FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Arrested and Deported

We’ve been fielding calls and emails from around the world. Below is our official press release regarding our arrest and deportation:

Monday, May 11, 2009

BANGKOK—The two of us were detained in Mandalay on the evening of Wednesday, May 6, and deported to Bangkok the following night. The arrest came within hours after we had finished a series of feature writing and photography workshops, organized by the American Center in Yangon and approved by the country’s Scrutiny Board (censors).

All of the 20+ government authorities we encountered during the ordeal said they were acting on orders from Naypyidaw. They did not give a reason for the arrest. Many said they did not know why we were arrested. They asked us nothing, told us nothing, searched nothing, took nothing. We were not mistreated or manhandled.

We were arrested at our hotel after dinner on May 6. Immigration authorities came to the hotel lobby and ordered us to pack for an evening train to Yangon. They said they had received the arrest order from Naypyidaw half an hour after our last class and lecture had ended.

We spent the following 16 hours under the escort of two officials who shared our cabin. When we arrived in Yangon, we were taken to the airport, then Immigration offices downtown, then back to the airport for several hours before an evening flight to Bangkok.

We had been in Burma to teach and lecture about creative nonfiction feature writing and photography. The programs were follow-ups to similar work we did in January, all of which had been approved and acknowledged by the Scrutiny Board and the Special Branch (police). In fact, Special Branch officers briefly visited Jerry on the first day of his class in Yangon, on April 27. All of our classes and lectures proceeded without incident or further visits from the authorities.

We have no idea why we were arrested, though we have since heard many rumors. Perhaps it was fallout after another American—whom we do not know nor have any connection to—allegedly swam across a lake to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon. We have heard people say we are CIA agents in disguise as teachers—that is not true. We have heard people say we met with monks in monasteries and other politically sensitive sources—that is not true. We have heard rumors that we met with the Moustache Brothers comedy troupe in Mandalay—that is not true. In fact, we met very few people outside of the classroom, mostly because we wanted to avoid any run-ins with the government for just this reason.

Other rumors allege that we were working on sensitive stories. That is not true. The only story we had in mind was a small piece on laphet thote, (pickled tea leaf salad) explaining the flavors, history and cultural significance of the dish. This would have run on the food page of a travel magazine. In Mandalay, a colleague introduced us to the owner of a longstanding laphet thote business. That man invited us to see his place, which we did. He then invited us to visit a trade center where people buy and sell beans and pulses, key ingredients for laphet thote. He was very excited about the invitation; we thought little of it. We accepted and planned to meet on Thursday morning—but we never had that chance. This might be all, or part, of the reason we were deported.

What happened to us does not compare to what happens to Burmese who run afoul of their own government. We were spooked, and the train trip was uncomfortable and unnecessary (we already had plane tickets back to Yangon that could have been switched to Thursday morning). But we were fairly certain we were not going to jail for years—or decades.

We are heartbroken to think we might not be able to return to Burma. But that is trivial to how we worry about the safety of the people who helped us on these trips. We worked hard to avoid government scrutiny, or any journalistic appearance. In the end, we cannot say why we were arrested. That mystery rests with the Burmese government.

Jerry Redfern
Karen Coates
Bangkok
May 11, 2009

18 thoughts on “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Arrested and Deported

  1. I’m so sorry to hear this and glad that you both are OK and were not harassed or treated badly. It makes me very sad to think that Burma could get even more paranoid. I truly hope your students and people working with you are not affected. Safe travels.

  2. Why were you arrested? Have you ever read Hannah Arendt on totalitarian states? They are arbitrary; their absolute power and the unpredictable ways in which they wield power make them all the more frightening.

  3. Andrea, thanks for your comment and concern.

    Ed, I don’t think anyone can predict the future of Burma. Many of the young are optimistic — they need strong hope — but others see no change ahead.

    Audrey, thanks. I share your fears for the people we know there. It’s amazing, we’ve received so many messages from Burmese telling us not to worry about them, but how can we not? Incredibly brave people, even when it means simply going to work.

    Tisha, most likely we will never know for certain why we were arrested.

  4. Oh, that’s a harrowing experience. Totalitarian regimes can be bellicose in unimaginable ways. Back in early Soviet times, for instance, people could get arrested just because they kept bread wrapped up in a newspaper with a Stalin’s portrait.

    Be safe!

  5. Karen – I have been lurking on your site for some time because we too are travelers and food-lovers (will be starting our round the world trip in September). This sounds like such a traumatic and unnecessary experience. I agree with you that as foreigners, you probably had some degree of protection from harm, but it is heart-breaking to think that the people who live there have to suffer such arbitrary cruelty. Safe travels.

  6. You are the same Karen J. Coates who authored “Cambodia Now: Life in the Wake of War”, a “searing work of journalism”, in 2005, no? (http://karencoates.com/CamNow.html) If so, that would add tons of context to understanding your expulsion from Myanmar.

    “Never forgetting her position as an outsider, but determined to name and particularize the ordinary people she and her photographer husband encounter on their frequent visits, Coates uses her immense skill as a writer to shine light on the suffering and struggles of a country with which the West has meddled to devastating effect and now would just as soon forget.” —Judge’s comments by Anna Cypra Oliver for the August Derleth Nonfiction Book Award

  7. Thanks, Anya. Our experience is nothing compared with many, many others around the world.

    Akila, thanks for reading and commenting, and best wishes on your upcoming year of travel. I hope you will include Burma on your journey. Everyone we have met there wishes for foreigners to visit. (And they can really use the business in these hard times.)

    Inquirer, yes I did write Cambodia Now. Kind of bizarre, but the Burmese government knew full well who we were (we had to submit our biographies to the Scrutiny Board, which approved). I wasn’t writing a book on Burma or doing anything even remotely similar there. Cambodia is a different place.

  8. sorry to hear of your “troubles” in Burma, been following for awhile, have so enjoyed your beautiful view of the world from my desk, in between sending out resumes. Keep safe, your journeys give us a peek into the world beyond our own trials…

  9. It now seems that your deportation probably had nothing to do with you, the teaching you were doing or the (hopefully not arrested or detained) people you met with.

  10. I only just saw your post, so I’m so relieved that you are both OK. What you are doing as food journalists and bloggers is so important. I realised that you were aware of this possibility when you went to Burma, but that doesn’t make it any easier when it actually happens. I heard about the incident with ASSK earlier this week and the show trial. We can only hope that these fascist bastards will be overthrown soon. If you need to edit/remove this comment for the protection of yourselves and friends, please do. I just wanted to express my feelings.

  11. It’s too bad we won’t get to learn about the food you had intended to describe on this excellent website. Glad to know you are safe.

    Actually you got off relatively easy, in the grand scheme of things. Just last week the US FBI arrested two smalltime pot dealers, and one mentally ill Haitian who is illiterate. They are accused of plotting, of all things, an attack on synagogues using C4 explosives. But the entire plot came from an undercover agent who gave them money and meals over the course of many months then convinced them to say they’ll participate in a plot. There never would have been a case had the FBI not identified these vagrants and groomed them into becoming “terrorists”.

    http://www.thetruthseeker.co.uk/print.asp?ID=10764&Pictures=On

    http://www.blacklistednews.com/news-4293-0-20-20–.html

    I am paying for this kind of police work. Mayor Bloomberg received glorious praise in the media, along with the FBI who set these guys up. Furthermore, now $25M in new funding requests for synagogue security is in the works.

    http://www.thejewishweek.com/viewArticle/c36_a15880/News/New_York.html

    I suppose you might consider yourself lucky you happened to offend someone in the Burmese government.

  12. Thanks again, everyone, for all of your comments and concerns. And don’t worry, I’ll be posting a lot more here on Burmese food!

  13. now i’m understanding more about you and your blog post choices. see, reading old posts pays off!

    i know i’m late w/ these words, but i am glad you were safely returned home from burma. it isn’t fun when you have no explanation for any type of situation, but this, in particular must have been hard to swallow. It sounds like you really fell in love with the people – it’s a real shame it had to end so quickly.

    tea leaf salad is my absolute hands-down favorite burmese meal (?? starter??) – I really hope you are still able to write a story about it.

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