Before the introduction of the Right to Information Act (RTI), government employees, whether a head clerk or a Chief Secretary in Mantralaya, behaved like lords. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi described his work as that of a ‘Pradhan Sevak,’ attitudes changed a bit. I had an unsavoury experience at the Indian embassy in Myanmar and wanted to write about it. I believe Indian babus working overseas are completely untouched by this change happening in India.
Three months ago, I was in Myanmar and wanted to travel to Thailand by road. It was the first time I was crossing over from a foreign country to another by land through the international border. My experience, till then, was limited to crossing over from my home country (India) to a neighbouring foreign country (Nepal/ Myanmar). I had less apprehension then, because I knew I could always go back home if I failed to cross over. This time, it was going to be different. If I failed to cross over from Myanmar to Thailand, there were chances of landing in trouble with the authorities and not being able to return to India. Naturally, I was petrified.
I made inquiries with the manager of a youth hostel in Yangon. He told me that a few travellers had managed to cross over from Myanmar to Thailand, but a very long time ago. He suggested that I travel with a registered travel agent. But I knew that travelling with agents is very expensive. One of the agents in Imphal (Manipur) had given me quotation of Rs 1.3 lakh to cross the India-Myanmar border. The sum included a Myanmar visa, a guide, his food and accommodation for seven days. The agent said it was a ‘fixed rate’ and showed me receipts. I told him honestly that my budget was Rs 20000. He suggested that I return to India. I did not give up hope and completed my journey in Rs 7500 only, of which Rs 5000 was paid for MTP land permit.
Several pockets in Myanmar are ‘disturbed areas’. Myanmar Embassies give instructions to foreigner in visa applications to not travel in restricted areas and hire an authentic travel agent. This option was too expensive for me. So, I purchased some maps and studied them very carefully. There were at least three open international borders with Myanmar. One of them is in the north and is strongly advised against. Locals too don’t take this route.
I knew that Thailand was a popular tourist destination, so any foreigner who had visited Myanmar in the past would have certainly gone to Thailand.
I put a note on the breakfast table of the youth hostel inquiring if anyone had come to Myanmar from Thailand, specifically by crossing the international land border. Several foreigners said they had crossed over but none by land. Each one of them had taken flights as it’s safer, cheaper and convenient. But I like adventure and taking calculated risks.
One of my friends, posted as a bureaucrat in Mumbai, recommended that I approach the Indian Embassy in Yangon for help. He advised me to send an email to the Embassy first. I looked up for their email address online and wrote a decent mail, describing my problems in brief.
But the mail bounced back within seconds of sending it. I assumed I had made typing errors while writing the email address and sent it back. It bounced back again. I then copied down all the email addresses on the embassy’s page and mailed every of them. Two mails did not bounce and I waited to receive an acknowledgement from their side. I haven’t got any till date.
Finally, I decided to go over to the embassy personally. The next working day was a Monday. I carried my passport, pan card and a two litre water bottle. Journalists are not welcome in Myanmar so I used to hide my press ID card in my rucksack. The embassy was located 3.5 kms away from the youth hostel, so I decided to walk and save Rs 80 for transportation. It turned out to be a bad idea as the temperature was high with humidity.
The Indian embassy in Yangon has no sign bearing its name. I thought I may have missed it as I had left my glasses at the hostel. But there was no sign of any kind. It does not even look like an embassy at first glance. There was no guard at the door so I went straight in. There was a rectangular hall with high ceilings. At a corner, opposite to the entrance, was a reception table. On the other side, there were few chairs and two sofas. It was a typical Indian government office.
There were just two persons in the embassy__ a fat old receptionist glued to the phone and a female foreign national waiting for visa inquiry. As the girl had arrived before me, I waited for my turn. The receptionist got done with his phone call. When the girl inquired about getting a visa, he asked her to send an email. The girl started to leave. As she spoke English, I told her that the embassy’s email addresses don’t work. She said she would try and send a mail for formality sake and return to the embassy personally the next day.
By the time I reached the reception desk, the receptionist was back on the phone. I looked around the hall but there was nothing else to hold my attention. Five minutes later, the receptionist had still not hung up. I went and stood next to his desk. He was speaking in Hindi and I gathered that wasn’t an official phone call (he was describing his last mail saying “Haan khana bahut achha tha.”)
I realised he was going to be on the phone for a long time so I made a gesture, asking for an English newspaper to read. He stared at me and I thought he approved, so I took a newspaper from the stand. It was the Myanmar Times. The moment I had done so, the receptionist leapt at me and snatched the newspaper back as if it was some classified document. I felt humiliated. But I smiled at him and said, “I’m sorry. It’s okay.”
He went back to his phone call for another few minutes. Giving me an angry look, he finally hung up. I told him that I needed to travel to Thailand by land and required information. “Why do you want to go to Thailand?,” he barked.
“For tourism,” I replied.
“Send an email,” he said.
I had already anticipated this and showed him the bounced emails in my inbox on my cellphone screen. He started looking for other excuses.
“Do you have appointment?,” he said.
“No, I don’t,” I replied.
“Then, take an appointment first and then come,” he barked.
“Okay. Give me an appointment,” I said.
He checked an old notebook and asked me to return on Thursday morning. I told him that was too late and requested for an earlier appointment. I explained that I was a tourist, not a local resident, and had travel plans.
“I would need only two minutes,” I requested.
“No, come on Thursday,” he said.
“I’m a journalist from Mumbai and I want to meet the press coordinator right away,” I said.
He thought for a moment. Then he picked up his phone and punched in some numbers furiously. Muttering something inaudible on the line, he hung up. I smiled and thanked him, before he proceeded to bury himself behind a newspaper.
While waiting for the media coordinator, I started to feel thirsty and spoke to the receptionist in Hindi.
“Pani milega thoda? (Can I get some water),” I said.
“Why couldn’t you get your own water bottle,” he replied.
I showed him my two litre bottle which was empty by then. He again punched some numbers on his phone and asked for a glass of water. An employee brought a half filled glass which I emptied.
A few minutes later, an officer arrived and introduced himself as the ‘Embassy’s coordinator.’ I introduced myself and showed him my passport. I had three questions which I had written down on my notepad. I started to read them but he asked for my notepad and made notes in his diary. Two of the questions were related to travelling and included a railway inquiry. The third was an inquiry was a news assignment which he turned down immediately.
We were finding it difficult to understand each other’s accents. My first question was where could I buy a reserved railway ticket from the next day. He said he did not know. I replied that since he was a local Myanmari, he could ask someone for help and share the information with me. This is how it works in most big cities: running tickets are sold at one place and reservation tickets for the next day are sold at another big place. For instance, at Mumbai CST, regular (running) tickets are sold near platforms 1 to 6. The reservation counter is on the first floor. But in Myanmar, the reservation counter is far, around 2 kms. Besides, I did not understand the local language and my cellphone did not support a maps application.
Railways are not very popular in Myanmar and Vietnam. Some locals don’t even know names of railway stations. Several students in Vietnam told me they had never ever travelled by trains as the railway network is limited and trains are notorious for delays.
The officer at the Myanmar embassy adviced me to take a flight to Thailand instead. I tried to explain that surface transport was important for my mission but he excused himself and said he had to leave for urgent work. As he disappeared into the embassy, I felt sad but not surprised. I was used to Indian babus’ style of working and realised it hadn’t changed even on foreign soil.
Whenever the going gets tough and nobody is willing to help, there are only two types of people one can approach__ one is a journalist and the other is a lawyer.
I went to office of the Myanmar Times as it was located close to the embassy. Two journalists were generous and gave me time. While I was talking to one of them, I spotted the officer from the embassy who had dismissed me sometime back. He was carrying a bunch of cards. He handed one of them to the journalist that I was meeting, spoke in the local language and left. As the journalist opened the card, I gathered that it was a wedding invite. It struck me that the officer had dismissed me in a hurry as the “urgent work” he was referring to was distributing wedding invites during office hours.
I have written to the Australian Embassy in New Delhi in the past for visa inquiries and received an auto generated acknowledgement within half an hour. It gave an assurance that my query would get a response within 48 hours. I have written to Indian embassies in different countries but they never even send an acknowledgement. One of my friends suggested that I tweet to the MEA or to Indian minister Sushma Swaraj. “The embassy staff will come looking for you and give you VIP treatment then,” my friend said. But then, there are exceptions like Vijay Gokhale who is the Ambassador at the Indian Embassy in Beijing. When I wrote to his office for help, Gokhale was not in town. Yet, he replied to me using his personal cellphone.
Wish our embassies abroad had the courtesy to offer a cup of tea to visitors at least. This is our tradition and something Prime Minister Modi will appreciate as he was once a chaiwala himself.