Getting a VISA to Myanmar is not especially hard in principle. Like all embassies it requires an early morning start (pre-9am we were reliably told), several completed forms (bring your own pen), a couple of photo’s, a copy of your passport and some money. Mynanmar however, does also requires one addition – a separate form that probes your professional and recent working careers (ie last 3 jobs), this is where we hit a stumbling block.
After a bright and early start, we caught a boat down the Chao Praya river in Bangkok, fought our way through the chaos of a Hindi festival in the process of being set-up and arriving at the Myanmar embassy about 8.45. The embassy itself was basic at best and probably most efficiently described by communicating the fact, that the toilet lacked a door (I have no idea why the surrounding walls are covered in barb wire!).
After about a 15 minute wait, we were diligently issued our paperwork and set to completing our forms along with all the other prospective entrants – not your most typical bunch of tourists or travelers I can assure you. Then, before I could intervene, I noticed Megumi write the word “technical writer” as her profession and inwardly cringed. Having read a lot about Myanmar’s paranoi, spying and aversion to foreign journalists from my limited preparatory reading (Land of a Thousand Eyes), I could sense that this was a potentially going to be an issue. Immediately distracted and put off my game, I then proceeded to automatically complete my own form by stating my previous company as being “PressArmy”, a social media analytics start-up I had been helping launch before I left.
After waiting in queue for an hour or so, we presented our documents to a very serious looking teller who immediately asked a whole sequence of probing questions on exactly these professional fronts. This really didn’t go too well and as one of those increasingly bad realizations crept over me like a winter chill, our passports were confiscated and we were directed to please sit down and wait. We then spent the next 3 hours watching about 100 other people go through the Visa process, pay their money and walk out. No-one else was asked to stay behind!
With nothing to do, but sit there my thoughts became consumed and somewhat entertained by the idea that someone in a military uniform in the next room was trying to understand what PressArmy did from the limited description on the website and ascertain whether I / we were a threat to national security.
Eventually and after a lot of attempted eye catching with the staff on my part, we were called forward and passed along to the most senior embassy official who immediately announced that we would not be allowed in! “No media”, he said, “you need a special Visa, special permission”. Immediately I launched into a careful planned argument (3 hours is a long time to wait) on why a person who writes ‘software manuals’ cannot be a journalist and how “PressArmy” was a punk internet start-up and not a media organization or involved in military intelligence in anyway at all. And would perhaps an acknowledgment that we are “just plain stupid” count?
After several minutes of this impassioned plea and debate, he paused, looked at us very closely and said we had honest faces and he would trust us – just like that! Immediately thereafter of course, he embarked on a whole series of casual threats about keeping an eye on us, quick deportations if we were in any of the wrong areas and the classic warning tale about the Japanese journalist who had been shot the year before, after coming into the country on a tourist visa.
Somewhat chided, but still over the moon at the let-off, we proudly marched back to the teller to present our money and get the stamp – the teller looked at us with genuine surprise and gave us a shake of the head and the first smile I had seen him give all day – obviously he thought we had no chance either.
Sometimes you simply profile too well I guess, I wouldn’t have let us in either just on principle – although anyone naïve enough to fill in forms the way we did, they must figure as the perfect tourist and very especially easy to part from our money – through the turnstiles we go!
As a quick addendum, Selena our host in Yangon did a get a mysterious call from someone asking about us several days after we arrived. Could be “health flu” related – they wanted to check that we were there and healthy? But the conspiracy theorist in me likes to believe we were being checked in on…