I see no problem to sleep here, that I have no intention to pack my tent again and than I just return into my tent.

During the discussion it has become clear that not all men are police officers. A group stands a little bit off side and sometimes chuckles when I argue against the policeman. The people here don´t know to argue with the police, and I’m already aware about the fact that with my words and actions I have undermined their authority.

I know that they can´t beat me up or threat me or lock me away as they can do with their own landsmen, and they know it ,too.

So I lie back in the tent, and the whole group now moves to Anselm’s tent, who in fact all the time lying there, listening. The debate starts all over again.

“You can not sleep here!”

“Why not?”

“It´s dangerous.”

“What is dangerous?”

Eventually, the officer then comes out with the truth : We are in his area, he is responsible and can´t let us sleep here as foreigners in Myanmar have to sleep in licensed hotels by law. That’s why he wants to take us to the next hotel.

He also can´t understand why we prefer to camp on a field. He doesn´t say it but I think he is really just trying to help us.

Whatever that means…

Then he says something that makes me think. “You are guests here in my country, so you have to follow the rules of my country.”

That sounds reasonable at first, but is it really true? Of course, I behave in a foreign country in a way such that I don´t step on anyone ‘s toes or hurt someone. I respect cultural and religious rules. I often hold back with my true opinion and do things out of politeness which I don´t really want to do. And before I blame someone or get angry, I consider whether my reaction is justified or not.

So when a government introduces a pointless rule, which isn´t useful to anyone, do I have to accept this? Especially when this government suppresses and exploits the people, and starts a war against parts of its own population, all while the army and secret police continue to commit various human rights crimes?

I don´t think I need to obey the rule to sleep only in licensed hotels, but now the police are here and discussion is not getting me anywhere. The policeman threatens to pack our things, but  they don´t dare to do more than carrying one bag from left to right. But probably they won´t leave us alone until we are gone here.

So we pack up our tents, pushing our bikes in the headlights of motorbikes through the fog of the night back to the road.

The faces of the policemen show relief. They have done their job, and gotten rid of us so they can return home. We realize what a large-scale operation they started because of us. In addition to the five motorcycles on the field a few more stand at the roadside, together with two Jeeps and a pickup truck. It should bring us and our bikes to the next hotel, 15 km away. We prefer to cycle, followed by two policemen on a motorbike and the smiling villagers who operate the pickup and seem to like us. The hotel is a local flophouse, the rooms are compartments separated by walls out of cardboard, just big enough for a wooden frame with a thin blanket.

Oh, how beautiful it was in my tent.

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