A foreign reporter’s journey through government bureaucracy, where no one is seemingly authorised to do anything.
By EVA HIRSCHI | FRONTIER
“I WON’T COMPLAIN about Swiss press offices so quickly again,” I told myself while staring at the mess of notes on my desk in Frontier’s Yangon office, both hands raised in the air – in one, my smartphone, in the other, a wisp of hair pulled almost clean from my head in desperation.
I knew that working in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language would be a challenge, but I thought the difficulties would arise during complex research or tough interviews – not while trying to get media accreditation for a conference.
I sent 10 emails that went unanswered and made 20 phone calls over two days where I was passed from one department to another. Some simply hung up when they realised I wasn’t speaking Burmese.
But giving up was not an option. I needed accreditation for what was billed as one of the most important conferences to take place in Myanmar in recent years. The National Land Use Policy Forum in Nay Pyi Taw was a unique opportunity for national authorities to engage civil society and discuss one of the country’s biggest challenges: respecting land rights.
Midway through my investigations I was told that, as a media person, I needed to direct my request to the Ministry of Information, rather than the actual organiser of the conference, the Forest Department under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation.
I received a number, called and heard: “Hello, how can I help you?” My heart leaped with joy but, as I explained my request, understanding began to founder. At one point I realised he was dictating his email address. I had to double-check a dozen times which letter – a or i – or which number – 15 or 50 – he was saying.
“Yes, yes, write an email and I will reply,” he said.
“Alright, but I haven’t understood the beginning of your email, I’m sorry,” I replied.
“Yes, yes, just send an email to this address,” he said.
“But I didn’t understand the full email address. Can you repeat, please?” – “Yes, yes, I will answer your email, no problem.”
Fifteen minutes later, I had finally written down what I hoped was his actual email address. I sent him a formal request. The answer came 35 minutes later: “It’s not directly concerned with our Ministry. It’s organized by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation. So you need to contact that ministry.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But I returned to the fray, calling the aforementioned ministry. Again, I was passed between departments, where officers told me they weren’t allowed to issue media accreditations – I had to contact the Ministry of Information.
Despair must have been written on my face, because the Myanmar photography intern sitting next to me asked shyly, “Shall I call for you?”
Never have I so gratefully taken up such a simple offer. Five minutes later, he turned to me and said, “The media accreditations are full, but he will call you on Monday. The chance is 50/50 whether you can go or not.” It was Friday afternoon.
To my surprise, on Monday morning I got a call confirming my accreditation. I only had a few hours to get my things together before I was sat on a bus from Yangon to Nay Pyi Taw.
The conference was mainly in Burmese. Luckily for me, there was a very good interpreter.