It was a battered old fiddle, but not as we know it here in Ireland.
A large tin horn protruded from a metal diaphragm alongside a smaller horn. But when I ran the bow across the rusty metal strings it sounded like it could rise a tune or two.
I asked the elderly lady who ran the teashop in Rangoon where it hung on the wall, how much it would cost to buy. "One US Dollar,” she said. "But you must promise me that one day it will play a tune in a free country.”
“I'm from Ireland,” I said. “We know all about fighting for freedom.” I made my promise and handed over my dollar.
Filmmaker Jamie Doran and I were undercover in Burma to report on the 1990 election campaign of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, or NLD, and the daughter of Aung San, the father of the modern Burmese Nation. Burma was a country run by the Tatmadaw, a military dictatorship under the despot Ne Win, and the election was about to be rigged. Foreign journalists were banned and Suu Kyi had been under house arrest for 15 years and was not about to be released to campaign.
Jamie and I were posing as salesmen working for a fictitious company called Shaftsbury Fancy Goods and we had business cards and a suitcase full of flying plaster ducks and plastic snowstorm ornaments to prove our bonafides.
“We don't get many of you chappies here,” said the British Ambassador, Sir Martin Morland, when we turned up on the doorstep of his Embassy in Rangoon. "If you are making a film, you'll need transport. “I’ll drive. Shall we take the Bentley or the Land Rover?”
And so we found ourselves sitting in a British government Bentley on the shores of the Inlay Lake In Rangoon with Jamie's small but powerful Sony video camera poking out of the side window. Across the still waters, a woman who was a prisoner in her own home played Chopin on the piano. She never knew we were listening.
“The West isn't really awake to what's going on here,” said Sir Martin as he drove us back to our hotel before the curfew.
The next three days were filled with furtive interviews with politicians who we could only record with their backs to the camera and a promise to disguise their voices. We were smuggled into election rallies held in secret and witnessed the poverty of a country once known as the Rice Bowl of the World.
After three days of secret filming and evenings spent drinking glasses of fine port in Sir Martin's official residence, it was time to move on.
“Where are you chappies off to next?” he asked. Jamie and I burst into a chorus of that old British music hall song: “We’re On the Road to Mandalay.”
“Do pop in on the way back,” said Sir Martin. “I have a particularly fine bottle of Sandeman 1954 vintage, which I have been keeping for a special occasion.”
Jamie and I were booked to fly to Mandalay with Burma Airways, but one of the Embassy staff warned us that the airline's safety record was not the best in the world and as far as he knew, the last of their three ancient Fokker Friendships had been commandeered by the Airforce. The other two had crashed. So, we decided to let the train take the strain.
The drunken Army Officer in the first-class carriage poured another glass of Chivas Regal Whisky, pulled out his revolver, spun the chamber, and put the gun to my head.
“I’ll show you what democracy is about,” he said. “It’s about the freedom to choose whether to live or to die. Your Western-style democracy is dead in this country, but because of the Tatmadaw, the Burmese people will live long lives.”
I made the sign of the cross.
And then he pulled the trigger. The firing pin clicked. The gun wasn't loaded.
In Mandalay, we filmed secret meetings with Buddhist Monks, the silent partners behind the NLD in the battle for democracy, and met supporters of the League who told us stories of torture at the hands of the Army. Stories that were backed up by photographs that they pressed into our hands and asked us to bring back to the west.
But by now we had been rumbled. Everywhere we went we were shadowed by agents of the Burmese secret police. It was time to take the train back to Rangoon, which we learnt had been renamed Yangon by the Junta.
On our final night in Yangon, we accepted Sir Martin's offer of a drink, downed more than one glass of Sandeman's Vintage ‘54, and before we left his official residence, we accepted another offer that we could hardly refuse.
The next morning, still slightly merry, we headed by bus to the airport waving our bamboo hats, emblazoned with the National League for Democracy’s peacock insignia, out of the window. People on the street applauded as we passed.
We were about to totter onto the Thai Airways Airbus to Bangkok when the secret police pounced. Our camera and tapes were seized and we were warned at gunpoint never to return.
But they let me keep my fiddle, which I had in a carrier bag.
Jamie smiled and gave one of the officers our Shaftsbury Fancy Goods business card. “It's been nice to do business in Burma,” he said in a broad Glaswegian accent. “Tell yeh boss man that where I come from Ney Win, means you've Ney F**king chance."
The secret policeman smiled back and wished us luck. “We are no longer called Burma,” he said. “The past has been erased. We are now called Myanmar.”
We doffed our bamboo hats, apologised again, and followed a man in a grey suit up the steps to our seats in business class and a welcoming glass of chilled champagne.
When we had cleared Burmese airspace, the grey-suited man came back from first-class and opened his briefcase. “You chappies might be needing these,” he said and handed over our real videotapes. “The diplomatic bag does have its uses.”
The blast from the explosion set the jungle on fire. But nobody died. Jamie and I had been teaching a student army how to make napalm and there was hardly a bottle of washing-up liquid or a gallon of petrol to be bought on the Thai-Burmese Border.
On our forays into countries where journalists were banned, we always said we would be observers and never get involved.
Just days after leaving Myanmar we were back in Burma. Sir Martin had given us harrowing video footage filmed by the CIA from the roof of the American Embassy of hundreds of students being machine-gunned by the Army. The survivors had fled into the jungle and vowed to fight for freedom. Why shouldn’t we teach them a trick or two that we had learnt in other countries?
We had been told about the student army in the jungle by another British diplomat, Richard Green, who was attached to the Embassy in Bangkok. A different Richard Green was an English actor who played Robin Hood in the television drama of our childhood. As we headed back into Burma through the jungle from Thailand with our student guides, we sang: "Robin Hood, Robin Hood Riding through the Glen . . . Robin Hood, Robin Hood and his Merry Men."
At Aung Ham Rai Camp, I showed the students’ commanding officer, Soe Aung, my newly acquired fiddle, and told him about my promise that it would play a tune in a free country. He showed me his Kalashnikov AK 47 Rifle. “You must keep your promise,” he said. “Guns alone will never win our battle. Our lives and our freedom may depend on what our friends in the West hear when you get home.”
The Burmese Army came that night but we had been taken through jungle passes to a safe hut and escaped the mortar attack and the fire that engulfed the village where we should have been sleeping.
Later, after we trekked through the jungle across the border to Thailand, we were told that Soe Aung and his platoon of students had planned to launch a Napalm attack against the Burmese army only to be ambushed and killed.
Our report, “The Battle for Burma,” went out on Channel Four in Britain and was rebroadcast around the world. Suu Kyi's husband, the Cambridge University lecturer Richard Arris, called me on the telephone to thank Jamie and me for our work. But as the rest of the world quickly discovered, the election was rigged and the Army retained control of Burma. Sir Martin Morland was summonsed in by the Military and told that if Jamie and I ever came back, we would be arrested, tried, and executed.
The following year, I packed our new video camera into my case of Fancy Goods and went back to Burma
This time, I wanted to report on the plight of the Karen people, catch up with the students, and above all stick two fingers up to Ne Win. But like Robin Hood taking on the Sherriff of Nottingham, I erred on the side of caution and arrived through a back door, over the Thai border into Karen Country.
The Karens had been promised independence by Winston Churchill in return for their support in the battle against the Japanese and their Burmese allies during the Second World War. Their leader, General Bo Mya, still wore his red beret. which had been presented to him by the Parachute Regiment. And forty years on he was still leading a ragtag and bobtail army and their student allies, who with the Burmese fascination for acronyms had christened themselves the ABSDF, The All Burma Student Democratic Front.
Some of the Karen fighters were children as young as twelve who carried rifles taller than themselves. In a makeshift jungle hospital, I saw the grim results of a war that had been raging for more than forty years.
Men with missing limbs blown off by the mines that the Burmese Army had scattered along the jungle trails, young soldiers blinded by shrapnel, and others with injuries too horrible to describe.
Some emaciated patients lay on bamboo beds mumbling incoherently, the victims of a silent killer. “Many of the people we treat here are suffering from cerebral malaria,” explained Marie, a young French woman working with the international charity, Medecins Sans Frontieres, Doctors Without Borders. “We don't get that many victims of the fighting in the jungle. Most die before they can reach help.”
The students had their headquarters on the banks of the Salween River where they lived in a small village of huts on bamboo poles.
Manaplaw, the Karen State Capital, was a few miles upriver and more of a town with wooden huts and a Main Street of sorts, though there were no roads out of town. It was there that Bo Mya lived with his army of freedom fighters and boy soldiers.
But not everyone was clad in military fatigues. I was introduced to the enigmatic Sein Win, the sharp-suited Chairman of the NCGUB, The National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, a government in exile.
One Saturday evening, the General and Sein Winn invited me to dinner. A cock hen was roasting on a spit over a charcoal pit outside Bo Mya's hut. “What noise does the cock make in England?” asked the genial General.
“Cock a doodle doo," I replied.
“Here he says ‘Ree a ree a ree.’ That's why they will never understand us in the West, even though we speak the same language, they hear what they want to hear."
“Mr. Churchill promised us our independence from Burma; if we fought with the British army and we’re still fighting for our freedom.”
Sunday morning saw us at a religious service in a jungle clearing. The Karens are real-life Bush Baptists, who believe they are descended from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Two soldiers armed with assault rifles stood on either side of the minister at the altar and bowed their heads as he lifted the host.
Afterward, the Karens played the students at soccer. Both teams wore red but the opposing sides were easily discernible because the Karen players were much taller than their Burmese counterparts. It was one all when the referee blew his whistle for a penalty against the students.
As the center-forward lined up the ball to kick for goal, the crowd hushed. Then from the mountains in the distance, we heard a shriller whistle, followed by another and another. As the whistles grew closer, they grew louder and suddenly the match was forgotten and everyone was running.
"What's happening?" I yelled at Bo Mya.
"An air raid," he shouted and grabbed his rifle. The women and children headed for tunnels dug deep into the banks of the Salween. I preferred to remain above ground with the Karens who were pointing their weapons upwards.
The Burmese Airways Fokker Friendship lumbered into view, flying so low I could easily make out three camouflaged figures struggling with a heavy metal cylinder in the open doorway.
The plane was met with a fusillade of shots and veered sharply towards the River. The bomb dropped and hit the water. There was a massive explosion.
A column of water rose out of the river and fell like monsoon rain soaking us to the skin. The Karens cheered and waved their guns in the air as the Fokker lumbered away, trailing smoke from an engine that had been winged by gunfire.
Bo Mya wrung the water out of his sodden red beret and slapped me on the back. "He missed again, he said. "He comes most Sundays. The fucker of a pilot in the Fokker is a Manchester United supporter and a hooligan. He knows that in Karen State, we support Liverpool and King Kenny Dalglish. Tonight, we will dine like Kings."
As he spoke, the women and children walked in procession from the riverbank. They were laden down with bamboo baskets full of giant catfish which had been stunned by the blast from the bomb. I never did find out who won the match, but I had one more score to settle and it was my last night filming in Karen country.
Before I left for the long journey home to England to broadcast my reports on Sky World News Tonight, I arranged for a postcard to be sent to Ne Win from Mandalay. But bearing in mind the chilling message relayed by Sir Martin Morland, I made sure it was delivered after I was safely on the plane back to Heathrow.
I wrote: "Greetings from Shaftsbury Fancy Goods. Enjoying a return visit to meet the real Burmese people. You've just been shafted for a second time."
Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 but she was unable to travel to Oslo to receive the honour. She spent 15 years under house arrest and when she was finally released from her home alongside the Inlay Lake where we had listened to her playing the piano, we drank an Irish toast.
In 2005, Irish composers/musicians Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan released a single called “Unplayed Piano.” It stayed on the charts for 26 weeks.
I had kept in touch with Suu Kyi's husband Michael Arris until his death from cancer in 2009. The Junta told Suu Kyi she could travel to England for his funeral, but there was no guarantee she could return. She chose to stay in her beloved Burma.
In 2012, she came to Ireland and was awarded the Freedom of Dublin. I was there at the Mansion House but I never got to meet her, preferring instead to remember the lonely woman playing the piano in a house on a lake many thousands of miles away.
Suu Kyi was later stripped of her Dublin Honour because the Burmese government mounted a campaign of persecution against the Muslim Rohingya people which left hundreds dead and forced thousands to flee the country. She may have been free, but most people believe she was powerless to stop the actions of her generals who still controlled the country.
What of Soe Aung and his student army who fought for her freedom? Almost 30 years after our Burma exploits, out of the blue, I received a Facebook friend request from a man in Bangkok, asking what had happened to my Burmese Fiddle?
He told me: "I never forgot your story about it playing a tune in a free country." Soe Aung hadn’t died at all.
Years earlier, back in Sligo, I'd taken the battered violin to Mick Shannon, the legendary fiddle maker of the west of Ireland. “It’s a Straw Fiddle,” he said. “They were popular in the English Music Halls in the 1920s. Leave it with me."
And a month later, true to his promise, Mick Shannon played the newly restored Instrument at a Ceilidh in Sligo Town Hall.
As an Attorney, Soe Aung now champions human rights causes and the fight of the oppressed for freedom throughout Asia and the Far East. We correspond regularly and one day we hope to meet again . . . on the Road to Mandalay.
I like to think that when Mick Shannon played my Burmese fiddle in Sligo, he also played a part in Su Aung’s, Suu Kyi’s, Bo Mya’s, and the Burmese People's own fight for freedom.
And the tune he played?
One that is very dear to us here in Sligo: “The West's Awake.”
As I write this more than thirty years later, the tanks are once again rolling down the streets of Yangon and hundreds have been slaughtered by the Army.
Now the West needs to awake again.
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