Burma -The Sound Barrier, by Tony Russell (1972)

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) was conducting a worldwide survey on the effects of aircraft noise in the vicinity of airports. It would appear that they were having difficulties in eliciting any response from the authorities in Burma, so they asked the local senior representatives of BOAC (me) and Pan Am (Don Olsen) to make a personal approach on their behalf.

Since 1961, Burma has been ruled continuously by a military junta. Concepts such as ‘consensus’, ‘democratic process’ and ‘referendum’ do not feature prominently in the military vocabulary and I would ask you to bear this in mind as this story unfolds.

Don and I duly presented ourselves at the offices of the deputy head of aviation – an army colonel – at the ministry in downtown Rangoon. After the usual preliminary courtesies, there followed a full hour where we explained the role of ICAO and its specific intentions on this occasion. All this was accompanied by handouts and charts that we had prepared, held up by junior army personnel, which showed noise footprints (decibel contour lines) around Mingladon airport. We then went on to explain things like aircraft departure procedures, curfews, etc.

During this time more and more senior people started to come into this large conference room, until there were about two dozen or so military personnel - all showing signs of increasing puzzlement on their faces as the presentation wore on.

There was one particular village, of about 7,000 residents, that fell within one of the high-noise contours and one of our tasks was to find out from the government – being signatories to the ICAO Convention – how they proposed alleviating the noise problem for the affected villagers. At that stage a Very Important Person at the side of the room muttered something to the deputy head, and we were asked to come back the following week.

During this time Don and I spoke frequently, debating whether or not we had inadvertently transgressed some protocol and were about to be thrown out of the country.

The day duly arrived and we returned to the ministry to be met by the deputy head and a dozen senior army personnel – all smiling and obviously very pleased with themselves.

We were then treated to a 15-minute speech, extolling the virtues of the revolutionary council and its international responsibilities, particularly, in this case, with regard to addressing ICAO issues. The problem of the aircraft noise affecting the village near the airport had been resolved to their satisfaction – all the villagers were to be relocated 15 miles further away and the village demolished!

The relocation of the villagers did in fact take place about six months later - but not for noise reasons. The army requisitioned that village in order to expand one of their bases, war in that part of the world being a growth industry!

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