Doha Debates– Don't settle for a Divided World
Podcast / September 27 2022

Negotiating an American prisoner's release from Myanmar, Part 2

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This is part two of negotiator Mickey Bergman’s story about the American journalist Danny Fenster, who was serving an 11-year prison sentence in Myanmar.

In the first episode, Bergman described how much work it took to get to the gatekeepers. In this second part, he and his boss, Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, are finally in Myanmar for the secret talks.

Full Transcript

Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.

 

[SUSPENSEFUL INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC]

 

JENN WILLIAMS, HOST:
Hey everyone, welcome back to The Negotiators, a show from Doha Debates and Foreign Policy, where we try to understand all kinds of different negotiations by going back and looking at specific cases, telling stories and discussing what they mean. I’m your host, Jenn Williams. 

 

So this is part two of Mickey Bergman’s story about the American journalist Danny Fenster. If you didn’t hear part one, you should definitely pause here and go listen to the first episode of the season, and then come back and listen to this episode. I promise, we’ll still be right here when you’re ready. 

 

For those who did hear the episode, here’s a really quick refresher: Fenster worked as a journalist in Myanmar for several years. Then, in early 2021, he got caught up in the military coup that happened there and was arrested. That’s where Bergman comes in. He works for the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, which negotiates the release of prisoners and hostages around the world. They’ve done it in Iran, North Korea and a whole bunch of other places. Mickey’s boss is the former governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson. So, in the first episode, Mickey described how much hard work it takes—as well as connections and sometimes just good luck—to even get to the gatekeepers. In this case, it took months. But he and Governor Richardson are finally there, in Myanmar, about to meet with the commander-in-chief. OK, let’s get back to the story.

 

MICKEY BERGMAN: 

We achieved the first part, which is getting to the meeting. Now we had big challenge of, OK, how do we make this meeting successful? And the first thing we knew is that even when we meet with the commander-in-chief, he’s got to have the ministers and the staff in that meeting. We do not raise Danny Fenster in that meeting. We talk about COVID. We talk about the discussions we had with his ministers about humanitarian issues. And we keep that meeting that way. And towards the end of that meeting, the governor asks the commander-in-chief and says, “Can we spend just a few minutes, just you and I?” So that was plan number one, to make sure that we do that. 

 

The second thing, we knew at that point—let’s say we were successful and the governor has one-on-one meeting with the commander for just a few minutes. He had to achieve, in those few minutes, a connection with a person he’s never met before, and a personal attachment. And if he felt that that was working, then he can raise the request. If not, he doesn’t. There can always be another round. 

 

So how do we make that connection in a short time? We did our research, before, about the leader. We’ve watched a lot of his speeches. The way he conducts himself. Focused on his personality. What can we learn about his personality that we can give the governor so he can actually use this? It sounds manipulative, but it really isn’t. It’s genuine. It’s a genuine intention of getting to connect with somebody, not in order to fool them, not in order to manipulate them to something, but genuinely to make a connection. Because none of these are ever a one-time game. They’re always repeated games. There will always be other meetings. There will always be follow-ups. And so you really want to be genuine about this. 

 

And with this leader, one of the really interesting things that we know is that he is a very quiet individual. His voice doesn’t project. He doesn’t give bombastic speeches. He’s almost shy, a little bit, which is not what you expect from the head of a military that just did a coup and now is the head of the country. But we saw that as something interesting. 

 

And so when I prepared a little note for the governor—like talking points, handwritten, basically from my pad—I wrote four points. And the first one was to talk to the leader about, about his unique sense of leadership. And the governor basically told him, “Look, you know, General, I meet a lot of leaders. And I’ve met a lot of leaders around the world around my career over 30 years. You have a unique kind of leadership. You’re quiet. It’s a quiet leadership. And I know that people tell you that you need to be all charismatic and bombastic, but I’m telling you, this is actually really, really powerful. You should feel good about that.” And the governor said that—saying that to him, at that moment, the commander-in-chief took his glasses off, and they engaged in a really long personal conversation about how it feels to suddenly be a leader of a country that you didn’t intend to, necessarily. What does it mean on your family? A lot of personal stuff. And so they made that connection. 

 

When you read about a leader like that, or when you hear other people talk about him, and you think you’re going to meet a monster, and then you meet an individual, a complete individual. Very, very devout Buddhist. Personal. I’m not saying that to take away from everything that he’s responsible for, I’m just—this is just the complexities of human beings. You know, whether we agree with what they do, and of course, we don’t—but I want to break that sense of good and evil, because as you work in this field, you realize the world is way more gray and people who are responsible for terrible things doesn’t mean that they’re all evil. You know, it doesn’t clear them of the responsibilities of the horrible things that they’re responsible for. But when you meet them as individuals, you know, these are typically religious people in Myanmar. They’re Buddhists, they’re devout Buddhist, they’re friendly, they’re nice, they’re well-intentioned, except for the fact that they’re also responsible somehow for very terrible things. 

 

So they’ve had that connection. The second point that the governor talked to him about, he told him, “You know, General, I’m getting criticized for coming here to see you. I’m a politician. It’s OK. I’m used to it. I have thick skin. So let them criticize. I’m doing this because I love the people of Myanmar and I want to be helpful to the people of Myanmar. But if you want to help me with my critics, there is something you can do.” And that was the third point. He said, “There is this young American guy here, Danny Fenster. If you give him to me, you’ll shut up all the critics.” 

 

The leader obviously knew about Danny. He asked the governor a bunch of questions about Danny, about Danny’s wife. He mentioned that it was raised to him by some of the other conduits. And after a little bit of a back-and-forth, he asked the governor, “Is this a big deal?” And the governor said, “Yeah, it will be a big story in the United States, but I don’t need you to do it for that. I want you to do it for me.” And at that point, the leader looked at him and said, “You know, I’m going to give him, and I’m going to give him to you. And I’m going to do it here. But it’s going to take me time.” And the governor looked at him and said—they laughed, and he said, “Well, I have my plane here for two more days.” And the leader said, “No, no, it will take me more than that.” And the governor said, “What? What do you think?” And he says—and the leader said, “Well, two weeks, maybe a month.” And the governor said, “Let’s do it less.” And the leader said, “Will you come back for it?” And the governor said, “Absolutely.” He said, “OK, let me work on that.” 

 

And the fourth point was actually very important to me—and I told the governor, only if you’re successful and everything to that point—was to raise…we had a, a young woman that worked for us for the years that we’ve done the engagement in Myanmar, Aye Moe. She’s a very good friend of mine, because I got to know her over the years, and she’s just a fantastic young woman from Myanmar. Yeah, she’s local in Myanmar, politically active, and has been arrested in one of the demonstrations and has been thrown into jail. And I gave the governor a picture of me, her and the governor from one of the trainings that we did, and in the back her name and where she’s from so he can identify. And the governor said, “Look, there’s, there’s this young woman, she used to work for us. She’s a teacher. She did a lot of the training focused on women. Would you mind releasing her to me? You know, she needs to be back with her family.” And the leader didn’t know who she was, but he started asking, “What did she do?” And the governor said, “Well, she probably agitated you guys in the streets.” And they were laughing about this. And he said, “She’ll be at your hotel tomorrow.”

 

Altogether, that meeting was about 45 minutes. We thought it would be five. It was 45 minutes, which was a good indication. And from that, we went, we went back to the hotel, and then we flew to Yangon, because the next day we were scheduled to meet with the US embassy in Yangon, the ambassador there. And we asked the US ambassador in Yangon to call in about 10 ambassadors from other countries, allies of the US, so we can brief them about our humanitarian conversations and COVID stuff. And we invited the UN agencies to come there, as well. 

 

Of course, when we get to the embassy, we first meet only with the ambassador, the US ambassador, just to kind of debrief. And we get into that meeting, and we scripted it. We knew exactly what we’re going to say, what we’re not going to say. We talked about COVID. We talked about humanitarian assistance. And at the end of that meeting, as we were walking out of that meeting towards the conference room where the rest of the, the ambassadors were waiting, the ambassador asked the governor, “What about Danny Fenster?” And the governor looks at him and he says—and this was rehearsed before—he said, “You”—meaning State Department—”asked us not to raise Danny Fenster.” And the ambassador said, “Yeah, I know, but did you talk about it?” And, and the governor repeated that line. “You have asked us not to raise Danny Fenster.” And the reason why it was so important for us to do that, first of all, because that was the request. And second, because the agreement with the leader, commander-in-chief, was: we cannot tell anybody that he’s working on it. That was our first priority. 

 

But as we’re on the plane on the way back, we also start seeing a lot of the social media about our visit and criticizing us, of course, because we left, we didn’t bring Danny Fenster home, we gave legitimacy to the leader—all of that, all the stuff that we expected. And I texted Brian from the plane and I said, “Hey, we’re airborne right now. Can we talk on Monday so I can debrief you?” And this is on signal, so I can see that he, he received it, but he didn’t respond. And the governor was asking me, like, “What do you think is happening on this?” And I said, “I think that the narrative—that we have failed him—they believe it. Maybe even the US government told him that.” Which we know after the fact was the case. The family received a message from the US government that says that Governor Richardson’s visit was a setback to Danny. And the governor asked me, “Are you—do you want to go to Detroit to meet with the family and just to explain to them what happens?” And I told him, “Look, every fiber of my being wants to do that, because I can’t. It’s hard for me to know that they’re so mad at us right now. Not for a good reason.” But I said, “I think we shouldn’t.” And we agreed that we shouldn’t, because if we are right about what was happening, in a week, it’s not going to matter. We’re going to have Danny, and everything is going to be done. But if I go to Detroit and I have a bad meeting with them, they tell us we’re off the case and we don’t have a mandate to go and pick him up.

 

The next few days were very difficult, because we just got slammed everywhere. And Danny’s trial in Myanmar was accelerated. And he was convicted and received a sentence. I think was 11 years or 14 years. I don’t remember. And everybody blamed us for this. Not only did we not get him, but we actually got him the maximum sentence. And that’s difficult to approach. But we also knew that that’s why the leader needed time. He needed to finish the trial. He needed to convict him. And by the way, the harsher the sentence, the bigger and grand—more grandiose the gesture of a pardon is. So it’s, it’s kind of counterintuitive when you feel, as a family, like, “Oh my God, 14 years, 11 years in jail.” But it is a dramatic buildup. But we couldn’t tell the family, and we couldn’t tell our own government. And we waited.

 

JENN: You’re listening to The Negotiators, a partnership between Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. We’ll be right back.

 

[SUSPENSEFUL MUSIC]

 

JENN: Welcome back to The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams. So, before the break, you heard Mickey Bergman describe the connection that Governor Richardson had forged with Myanmar’s military leader, and the promise that he made to free Danny Fenster. But as Bergman tells it, the extraction is often the hardest part. OK, back to the story. 

 

MICKEY: On November 9th, I receive a message from the chief protocol, who’s my contact with the government in Myanmar, to say that our sensitive request is ready. “Can you be in Myanmar on Monday the 15th”—so six days later—”to pick him up?” And then we start racing and putting together the second mission, the extraction mission, which we just realized is going to be way more complicated than the first one. First, because the first one, we had months to prepare. And second, because now, we had basically four days to put it together, because if we needed to be in Myanmar on Monday, we needed to take off from the US on Saturday. 

 

We didn’t have a plane. So we needed to find a charter. Initially I thought, “Oh, we’ll use the same plane we used before.” That plane was not available. And you start looking for a private jet in the Middle East that is willing to fly to Myanmar, in an anti-Muslim government. It’s complicated. And eventually we found a plane that is owned by a Lebanese person. We don’t work with the owner. It goes through an operator that was willing to do this. We had to fly commercially from New York to Doha, then have a private jet from Doha to Myanmar, because there’s no commercial flights back to Doha, and then a commercial flight back to New York. I wish we could do private jet the whole way, but we don’t have that kind of funding. [CHUCKLES] We barely had the funding for that leg, because this was a second private-jet thing, and we’re not a big organization. 

 

A day before we took off, the owner of the plane sent a query to us, saying, “Why are there four people in the manifesto going in and five on the way back?” And the operator responded to him, “Oh, it’s a prisoner they’re bringing back.” And at that point, the owner flipped and said, “Wait a minute,” because in his mind, we’re going guns blazing in order to rescue somebody using his plane! And so he, he demanded that we have a letter from the US government to say that this is legitimate. And I had the unfortunate pleasure to let him know that he can’t get that letter, because the US government doesn’t know [LAUGHS] that we’re doing this. But I would sign an affidavit that there’s no weapons involved, and that before the prisoner boards the plane, I will provide, in English, his release letters. 

 

The second challenge for us was: we didn’t have Danny’s passport. We didn’t have his full name as it appears on the passport. And we need to book him on a flight, commercial flight from Doha, back to New York. And I can’t ask for his passport from the US government, because they don’t know that we’re going. And I can’t ask it from his family either. So the only thing we could do is ask it from the junta, and they delivered. So we managed to solve that problem. 

 

And then because nothing can be simple, we had the COVID problem. We needed to put Danny Fenster on a commercial flight to the US that required a PCR test, a negative PCR test. We knew he was not vaccinated. We also knew that even if we convince the Burmese to give him a PCR test, it’s not going to be accepted by the CDC. So they won’t—we won’t be able to board him. And we only had four hours on the tarmac in between flights. And again, we couldn’t ask the US government to help. So the solution for that was to rely on our Qatari allies, who we have a very good relationship with. They support us as the Richardson Center, and they partner with us. But again, we couldn’t tell them in advance what was happening. I could just give them the heads up that, at a certain day, I might need to call them in the middle of the night and ask them for something. 

 

So when we took off that Saturday towards Myanmar, we didn’t know exactly what to expect. We knew we were confident they were giving him to us, because otherwise they wouldn’t send me his passport, they wouldn’t send me the release papers, all of these things that they did. So we knew that we were going to get him, but there was no agreement or no talk about how it’s going to look like. And that was something that we were worried about, because will they call him in and do this humiliating kind of media event around it? Things like that. So we were trying to figure out how to mitigate that. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter, because we bring him home, but we still want to make sure that it’s done right. 

 

And when we went there, we knew that we have another meeting with the commander-in-chief before the, the actual handover. And we had one objective for that meeting: not to screw it up. Because at that point we have him. We just can’t make any mistakes. And so we rehearsed and rehearsed on what we say, what we don’t say. And we had that meeting. And again, the governor pulled off the commander-in-chief one-on-one, because he wanted to thank him and he wanted to be respectful, and because he wanted to follow up, like, they did make a connection. And in that meeting, the governor asked, you know, “So how is it going to happen? Are you going to bring him here? Are there going to be like videos, cameras?” And the leader said, “No, no, no, that would be not dignified. He’s waiting for you at the airport.” And that’s when it truly struck me; the religious convictions of the, of the leader. He had an opportunity to make this a big splash. He didn’t.

 

It’s a 10-minute drive from the palace to the airport. We go to the airport, and that’s when we saw Danny for the first time. That’s when you really know that you have the person, because you don’t believe it until it’s there. 

 

Danny seemed completely confused. He had no idea what was happening, because they picked him up that morning from the prison, which is about five hours’ drive, down in Yangon. They’ve shackled him, both legs and arms. Nobody spoke English, so he had no idea. He told us that in his mind, he thought that he’s going to be sent to a prison, a different prison, where he would disappear. But then they made him wait at the airport, so he figured that something was going on. 

 

And then we saw him, and I operated very quickly. And I saw the governor, I saw him exchange a few words. And then I was to grab Danny very quickly and take him to the plane, and let the governor do all the goodbyes and all of that stuff. And as I was taking Danny to the plane, I called his brother and just said, “Hey, Brian, I have Danny here. You have one minute to talk to him.” They spoke a little bit. And then I, I took him up to the plane. And Danny, who’s—he’s a very funny guy [CHUCKLES]—and he’s like, “Mickey, I have—I need to ask you a question. I’m sorry. I just—who is this guy?” And I look and said, “You mean Governor Richardson?” He’s like, “That’s what I thought. But I was told last week that he’s the reason I got the sentencing.” And I said, “Well, you were told a lot of things that were not accurate. But it doesn’t matter. We’ll have time to debrief. We’re going home.” 

 

As we took off from Myanmar and left the airspace, I called from the pilot’s satellite phone to our Qatari friends and I said, “We have an American prisoner. We have four hours in Doha. We need you to provide us an ambulance to do a PCR test, to do a wellness check, so he can board a commercial flight to the US.” To their credit, they were fantastic. They immediately said, “Of course we will do that.” And then they said, “But we have a request.” I said, “What is that?” “Would the governor be willing to do a two-minute interview on the tarmac with Al Jazeera when, when they land?” And I looked—and this is a tiny plane—and I just look at the, at the governor and Danny. Danny’s, like, in the back, he’s like, “Oh, I’ll do that!” And I said, “You got a deal.”

 

The day we left Myanmar was November 15th, and as we took off, I also raised a glass and wished Governor Richardson a happy birthday. It was his birthday [CHUCKLES], and Danny couldn’t believe it, that that was what he was doing on his birthday. But I also told Danny, it’s like, you know, “You’ve been, you’ve been in prison for six months. All you had was like rice and water. This is a private jet. There might be some fancy food here. Just take it slow. Do us a favor. I don’t need you to go on, on a seizure here.” And he’s like, “No, no, of course. Of course.” And [LAUGHS]—and of course, he got a big cocktail, shrimp, beer and coffee. I was like…[LAUGHS]. 

 

We arrived in Doha. They had the ambulance there. They gave him the test. Thank God he was negative to COVID. I think that’s when the crew of the plane realized that this is an awkward flight that they were on, because they didn’t know what was happening before. But they saw all these lights, and, you know, it was like paparazzi all around. And [CHUCKLES] this extraction trip was a, a Lebanese plane with two Lebanese pilots, flying an American team—including a former military special ops from Israel—to rescue a Jewish journalist from an anti-Muslim government. And we told him that, you know, [CHUCKLES] it’s a big deal.

 

[UPBEAT MUSIC]

 

We had a long wait in Doha. I took him shopping there, because, my God, he had, he had like, you know, flip-flops that were falling apart. His clothes were just a mess. They gave him a big, clear plastic bag with all of his possessions—including, by the way, US-dollar cash that he had, like $10,000 in cash that he had when he was leaving. They gave him everything back, but in a clear plastic bag. So he was walking in the terminal there [CHUCKLES] with this. So we got him a bag. Funny enough, I told him, “Look, we can, we can buy you some clothes and some shoes.” And we browsed a little bit. And then he said, “You know, Mickey, I think it’s going to look better when I show up in JFK the way I look right now.” And I was like [LAUGHS], “You know what, Danny? I really like you.” [LAUGHS]

 

We organized the press event for, for the November 16th when we were landing in JFK. We asked his family to wait at the TWA hotel there because we didn’t—JFK was not very excited to have a press conference at the arrivals. And we were arriving commercially, so we were [CHUCKLES]—we’re just walking through immigration there, like, any…you know, an immigration officer looks at Danny Fenster and is like, “Your reason for your trip? Was it business or pleasure?” And, like, what do you answer for that? [CHUCKLES] After six months of prison? And we just walked out there, and then the moment of him meeting with the family was, was very emotional. 

 

When they meet him at JFK, it’s all about them. We step aside. The only exchange I had with Brian on this—he hugged me, he said, “Thank you.” And I said, “At any given point, if you want to debrief about everything, we can do that.”

 

And I followed up with him a little bit later with this, and he said, “Look, I really need to just put this whole thing behind me.” And I said, “I respect that.” Danny, on the other hand, was very curious, because for him, don’t forget, he’s been in six, six months. He had no idea of any of this. And so we set a time. We said, “You know, you know, when you come to D.C., we’ll sit, we’ll talk through everything.” And we did. He came over, and we spent like two hours and we went through everything that took place on this. [CHUCKLES] Over New Year’s, Danny sent me a text and he said, “Hey, you know, Mickey, I just want to—please send the governor and your team, everybody, you know, Happy New Year from me and thanks, you know, for my freedom and stuff.” That’s, that’s Danny’s sense of humor.

 

One of the things that this case made so clear to me was that we fail when we think about negotiations. We think of negotiations as a give-and-take, as a transaction in many ways. And I think we need to think about negotiations as our ability to influence somebody else’s behavior. The commander-in-chief—we didn’t give him anything in return for Danny Fenster. More than that, he didn’t ask for anything. It was based on a relationship. And yes, you can say, “Well, you gave him legitimacy, because you came to visit.” That is true. But it wasn’t a transaction that way. And I think that’s something that we tend to forget about negotiations. We tend to forget about this. Our own diplomats tend to forget about this. So much of it is about the personal relationships that you can build. Sometimes it’s years in the making. Sometimes it’s in moments. And in this case, it was both, because the credibility that the governor had that allowed us to go in to have the meeting was based on the relationships that he had over the years. And the ability to actually be successful in that meeting was based on the relationship that he was able to build with the leader within 45 minutes of a meeting.

 

Personally, for me—in terms of my personality, I’m an empath. And I’m very aware of it. So, yes, when you talk to a family, like, I take on the pain. I take on those emotions. I also use it to my advantage, because I’m aware that that’s how I am. That’s what drives me. We’re currently handling 18 cases simultaneously. That is 18 families. And I know them all very, very well. I spend a lot of time with them on the phone. I know not only the crisis that they’re handling with their loved ones being in prison, but—life happens. They have crises at home. They have health issues, they have financial crises. And you know that; you carry that a lot. 

 

It’s interesting in the set-up between me and Governor Richardson. He spends very little time with families for exactly the reason that I spent all this time with them. I get the emotional attachment. He needs to make sure that he has a little bit of a buffer from that, because he needs to operate clearly on things. And sometimes in these negotiations, walking away is a tactic. It’s not literally walking away, and you can’t do it if you’re emotionally attached. 

 

It’s great when things have happy endings, like seeing Danny reunite and hugging his family for the first time on November 16th was extremely emotional. I actually had…my daughter came up to JFK for that—she’s eight—because I wanted her to witness that and to see that, to understand why I’m gone for so long and to understand what it is that I do. But it also—the curse of it is that when you’re not successful, like, you stay awake in the middle of the night thinking about this. I’m thinking about my daughter, and I’m thinking what it would feel like for her to be locked up somewhere. And you feel terrible about this, because every day that you haven’t been able to bring somebody home is a failure. And you know what that means to the families.

 

JENN: Mickey Bergman is the vice president and executive director of The Richardson Center for Global Engagement. A book that he’s writing about his negotiations around the world will be published by Hachette’s Center Street imprint next year. 

 

We asked the State Department about the issues that Bergman raised in his story. But no one there wanted to comment on the record. We did hear in writing from one person who could be described only as a senior US official working on Asia policy. The statement said, “From day one of Danny’s detention, our teams in Burma and the United States worked tirelessly to reunite Danny with his family. We are grateful to all who helped secure Danny’s release, including those within the US government, members of congress, partner countries and Governor Richardson.”

 

The Negotiators is a partnership between Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. Our production team includes Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Claudia Teti, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Mehta, Amjad Atallah and Dan Ephron. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show’s senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton and James Wolley for helping create the show. 

 

Foreign Policy is a magazine of news and ideas from around the world, and we encourage you to subscribe. Just go to foreignpolicy.com/subscribe. Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation, where the most urgent issues or our time are discussed and debated. Tune in at dohadebates.com.

 

On the next episode, we’ll hear about Canada’s historic agreement with members of its Indigenous community—and the 15 years of legal battles it took to get there.

 

CANADIAN WOMAN:

By this time, they were going into care at higher rates than in residential schools, family separations were happening. And I thought, “Oh my God, we’re gonna have to take these guys to court!”

  

That’s next week on The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams.