CNN reporter's narrow escape in Myanmar

May 10, 2008 1:44:01 PM PDT
A CNN reporter who left Myanmar Friday was chased by authorities as he reported on the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis but escaped primarily because of the incompetence of the people after him. Dan Rivers hid under a blanket at one police checkpoint and casually covered up his name on a passport to avoid detection another time. He may ultimately have gotten out of the country due to a stewardess' impatience.

"I was amazed at the lengths they apparently went just to catch me," Rivers told The Associated Press by telephone from Thailand on Saturday.

Rivers' story illustrates the preoccupation of Myanmar's military government with things other than helping the country recover from a storm that killed thousands and left many survivors homeless. Aid groups have reported difficulties in getting badly needed supplies and relief workers into the secretive country.

Rivers sneaked into the country on Monday - he wouldn't say how - and for a day reported the story without saying his name or showing his face onscreen.

CNN, owned by Time Warner Inc., and Rivers then quickly agreed to drop the mask.

"We decided it would have much more impact if I could communicate more directly, if I could look down the barrel of a camera and tell people precisely how bad it was," he said. "I think that type of personal reporting is much more effective than a voiceover on a picture."

But it made him a marked man. A local contact told Rivers' crew the government was looking for him by contacting all hotels where foreigners stayed.

During reporting on Thursday, an immigration official stopped Rivers' group. He took the passports of two crew members and compared them to a picture of Rivers taken from a CNN screen. During the two hours before they were waved on, Rivers said he went to a restaurant and walked the streets, "trying not to look like a white guy with long hair, which was difficult."

The authorities didn't discover the men were from CNN. Knowing his picture was being circulated, Rivers hid under a blanket in the van the next time police checked.

He later resumed reporting away from their van until an official told them to return to their van, where police would be waiting. It was a tough walk.

"There were a lot of things going through our minds then about what we would find at the end of that journey," he said. "At one point I was thinking, `what if they just shot us and threw us into the river and said it was an accident?'"

There were only two policemen waiting. They asked to see Rivers' passport and he casually covered up his first and last names with his thumbs. They radioed Rivers' two middle names back to their bosses.

They were passed on to another government official, who let them go after being convinced they were part of a relief group. Strategic offerings of cigarettes, water and a candy bar helped.

The crew rushed back to the capital city of Yangon.

"I kind of felt that I'd used my nine lives up and it was time to get out of the country," Rivers said. He was afraid for the safety of his Burmese contacts if he were found out and, frankly, didn't want officials spending time searching for him when they had more important things to do.

While on a plane to get out of the country, Rivers was called back to the gate to be searched. He'd been found out. He was thoroughly searched, but fortunately had no pictures with him.

"I thought I was going to get hauled off to some fetid prison for a week," he said.

Eventually, an impatient stewardess demanded authorities make a decision on what to do with Rivers and, thus challenged, put him back on the plane.

Rivers said he hoped to get back in to Myanmar at some point but given the sensitivities it's not likely to be anytime soon.