Permit to mourn

Aung Naing Moe

THE TAXI, carrying the four of us, had just turned into St. Martin’s Drive when the three plain-clothes police officers tried to flag it down. It was almost 6:50pm on Saturday, 17 May 2008.

“Don’t stop,” shouted by the four of us almost simultaneously. I was sitting in the front passenger’s seat while my wife Han Thu Lwin, Myo Myint Maung and another Burmese friend were in the back seat, all of us holding flowers in our hands.

To our dismay, the Singaporean taxi driver pulled the taxi over to the roadside gently.

“Whooi…a long way to go,” I sighed. I then started to realize the extent of police dominance in Singapore and the level of obedience shown by the ordinary citizens here. Nowhere else in the world would you find a taxi driver stopping at the flagging of non-uniformed police officers so easily against the wishes of the passengers in his taxi.

Showing his badge, one of the three policemen asked, “Are you residents here, sir?”

I was secretly amused by the question wondering how a person like me wearing cheap shirts and taking a cab, not driving a good car, could inspire the police to think that I might live in such an affluent district. But, I simply replied, “No, we are not.”

“Where are you going, sir?”

“To the Burmese embassy.”

“Sorry, sir, you can’t go there because the Myanmar (Burmese) embassy is already closed.”

I must admit that I was particularly proud to be a Burmese citizen at that moment because our embassy was extraordinarily effective in communicating with us, citizens of Burma, by keeping Singapore police to answer on its behalf about its opening hours at the entrance of St Martin’s Drive.

Or perhaps it was just that the police underestimated my ability to think for myself. So, the sudden, mistaken pride that came to me out of thin air vanished immediately. Hey, do you think I am a moron? All Burmese in Singapore know that our embassy is normally closed on Saturdays.

Don’t worry, please. We are not going inside the embassy. We just want to go in front of the Burmese embassy to mourn for our people who died in the Cyclone Nargis. Anyway, thanks for your information.”

“No, Sir. You can’t go there. We advise you to leave this area immediately.”

Oops! Was it because the Cyclone Nargis was now passing through the St Martin’s Drive, too? I was starting to worry about the safety of the residents living there.

But just in time, to quell my unwarranted anxiety, our old friend Mr Deep Singh from Tanglin Police Station came to the scene and chanted the very much familiar police mantra to our impatient ears.

“You can’t assemble without a police permit. You are advised to leave.”

“But….please wait, wait! There are only four persons on this taxi excluding the driver. How could this become an illegal assembly?”

He didn’t answer our question. But he said, “As long as you have intention…”

“Oh, my god! Intention to do what? Our intention is just to mourn for our people who died because of the cyclone.”

Then he suggested that we should go to the temple to pray and mourn.

Please note that these were just advice and suggestions only; they didn’t amount to warnings. So, why should we be advised and suggested repeatedly for so long without being allowed to get through?

We appreciated his advice and suggestions, of course, because they were free. But, whether we took them or not was solely our own choice. To force us to accept his advice and hamper us from going in was too much for us. It was utterly outrageous.

Myo Myint Maung, who was sitting in the back seat, told the police officers that the only one piece of land in Singapore where we, Burmese, truly had the highest sense of belonging was our Burmese embassy.

At last, Mr Singh asked for our particulars, even though the three of us – my wife, Myo Myint Maung and myself – had given our particulars to his department on a few occasions in the past. At first, we argued for some minutes on why we needed to submit our particulars for just going to our embassy and mourning for our people.

Then, to our great astonishment, the extremely considerate Mr Singh said, “Please don’t waste the time. The taxi driver will lose his valuable time to earn money. Please be considerate.”

At first, I didn’t believe my ears. During the whole conversation, the taxi meter was ticking and needless to say it was me who had to pay for the fare eventually. The driver was earning his fair income in the whole episode. Furthermore, I can swear that this delay was not caused by us. We were the one who wanted to arrive at our destination as soon as possible.

At last, as it seemed that the police was not going to allow us to go in without showing our particulars, we gave them to the police and proceeded to the embassy where we found a couple who arrived just before us. But, they said that they didn’t have to show their particulars. Why was the law applied selectively to us instead of being applied equally to all?

Later, I came to know that about 50 Burmese who also came to mourn at the embassy gradually started to gather at the entrance of St Martin’s drive. At first, police were busy advising them to go back. When they refused and continued to hang around there, the police asked them for their particulars. As the crowd gradually grew to about 100 people, the police at last agreed to let us go in groups of four persons to the gate of the Burmese embassy to mourn there for five minutes each. However, it was not before a series of negotiations as well as heated exchanges between the police and the three of us.

At the end, the police told us not to hold any hard feelings and apologized individually for the embarrassment caused earlier. Of course, we forgave them because we understood their position. They were police officers just carrying out their duties. They too are human beings with kind hearts; we believe that. But, we still hope the law will be applied equally to all races, nationalities, and religions, not selectively. Moreover, it should be applied fairly and correctly.

We wish Singapore a more vibrant society with more freedom and openness where every resident has the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.