Waiting for the Lady


ISBN 974-92186-1-2
Trade paperback 6" - 9 1/4"
2005, 319 pages
 

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Excerpt

Kazuo's Lost Camera
# 10

A couple of days later, Akira Takeda invited Saya and me to a Japanese restaurant in the Landmark hotel on Sukhumvit Road. Saya said he sounded tense. There were, he told her, some unresolved questions about the photographs. All of this was ambiguous in the way of the Japanese. I saw no other choice than to find out what new mystery he would reveal. He arrived before us and a Thai dressed in a kimono showed us to the booth where he waited. We removed our shoes and slid over the mats to sit opposite of him. Another waitress knelt down and placed bowls of green tea before us. After a couple of minutes of small talk, his intentions became clear; he wanted to tell us a story about Kazuo and the Lady. Kazuo had remembered every one of the shots inside the lost camera, and had discussed in detail each of the images as if the act of talking would somehow cause those pictures to magically appear. Most of all, Kazuo had been proud of the photos of the Lady the day she had been attacked and nearly killed. Of the lost photographs taken that day, he regretted losing those most. I asked Akira Takeda what his son had told him, and he bowed his head, his hands clasped around the tea bowl. Now that he had the photographs, there was no question in his mind that what Kazuo had told him about that day was the truth. Saya translated as Akira Takeda told us what his son had witnessed and photographed that day.

“On the 9th of November 1996, the day of the attack, the Lady was traveling in a convoy of cars. Four cars left the house of Kyi Maung, who was a member of the Lady’s shadow cabinet. Ten minutes later, the lead car slowed and then the other three cars following behind shifted gears, crawling along the road as a large mob gathered. The mob spilled out in the road until the cars could no longer move. Young men, members of a Hitler-like youth group organized by outfit calling themselves the Union of Solidarity Development Association clenched fists, shouting at those inside the cars. The USDA acted as shills for SLORC — the junta of governing generals — doing their dirty work on the street. Military intelligence agents with walkie-talkies and short hair who were bristling with sweat milled with the mob. How did Kazuo know these men were military intelligence? It was illegal for anyone other than the military and police to have walkie-talkies. The mob pushed against the front of the cars. They shouted slogans and pounded on the cars with their fists. The Lady sat in the back of the Toyota. Everyone was afraid. Kazuo and his friend had been in a car some distance behind. They got out and walked through the crowd. He was uncertain if the mob would ignite into violence. If that happened, the car drivers and occupants were powerless. They had no choice but to stop and wait. My son thought sending a mob into the street was a campaign to expand the boundary of force to where the Lady would feel their power and authority. They would teach her not only the meaning of fear, but demonstrate she could not rely on the status quo. She could never be sure how far they would go. But they were playing with fire; it was an extremely dangerous game with so many people in a crowd whipped up into a fevered frenzy of hatred and anger. Agents circulated rumors among the mob that the people inside the four cars had conspired to destroy the state, the security of the Burmese people, and that these people threatened the foundation of Burmese culture and history. They said the people in the cars were in league with foreigners, and their intention was to bring the country under the boot and heel of foreigners. The rhetoric was one thing. But how can you control such a mob? Until that day on the 9th of November, both sides knew the rules and the limits of engagement. Such rules weren’t written down. They were informal limits on what either side would do or say. On this day, the acts of violence exceeded those rules. Two of the youths pulled away from the others. They aimed slingshots armed with steel ball bearings. Glass shattered. Somehow the mob broke for long enough for the cars to pass.

“The day after the attack my son and another journalist for his newspaper tracked down the Lady. First they had gone to her house on University Avenue. As soon as they noticed the absence of military intelligence they knew she wasn’t home. Even SLORC wasn’t so stupid as to have their men guard an empty house. After an hour they found her at the house of Kyi Maung, the senior NLD official. Outside military intelligence officers in longyis patrolled the perimeter. They allowed Kazuo and his friend inside. This was a miracle. Perhaps it was because they were Japanese; that might have had something to do with the intelligence officers’ leniency. Once they were inside Kyi Maung’s house, a minor official said that the Lady was meeting with her cabinet. They were assured that once the meeting ended she would see them. True to her word, as soon as the meeting adjourned, Kazuo and his friend were allowed inside the meeting room. The entire cabinet was present. The Lady remained seated at table with her cabinet. Kazuo and his friend were allowed to ask all the questions they wished. My son took pictures of her seated with her cabinet. His friend walked around the room, shooting the Lady, taking shots of her from many different angles. Kazuo was a journalist, you see. His friend’s duty was to take the photographs for the newspaper. But Kazuo loved photography and couldn’t resist taking photographs, too. No one interfered with their movements inside the meeting room. After the photography session ended, Kazuo was granted an exclusive interview. The Lady said that her father had always had a special feeling for Japan. Most of the members of her cabinet had known her father. Her father had been assassinated at thirty-four. His colleagues were now all older men in their seventies. They spoke a proper British English, the kind of English that no one has heard since the war.

“After the interview ended — and it only ended when my son and his friend could think of no more questions to ask — the Lady rose from her chair and invited them outside. They followed her and several members of her cabinet. Outside the house they assembled near a white Japanese car. I recall Kazuo saying it was a Toyota. My memory fades on such details. But I see from the photographs he took that it was a Toyota, a four-door sedan. They went outside and the Lady opened the rear door and climbed inside. All the time she talked about the attack the day before. The shock of that assault was still fresh in her mind; my son could sense a strong resolve in her to show the damage inflicted. She sat in the back, taking the position she had when the attack occurred.

“‘I was sitting here when it happened,’ she said.

“His friend’s camera malfunctioned. Kazuo said not to worry because he had his camera. Kazuo snapped three shots of the Lady, her face in a dark, slightly obscured profile, but he assured me that if I saw the photograph, I would have no doubt that the person in the photograph was Aung San Suu Kyi. He stood a couple of feet away, kneeling down, shooting inside through the open car door. She wore a brown-colored longyi; he remembered the white dots or stars on her longyi. On her feet were sandals. Her blouse was also a copper color as if heated in a hot fire. Her face — a slight smile on her lips — was only slightly turned towards the camera. Directly behind her, in the rearview window, a clean hole appeared. A hard metal ball had gone straight through the glass leaving a spider web of cracks along the edges. The thugs had used steel ball bearings. You have seen the photographs. The Lady had been only a fingernail’s length away from the hole. A little bit more to the side and she would have been killed. Kazuo had the evidence that the generals were prepared to have a mob kill her. Of all the journalists in the world, Kazuo, my son, was the one person who had taken that photograph. You see in Kazuo’s photograph how Aung San Suu Kyi sat inside the car, turning and looking at the hole, the empty space that had opened at the very moment her destiny had forced her to move to the side. If she hadn’t moved, well, as I’ve already said, she would have surely died. There would have been no house arrest. Kazuo talked about those photographs each time we met. He felt such sadness that the camera and film had been lost in Burma. He felt that he had let down his colleague and his newspaper. He hadn’t intended to lose the camera. People lose things all of the time, I said to him. He said he hadn’t exactly lost the camera. At the time, he had many things on his mind. From the day of the attack, the military intelligence people had followed him. They watched him at the airport, and set a trap once he had checked in. He had no choice but to dump the camera. Only two days before he died, Kazuo had booked a trip to Burma to retrieve his camera. He died before that happened.

“Kazuo said that what he had photographed was historical. That he had a duty to preserve that incident because it was part of a much larger story. Many times the criminal reenacts his crime. But this was the first time where the victim had reenacted the crime committed against her. Criminal reenactments are common in many countries. You are an American and you may not understand a culture that brings the press, police, and suspect to the spot of the crime. And the suspect is encouraged to show exactly how he committed the murder, rape, beating, or whatever the crime he was suspected of having committed was. That reenactment is then photographed for the newspapers, it is filmed for TV and showed so that everyone can witness how the crime was carried out. The generals in Burma would not authorize such a thing. For them it wasn’t a crime, Kazuo said. Their attitude was understandable, as the criminals who caused this were untouchable. If those who committed violence couldn’t be brought to account, then the victims must show the world evidence of the crime, my son said. The Lady wanted the world to be aware that the line had been crossed. She had chosen my son to be her witness.

“I told Kazuo to let go of the past. That it wasn’t safe to return for the camera. They would be watching his every move. All he would accomplish would be his own arrest and imprisonment. I reminded him that in Japan we have too much of our own past that people hold tightly to their chest. I said this was our mistake. I pleaded for him as his father to get on with his life. He said, ‘Father, you know how I respect you. In this case, I must disagree. Burma is a huge, dark back room. There is no front room. There is no light going into that house. Everything that is done is done off-stage. The men who organized the mob attack were never arrested. That was impossible. Even though inside that locked, dark, secret room where plots are hatched, their names were known. What they have done was done in secret, without names, without accountability. They can do what they want to whom they want and no one can touch them. Our mistake is not to shine a light on such men. Put the torch close to their faces, expose them for what they are. If we don’t, who will?’

“I had no answer for this question. I only worried that acting upon these feelings would place him in great danger. He had dumped the camera because he had been followed. He knew the photographs would cause an incident and he wished to spare his father and family the anguish of such publicity.”

But now the photographs had been recovered everything had changed. It was agreed that I would find a way to deliver one set of the photographs to the Lady. He said he could arrange such a delivery himself — he hinted vaguely about a backdoor channel — I didn’t press him on the point, because in his opinion whatever destiny had caused me to find his son’s camera was still in play and I had been chosen as the instrument of his dead son. I found out that Akira Takeda was made of strong, unshakeable opinions. The Lady, of course, was under house arrest but Akira Takeda had full confidence that a resourceful man like myself couldn’t be stopped from accomplishing any mission I had set my mind to do.

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