How I did it: Here we were, taking risks - but no one knew we were there

It was day two of the crackdown and with gunfire erupting around me – and army trucks filled with menacing soldiers roaring past – I decided to pull back from the heaving throng of protestors.

As I headed back down the street, putting my small video camera back into my shoulder bag, a man came towards me and shouted: 'Are you a journalist?"

It's really not the sort of question you want to be asked on the streets of Rangoon. Just moments earlier, another unidentified man in plain clothes had come up and taken several pictures of me as I was trying to keep out of the sights of the army.

As 'farang'(foreigners) you certainly stand out in the middle of this upheaval – but whenever I was confronted about my identity, I just smiled and kept on walking. Smiles go a long way in Asia and, in Burma, you have no other choice.

The events surrounding the saffron uprising in Rangoon and the brutal military crackdown – and how the media covered those events – posed some big challenges for the small band of journalists who managed to get into the country.

From the outset we had to operate 'below the radar'– guide books and sun hats at the ready. We might have been heading to a tourist site, but at the same time we were really on our way to the scene of the latest protest. We were always trying to stay a step ahead of the undercover intelligence officers whose eyes and ears are everywhere, yet are often invisible.


In my case, I adopted various techniques honed during other tricky assignments in Africa and the Middle East – and improvised others. I had never been to Burma before but, in a way, the same techniques applied – be discreet; check you are not being followed; do not follow the same routine; be careful in using hotel telephones; and – crucially – try to appear calm. If you look alarmed, this arouses suspicion.

I managed to develop a routine with a contact in Rangoon that meant we could meet and I could interview people linked to the protests without exposing or jeopardising him or those I was interviewing. It involved a laborious process of coded phone calls, shifting and secret meeting places and diligently checking each rendezvous as we came and went.

The ironic thing about this story is that it should have been a very high-profile one for the few journalists who were on hand to record it – and there were not many of us inside when the crackdown happened. I did not know of any other television journalist from a major British, American or international broadcaster.

In an age of celebrity obsession, where print and television media outlets put their journalists' profile and derring do at the centre of their own self-promotion, here we were, taking great risks, yet no one, publicly at least, knew who we were. And it did not matter at all.

For me there was something almost refreshing about it – here was a massive story and the focus of that story remained those caught up in the middle of it, not the individuals involved in telling it.

One can only imagine how some of the networks would have milked the Burma story for all it's worth, to remind their viewers that their 'heroic'reporter was on the ground, and, of course, well ahead of the pack rivals. But the pack was not there and there was something very pure about the reporting of it.

As one freelance colleague in Rangoon put it: 'So you won't have a piece to camera and be able to show people you are here. Great. It's better that way. The viewer will focus more on the story.'And they did focus on the story, and on the Burmese involved in the protests, who through their actions, told the story of their blighted country.

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