George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Friday 28 September 2007
Jo Brand in the rain
Owen Powell - 28th September 2007
I sort of hate myself. I’ve come to the protest outside the Burmese embassy to try to find someone from Burma for our project.
Burma (or Myanmar) is in meltdown. People are being shot in the streets, monks and students are risking their lives in the name of freedom, and the international community is definitely thinking about planning to do something about it. In Mayfair, a crowd of protestors, some journalists, me, and Jo Brand are shuffling about on a side-street under a dirty autumnal London sky, getting slowly drenched. Just when I’m plucking up the courage to ask someone if I can speak to them, a man grabs a megaphone and starts to sing. Everybody (except me and the journalists and Jo Brand – I think she’s here with Amnesty) joins in, men with red bandanas punching the air.
In the break between the second and third songs, which get more and more rousing, a builder on his fag break next door says, a bit too loudly, “Give it a rest!” Even if it’s meant somehow ironically, which I somehow doubt, it’s still one of the most repellent things I’ve heard in recent weeks. Maybe no-one else hears, certainly no-one reacts, and after he finishes his cigarette he goes back inside again. To my immense shame, its main effect is to make me feel a lot better about what I’m doing. I’m here! I think. I’m in the crowd! I’m protesting, just by my very presence. I’m protesting in the rain! And, in a minute, if I pluck up the courage, I’m going to speak to a Burmese person and ask them about what’s going on, which is probably a lot more than most people I know would do. I almost feel virtuous, despite the nagging doubt that I’m here on false pretences.
Once the songs and speeches are over, I notice several other (for want of a better word) white people come out from under doorways and begin thrusting cameras, microphones and notebooks at some of the protestors. Ah, I think, it’s fine! It’s a public demonstration, so they probably want attention. I’ll just act a bit like a journalist, and it’ll be ok. (Some of the journalists have laminated badges that say ‘PRESS’ on them. I don’t. I don’t even have an umbrella).
I ask one man, who had been singing particularly lustily, and he points out another man who might be more prepared to talk, who sends me over to another man. I begin by saying, “I’m writing a book about London and all the nationalities there are in it,” which is neither grammatically or ethically very satisfying, but he’s happy to speak, so we go over and cower in a doorway. His name is Ye.
I start by asking about the protest. “We’ve been here since the monks began marching in Burma,’ he says, “since 18th September. We have also protested in Parliament Square, and outside the Chinese Embassy.” Another song starts, and I get the impression Ye wants to join in, so I ask him about it. “It is a song from 1988, after the uprising then. It was a big thing. I was in High School, and we got involved in the demonstrations. Since then, we have tried to keep protesting, peacefully.” Ye has been in the UK for five years, but still has family back in Rangoon. “I spoke to someone this morning,” he says, “and they are still firing on the crowds.”
A policeman, very politely, asks us if we wouldn’t mind moving out of the doorway onto the street, as people are trying to get into their offices. It’s all very English and nice, although some of his colleagues are carrying machine guns. We shuffle back into the rain, and my pen and notepad start to stick to each other. I vow to remember what Ye is saying rather than write it down, which isn’t hard as it’s pretty fiery stuff. “The situation in Burma is worse than Iraq!” he says. “The regime there believes in Command, Order, Hatred and Fear. They believe that all problems must be sorted out with weapons. They are killing monks! You know, these are peaceful people. And it is not just monks and students, there is a big alliance against the regime. Civil servants as well, people from all backgrounds are protesting. You know, we had elections in 1990, and within ninety days, lots of the candidates were in jail. All we want is democracy but the regime are not interested in that. The government don’t treat people as people, they treat them as the enemy.”
On a banner being held nearby, I see a face I recognise and a name I cannot pronounce. I point to it. “What about Aung San Suu Kyi?” I ask. (You can imagine me pronouncing it correctly, if that helps). “What is the latest news about her?” Ye looks downcast. “We think she is back in prison,” he says. “She has been under house arrest for years, but we have heard that two days ago, she was taken away from her home.” In the 1990 elections, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party won 392 of the 492 seats, which should have been enough to install her as Prime Minister. Instead, she is the only winner of the Nobel Peace Prize to be currently under detention, as she has been for the majority of the time since the election seventeen years ago.
I ask Ye what can be done internationally as a solution to the ongoing crisis. He looks a bit cynical. “The government in Burma can only get away with this because they have the backing of China. And the US want to keep a good relationship with China, so they only pay lip service to the idea of doing something. We are in a difficult position, on the borders of India and China, where there is 40% of the world’s population, but it seems that nobody wants to help us.”
The songs start up again, and I thank Ye for his time (after finding out that he lives in Cricklewood). The rain doesn’t seem to affect the ongoing demonstrations, but I scurry off – I have to be home by two so that I can show the new Polish cleaner around.