“Journalists get thrown in prison here all the time,” my English journalist friend Roger said matter-of-factly as he twirled his wine glass. He peered over the top of the smudged wine glass rim as he continued, “Here it’s like getting an MBA. But it’s mainly local journalists though.”
“As a foreigner, you’ll be all right, I think,” Roger added as an afterthought.
At that point, a couple of the regulars appeared in the Captain Bar’s doorway. They sauntered over to their barstools at the far side of the U-shaped bar walking past us as they did so.
“Evening, Kevin,” Roger called out across the bartop. Kevin looked up peering through his wire-framed spectacles as he did so. He slid a hand through his curly brown hair and smiled.
“Roger! How are you, mate?” came the reply.
“Good, good, thanks, Kevin. So, you and James are still knocking about here then?”
“It’s the only bar that will give us credit,” James replied with a wink. “We’ve been turfed out of all the others. The GM here is still new…”
“He’ll soon learn,” Roger smiled. “By the way, this is Fin. He’s setting up a 24-hour news channel here.”
James’ jovial face suddenly turned serious as he turned to look at Kevin. Kevin looked back at James and then turned towards Roger and I. He sighed as he did so.
“You do know they’re arresting people left, right and centre, don’t you?” Kevin asked in a lowered voice.
“And so, what’s new?” Roger replied.
“No, this is worse,” James chimed in, looking around as he did so. “The foreign correspondents are leaving, and the locals are getting more and more nervous.”
“Apparently it is worse than it used to be,” Kevin continued. “Despite all this opening up nonsense we’ve been hearing about for years.”
Kevin looked glanced around the bar once again before he continued.
“Now no-one knows the boundaries. At least before we all knew what we could say and do but now, no. Now we have two parties to listen to and kow-tow to. There’s the NLD – Daw Su,” he added using the local name for Aung Sand Su Kyi. “And then there’s the military.”
“Yes,” James nodded his head in agreement. “You report on one angle and you upset the army. Report the other and you upset the government. And then there’s the crisis…”
“Rakhine?” Roger interrupted.
“Yes, Rakhine,” James and Kevin called out in unison.
Just as they were about to start expounding on ‘the crisis’ a thirty-something Burmese gentleman walked in wearing a traditional longyi wrap topped off with a collarless white shirt. He had a pleasant face set off by an infectious smile.
“Oh, you’re not talking about that again,” he said laughing as he slid on to a barstool next to James and slapped him on the back. “You’ll drive us all to drink.”
“Barkeep! Make mine a double!” the Burmese called out to the bartender laughing. “And by the way, I hope you’re in good voice today. It’ll be you and me on the piano later.
The immaculately attired Burmese barman adjusted is bow-tie and beamed back at his fellow countryman.
“Gentleman, this is Ko Maung Aye. He is a local legend,” Kevin explained.
“But a terrible singer,” James added.
“Careful,” Ko Maung Aye responded laughing. “Otherwise I’ll start early.”
Ko Maung Aye slid back off his barstool and made to approach the piano – but at the last minute he took a diversion and ended up standing behind us at the bar.
“You can call me Ko Maung,” Ko Maung Aye offered his hand in introduction to Roger and I in turn. “Nice to meet you.”
“I suppose two names are enough,” I said shaking Ko Maung’s outstretched hand.
“No, Ko is for brother,” Roger explained. “Maung is his name. Anyway, you’ll be calling him all kinds of names after you’ve heard him sing!”
Roger slapped Ko Maung on the back as he continued, “Ko Maung hijacked a plane and took it to Delhi.”
“Oh, you’re not talking about that again as well,” Ko Maung protested.
“Journalist-activist – or activist-journalist,” Roger continued. “I’m not sure which. But it did get a lot of attention.”
“….and me in exile,” Ko Maung laughed. “Anyway, the current government likes me. That’s the main thing.”
Ko Maung Aye returned to the other side of the bar to join Kevin and James and the other regulars. Roger and I resumed our conversation.
“That Rakhine crisis is a tough one,” Roger said. “How are you going to handle that?”
“Well, mentioning the word Rohingya is out. According to the government here they don’t exist. They’re Bengalis. Interlopers,” I explained.
“Yes, but to the rest of the world they are Myanmar Rohingya,” Roger countered.
“And to the rest of the world there is only one government here – and it is in control,” I responded. “But you and I both know that is not the case.”
I had just finished speaking when a cry went up on the other side of the bar. As threatened, Ko Maung Aye appeared at the piano. He started off solo but was then joined by James and two of the others. They sang Frank Sinatra and the Everly Brothers and Franki Valli. It was quintessential colonial stuff and for a few minutes I couldn’t help feeling that I had stepped back in time. The music matched the country. It also matched the joviality of the room. And then Ko Maung Aye stopped.
“This one’s for Mr Fin!”
Ko Maung Aye then started hammering away at the piano staring over at me as he did so. He got to his feet and started wailing away –
The warden threw a party in the county jail
The prison band was there and they began to wail
The band was jumping and the joint began to swing
You should’ve heard those knocked out jailbirds sing
And with that everybody fell about laughing. Roger and I applauded and I went over to the piano and gave Ko Maung Aye a slap on the back.
As the evening wore on a motley assortment of expats took up their places along the bar. There was a shop owner, a steel merchant, an advertising agency ‘creative’ and a lawyer. They arrived at various stages of the evening and they rolled up and shook off their umbrellas as they appeared. For the next few hours. They would prop themselves up on the solidly built teak-wooden bar or settle into cushioned rattan armchairs that were dotted around the dark-wood paneled walls and share jokes and gossip and camaraderie. It was as if they were entering their own private refugee – a place where they could leave their troubles and those of their adopted country behind.
They slapped one another on the backs and cheered one another with whisky. It was much the same as when I had been in Yangon some ten years before – though people did seem a little more relaxed then they were back then. Even the Burmese bartender joined in, laughing and joking with the others.
The setting and the ambience had an old ‘order of the empire’ feel about it. I half expected to see a mustachioed British policeman march in and call the room to order before raising a glass to the queen. Instead it was Ko Maung Aye who dominated proceedings.
“Well, on that note…” I said turning to Roger. “I think it’s time to leave. I need to start thinking about work. I move to my apartment tomorrow.”
“Find anywhere nice?”
“I had no say in the matter. I have been ‘designated living quarters’”, I quipped.
“That sounds very military,” Roger replied.
“Yes. I’m wondering what I’ve let myself in for.”
Having bade our farewells Roger and I stepped out on to the Saphire’s loose pebble drive. The shiny wet stones glistened in the moonlight. The remnants of the evening’s heavy rain continued to fall in heavy drops from the hotel’s ornate awnings. We stood in the Saphire’s covered entrance waiting for a taxi.
“Hotel Dover please,” I commanded.
There then followed the usual back and forth with the taxi driver over the fare. We settled on four thousand kyat, which was about three US dollars. The amount was higher than it should have been but I gave in in the face of the drivers stony-faced obstinance. I also factored in the time of the night and the fact that it was raining into the deal.
As we manoeuvred out past the hotel entrance I stole once last glance at the Captain’s Bar through the window. I could see Kevin and James and Ko Maung Aye crowded around the piano. The local expats were belting out yet another raucous rendition of another golden oldie while they swilled their scotch. My last impression was that of a warm and welcoming place that anyone can choose to call home – for a few hours at night at least. With that in mind, I made up my mind to come back.
The rain fell steadily upon the windscreen as the driver beat a cautious path through the puddles and pot-holes. The upholstery was damp and an oily pool of water swilled back and forth on the backseat floormat. I peered through steamy windows at the city beyond.
“Still no motorbikes,” I remarked to Roger as we stopped at a red light.
“No, they’re still no allowed. But that will change,” he replied.
“Are you sure?”
“I think so. Somebody will pay somebody else and then a law will get changed.”
I looked past the driver as he wound down his window, poked his head out and shot a bright red stream of betel juice on to the tarmac.
“That’s not going to change,” I remarked nodding my head in the direction of the driver. “Anyway, do you think those guys were serious about jail?”
“Like I said, you’re a foreigner. You have nothing to worry about,” Roger smiled sympathetically.
That night I thought no more of it.
The next morning I awoke to the following headline –
MYANMAR DETAINS TURKISH JOURNALISTS FOR FLYING DRONE OVER CAPITAL