Backpacker Bertil who turned scribe

He never went to universities for formal training in journalism. But backpacker Bertil Lintner’s fascination for Asia and specifically Burma set him off on a road travelled differently. He believes experience makes one a good investigative reporter, rather than formal education. `I carried a small library in my backpack, books on Asian history, politics and culture (mainly India) which I had bought here and there along the way,’ says Lintner in this interview to Teresa Rehman:


1.  You are one of many blacklisted journalists who have not been allowed to enter Myanmar since 1985. Please tell us more about your association with Myanmar as a journalist.

Not quite right. I first visited Burma as a tourist in 1977 and again in 1979. I fell in love with the country, not because of all the smiles and the golden pagodas, the stereotype image of the country at that time but because I found it interesting and intriguing. There was something very sinister under the glossy surface, a brutal regime that ruled with an iron-fist, ethnic insurgencies in virtually all frontier areas, and a sophisticated population in the midst of gross economic neglect.


I left Europe (or Sweden, where I was born) in 1975 and spent five years travelling in Asia, doing odd jobs in Hong Kong, Japan and New Zealand to finance my travels. But I always wanted to be a journalist and an author, and I decided at an early stage to specialise in Burma.


People thought I was crazy. Why Burma? Why not Indo-China? But I arrived in Asia after the end of the Indo-China War. There were others who knew much more about Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos than I. I could never compete with them. And, besides, I was interested in Burma, a country that nobody else wrote about at that time. I settled in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand in December 1979, and began making contacts with ethnic resistance forces in Burma. In December 1980, I began crossing the border from the Thai side into parts of the country which were not controlled by the government. I wrote under a Thai penname, P. Vichit-thong, because I did not want too many people know what I was doing.


But it didn’t work. Colleagues and others in Thailand soon found out who I was, and when I, in 1981, re-visited the country as a tourist, I was followed by the Special Branch. I decided not to try my luck as a tourist there again. By then I met had my future wife, a Shan from Burma, and we were married in February 1983.


We worked together as a team, me as a writer and she as a photographer. We continued to cover the ethnic conflict in Burma from the Thai side, crossing the border here and there, but, in 1985, we decided to try to reach the far north of the country, where Burma’s most powerful resistance armies were active, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Kachin State and the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in eastern Shan State. At that time, all border areas in China were off limits to foreigners, so we decided to try to enter northern Burma from India. We left for India in March 1985, but it was not until October that year we were able to cross the border from Nagaland into the Naga Hills of Burma. By then, or daughter had been born while we were in hiding in Kohima. She was six weeks old when we crossed into Burma. We ended up spending a year and a half, from October 1985 to April 1987, in rebel-held areas of the country, first with the Nagas, then with the KIA and, lastly, the CPB. We walked more than 2,000 kilometres right through the country, from the Indian border almost to the Mekong river, which forms the border between Burma and Laos.


There, we crossed into China, where we were detained, albeit briefly, and deported to Hong Kong. Our journey generated a lot of interest and I wrote a cover story about Burma’s civil war for the Far Eastern Economic Review, a Hong Kong-based now defunct weekly magazine which I began writing for in 1982. In 1988, central Burma eventually exploded in the most massive popular uprising for democracy in modern Asian history. Millions of people marched in virtually every city, town and major village across the country.


But the uprising was crushed in blood as the military moved in, not to seize power which it already had, but to shore up a regime overwhelmed by popular protest. Almost no one in the outside world was prepared for this, most people couldn’t tell Burma from Bermuda. I was the only journalist who had specialised in Burma for any length of time, and from 1988 onwards I covered events there on an almost weekly basis for the Far Eastern Economic Review, until it was closed down in 2004. I was on the regime’s blacklist but was able to visit the country twice in 1989. But I was followed and some people I met were arrested after I had left. So I decided not to go there again until it was safe. Not for me, I don’t care, but for my friends there who are in a much more vulnerable position.


2. How did it feel like after entering Myanmar after 20 years?

My visit to Burma in October 2012 was my first legal visit to the country since February 1989. I met up with old and new friends, and what impressed me was that people are no longer afraid. They say whatever they want, my colleagues in the media write whatever they want and their journals and magazines publish their articles. I was interviewed by five different local publications. None of what I said was censored. It is also important to remember that the same old military elite holds power still; the generals have reinvented themselves and allowed more openness. But it’s the same regime as before. If there is any serious threat to its power, there could be another crackdown, as so many times before since the military first seized power in 1962. Burma is far from being, or even becoming, a functioning democracy.


3. What fascinates you about the region that made you leave your home country to settle in this part of the world?

I left Sweden when I was 22 years old, in 1975, and travelled overland through Asia, from Turkey to Indonesia, from Singapore to Tokyo. I am now 60 so I have spent much more time in Asia than in Europe. Asia is my home. When I visit Sweden, which I do about once a year, I feel like a foreigner, an outsider. Asia is alive, full of vitality, energy and diversity, which fascinate me. I live in Thailand but India remains one of my favourite countries in Asia. I have many friends and colleagues there, and I just love the intellectual life in India, its vibrant media, excellent writers – and a diverse,
fascinating society.


4. Please tell us about your association with Northeast India? Do you think the region is the gateway to Southeast Asia?

I first visited the northeast, Assam and Meghalaya, in the late 1970s but it was in 1985 I became more familiar with that part of India. We spent months there before we were able to cross the border into Burma in October that year. Yes, it’s definitely India’s gateway to Southeast Asia. Four northeastern states border Burma, but it’s Manipur that’s the main gateway, the only part of the border that is not extremely mountainous. Trade is already brisk at the Moreh/Tamu crossing. It will increase even more as the border areas become more peaceful and roads are in a better shape


5. Please tell us about the writing of your books.

I have written twelve books about Asia, most of them very political such as “Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948” and “Bloodbrothers: Crime, Business and Politics in Asia”, but also a personal account of out trek through northern Burma, Land of Jade, which has also been translated into Manipuri and published in Imphal. My most recent book is `Great Game East: India, China and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier’, which was published by HarperCollins in New Delhi in 2012. My books are in English, only one was written in Swedish (about Thailand). Apart from Land of Jade in Manipuri, other books have been translated into Korean, Burmese and Danish.


6. What kind of journalism do you believe in? Do you think media today is obsessed with trivia?

I believe in accurate, fearless and daring journalism. Journalists should cover issues that are important to ordinary people, including people living in conflict zones. The media today may be obsessed with trivia, but there are also good publications, in India and elsewhere in Asia. The Far Eastern Economic Review was closed down in 2004, but there is Asia Times Online which covers the same issues, in-depth and with proper analysis of major issues in the region.


7. Please tell us about your early years that shaped your life and career today.

I was born in Sweden in 1953, but not as a Swedish citizen. My father was a refugee from Nazi Germany; Lintner is not a Swedish but a south-German/Austrian name. My father came from Austria which was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1938. He and his father, my paternal grandfather, both spent time in German concentration camps. My father left Sweden for South America when I was only six months old, but I grew up with stories about the resistance against Nazis, family friends who died in the camp and so on. None of my Swedish friends had a similar background. I developed at an early age, a deep commitment to freedom and justice, and against any kind of dictatorship. Those are values I always cherish, and that may have influenced my work as a writer.


8. Which are some of your best stories?

See my books, especially Land of Jade.


9. How would you like to be remembered as?

That’s hard to say, but as someone who fearlessly stood
up against tyranny and oppression.


10. Did you ever feel traumatised while reporting from a conflict zone?

No, never.


11. What are the nuances of conflict reporting? Do you think journalists reporting from a conflict zone get their due?

It is hard to report from a conflict zone because you are in the midst of it and have to control your emotions. All you can do is to keep your head cool and describe, without too many charged words, what you see. If you shout too loud, no one can hear you.


12. Can you tell us about your association with Aung San Suu Kyi? How would you describe her?

I met her in Rangoon in 1989 and then again in October 2012. In 1989 she was a fiery speaker, charismatic and the undisputed leader of Burma’s pro-democracy movement. I wrote a book about her, Aung San Suu Kui and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy (see my website). In 2012, I found her very different. Aloof and cold and with little or no understanding of Burma’s ethnic problems. It was a disappointment. And I know that she has lost support from the ethnic minorities and many Burmans are becoming increasingly critical of her as well. Many feel that she is being manipulated and used by the military. Among them is U Win Tin, one of the founders of her party, the National League for Democracy, and he told me so when I met him in Rangoon in October.

Picture Courtesy: Bertil Lintner
Location, the Salvation Army Red Shield Guest House, Kolkata, October 1975.
References to Bertil Lintner’s work: