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Schuster fellows removed from Myanmar blacklist

By Dori Cohen

Section: News

September 7, 2012

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, removed more than 1,000 names from its blacklist last Friday. Two of those names are senior fellows at Brandeis’ Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, Karen Coates and Jerry Redfern. Coates and Redfern were deported from Myanmar in 2009 after teaching a series of government-approved writing and photography workshops.

Myanmar, located in southeast Asia, has been flagged by the United Nations for its notorious disregard for human rights and use of genocide, child labor and human trafficking. It has a list of more than 6,000 dissidents, diplomats, journalists and human rights campaigners who are currently barred from entering the country. As exemplified by the removal of Coates and Redfern from the blacklist, however, the country’s leadership has recently made concessions to democratic activists and is slowly improving relations with the rest of the world.

“We don’t actually know why we were deported. We were just put on an overnight train by cops who said they were following orders,” Coates said in an interview. “What’s curious is that all this happened two days after our workshops even finished—we were done with our work. The deportation was a surprise, but anyone working in a country such as Myanmar knows that anything could happen.”

“We didn’t really know what was going on,” Coates continued. “One night, we came back from dinner to our hotel lobby and were met with officers who told us to go pack. We assumed that meant we were being taken out of the country.”

Redfern added, “Really, our sharpest thoughts were for the Burmese people we were working with—translators and aids—who wouldn’t be shipped out of the country if they ran afoul of the law—they would go to prison. Thankfully, that didn’t happen and no one we worked with or taught was affected or harassed.”

While Redfern agreed that Myanmar’s government has become more open-minded, he issued a cautious warning, “The recent changes have been in the wind for the last couple of years, but few people believed they would really happen or be so quickly implemented. I think no one has been prepared for the speed with which things appear to be changing,” Redfern said.

“That said, appearances can be deceiving. On paper, neighboring Cambodia is a free country with an open democracy and a vibrant, unfettered press. The reality is quite different. I do hope the Myanmar government’s grand plans are actually implemented—not so I can go back, but so that the people there can live with the freedoms they deserve and have fought for,” Redfern said.

Now that they are off the blacklist, Coates and Redfern plan eventually to return to Myanmar.

“Our schedules are pretty busy, but we plan on going back to Myanmar in December during winter break,” Coates stated, while Redfern cheerfully added, “But I am really, really looking forward to eating la phet thote [pickled tea leaves salad, a local dish] in Yangon with our friends again.”

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