No More Overstays

An NGO Worker in Burma

The date of Burma’s forthcoming elections (7 November) was officially announced on 13 August. But the news trickled out slowly here: internet access has been even more unreliable than usual. It often gets bad around the time of public events or incidents, though there’s no way of knowing whether that’s because of deliberate government intervention or simply weight of traffic. Maybe it’s paranoid to suspect the former, but there’s a lot of that going around.

The same day, the government imposed new restrictions on the movements of international staff working for NGOs. Going from Yangon to a field site has always required a travel authorisation (TA) and a liaison officer, but there used to be a certain amount of flexibility, particularly if you were going to the Irrawaddy Delta. This is abruptly no longer the case. Foreign NGO staff in the field without TAs are now being asked to leave the country, and some already have. INGOs are also being asked to provide detailed information on all their international and national staff (including the names of their in-laws).

Police and immigration officials are going round INGO offices and houses looking for people on ‘overstays’: for three to five dollars a day you used to be able stay in the country for up to 90 days after your visa expired; this is no longer possible. They have a list of all international staff members for every NGO, their passport numbers, their visa numbers, the types of visa and the dates when they expire. Visa reapplications are not being granted – or rather, the process of review is being delayed.

It seems that the government is trying to get as many INGO staff as possible to leave before the election, and to stay out until well after it’s over: rumour has it they are expecting unrest afterwards. Those of us who remain will be confined to Yangon, under ‘city arrest’.

We are faced with a hard – though not particularly original – choice: accept that we are here at the consent of the government and that we must abide by their laws if we are to continue to try to address the humanitarian needs of the people; or take a stand and speak out, quite possibly at the expense of the people we’re meant to be helping. For the time being, most of us are tending towards the former.

Perhaps the oddest thing about this situation is how surprising it feels, as well as threatening. It’s as if we just woke up to the fact that we live in Burma. Of course, it can take for ever to get a work visa to enter one of the bastions of the free world. I suppose the difference is a certain expectation on the part of humanitarian actors that our presence be expedited. But is this a legitimate expectation, and what should – or can – we do if it isn’t met?

We are currently in the third and final stage of the rainy season: the weather lurches between intense rain and vehement sun. When it’s dry, there are big, lusciously coloured butterflies everywhere. Just before it rains the wind picks up and the skies darken and then it’s hammering away. Most of the taxis have (as well as holes in the floor) permanently damp seats because the windows no longer open or close, but are stuck in whatever position they were in when the handles came off. Yangon is soaked, the buildings covered in thick green moss. The pavements are slick and slippery, but they dry off quickly in the sun.