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A poet behind bars, broadcasting from Burma and an argument over aid

What kind of regime is so afraid that it imprisons a 22-year-old woman for ten years for writing a poem? We’re broadcasting Jeremy Vine’s Radio 2 show live from Burma, something that until recently would have been unthinkable. The poet’s name is Zin Mar Aung. She was locked up in a tiny windowless cell, barely eight feet square, by a government that had the dubious distinction of being the longest-running military dictatorship in the world. The generals didn’t much care for her poems. But can it be true that the pen is mightier than the sword? Zin Mar Aung looks younger than her 32 years, bright and confident, with a ready smile. What was it like, we ask, spending seven years in solitary confinement, in a dark cell, for months never seeing another human being? “I did despair at times,” she admits, “but reciting my poems helped me come through. It’s easier if you know you are doing the right thing.”

Later in the show we interview another former prisoner who was captured and treated with similar brutality. Bill, now 94, was a British soldier imprisoned by the Japanese during the Second World War. He is frail and his voice is barely a whisper as he describes being so hungry he ate his own rotting leather boots. At the end of the interview, our reporter Andy West is about to leave when Bill calls him back and insists he puts his hand on his chest and feels his twisted rib bones. He explains how a Japanese officer tied him to a chair and smashed his chest with a poleaxe.

Present and correct

Even in Burma, news reaches us that Rotherham Council has removed three children from a foster couple because they are members of the UK Independence Party. Ukip’s leader, Nigel Farage, is booked to come on our show to discuss foreign aid later in the week. Responding to this case, he says he is “very upset and very angry”. One of my colleagues observes it’s a sign that we’ve become “an overcivilised democracy”. He doesn’t think we can be a role model for a new Burma. I’m not so sure. My colleague has a point, as has Farage, but maybe such political correctness is a price we pay for our obsession with trying to get things right. I’m with Churchill on this: democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.

Poor laws

A friend of mine once admitted he’d stopped visiting poor countries because he couldn’t cope with “that thing where you get annoyed when poor people hassle you for money”. As we walk back to our hotel in the dark, a woman tries to sell me postcards. I protest I have no change and become irritated by her persistence as she follows me for half a mile through the streets of Yangon. In bed that night I lie awake, jet-lagged, reflecting on that woman with her red-stained teeth. What did she think of me, a rich foreigner from a faraway country?

Aid and abet

Paul from the Department for International Development wants to show us how British aid to Burma has made a difference. The military dictatorship spent barely £1.20 per person per year on health. We’re taken to a poor township and a clinic run by Frank, a Frenchman who works for the charity Médecins Sans Frontières. He’s been here for years doing his best to treat the legions of people with malaria, TB and diarrhoea. We meet a two-year-old boy called Lama who came to the clinic malnourished and with HIV. He’s doing better now, but still clings to his mother. Suddenly he smiles, grabs the microphone and falls backwards laughing. Enter Nigel Farage. How will he respond after hearing the story of little Lama? He can hardly deny him our aid. But Farage chides us for falling for the ministry’s stage-managed “showcase”. He argues that aid doesn’t work because it merely props up corrupt regimes and ends up in the hands of the wrong people. I recall Frank earnestly shaking my hand as we left the clinic: “Please tell the British people that their generosity is saving lives here.”

Goose bumps

For a radio editor, nothing quite compares to a foreign outside broadcast. In our studio in London, one feels in control. Here in a café on a foreign street, with our satellite connection perched precariously on a plastic box, everything feels fragile. I mentally prepare for the inevitable outrage from Radio 2 listeners, some of whom care little about a faraway country they have no interest in. “A faraway country”: a phrase that resonates with me as my mother is Czech. But the broadcast goes well and we get warm messages on Twitter and Facebook: “I cried when I heard that girl describe her time in that dark cell.” And: “I’m proud to hear that our money is spent to help these poor, dignified people.” Best of all: “Awesome show from Burma. I have goose bumps listening. The BBC have got this one right.”

Hero worship

As we pack up our equipment, a familiar face smiles at me from the street. It’s the woman selling postcards. I give her $10 and feel a little better. Yes, I know, I’m salving my conscience! Most of all, I’ve been moved by these brave people, crushed for many years, quietly confident they can be part of a better world. Witnessing the sheer pace of political change has been intoxicating, but they still have their work cut out. Our poet Zin Mar Aung says Aung San Suu Kyi is her inspiration. My hero is Zin Mar Aung and the thousands of other unknown people who were oppressed but not broken by the regime, and are determined to build a brighter future.

Phil Jones is editor of the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?