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Mon, 28 Sep 2009 20:23:00 +0000

It was night.

A man inside a parked car was videotaping the hotel across from my apartment. In the car behind it, a federal officer was inside an unmarked police car — he watched the hotel and everyone who walked by it.

Every day, all night, he was there. And each time I passed by, I noticed more cars, more officers.

When I walked down my street, they eyed me. If I walked past one car, there would be another man in another car, staring me down, then another and another.

I asked one officer about it. He casually said it’s “minor surveillance” — nothing to fuss about.

But I didn’t believe him. Something felt wrong. I was scared.

I weighed the fact:


Conspiracy theorists are not born. They’re made by communities that ration information.

In the 1950s, while living in North Korea, my grandpa knew he’d be persecuted for his anti-communist sentiments so he escaped to the South and changed his name. But because North Korea releases so little information, he makes things up in his mind to fill the void. He blames everything on Kim Jong-il. He thinks North Korea controls far more than it actually does. And, to this day, he believes North Korean communists are still watching him.

I always thought his paranoia was ridiculous. But when you don’t know what you fear — yet you only know that you should fear — paranoia is inevitable.

As law enforcement officers secretly lined my street — being vague about why they were there — I didn’t know what to think.

If you asked me, I would’ve said something bad was about to happen.

***

This morning, the sun was out.

The light allowed me to see inside the black vehicles parked on my street. And I saw faces — they were men, each with a small badge pinned to their jackets.

Then, without notice, one of the men jumped out of his car. He looked down the street, where a group of protester started chanting — “Free Burma, free Burma!”

I walked down to the protesters. I asked one of them, “What’s going on?”

“We’re here to free Burma!” he said.

“What?”

“The Burmese prime minister is here.”

Here’s some history: In 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi was elected as the prime minister. But the country’s military-based government put her under house arrest and refused to hand over power. And the military continued to appoint a prime minister.

So, now, Thein Sein is the prime minister. He was the man staying at Eastgate Hotel on 39th Street.

“Free Suu Kyi!” the protesters chanted.

It was chaos — yelling protesters, honking cars, federal agents, police dogs and Burmese leaders trying to get into their cars.

The protester threw shoes at Burmese foreign minister Nyan Win. One protester reportedly threw coffee at his car. Police officers intervened, but the yelling and screaming continued.

But, through all this, I was at peace.

I prefer yelling and screaming over undercover officers. I prefer flying shoes over shifting eyes.

I suppose this situation couldn't have been handled any differently — I supposed it was handled well.

But, in a country like ours — where words, not swords, are used to fight battles, as Walter Lippmann wrote — silence and secrecy can be frightening.

***
UPDATE: As I left my apartment, it appeared as if the Burmese leaders were leaving. Here's how the protesters reacted:




At the end of the video, a man came up to me and asked, "What country is that?"

"Burma," I said. "The prime minister's in there."

"Right," the man said. "Good for them."