New media brings Burmese crisis to the eyes of the world

by Caitlin Fitzsimmons, The Guardian

As this week's latest round of protests and violence erupts in Burma, there is a terrible sense of history repeating itself.

The images of Buddhist monks in their saffron robes pitted against the junta's brutal military police are upsetting - and sadly familiar to anyone who has followed recent Burmese history.

Yet there is one thing that makes this situation different - the advent of the internet and video-capable mobile phones means that the eyes of the world are on Burma more than ever before.

In 1988 monks, civilians and students poured on to the streets in the tens of thousands calling for human rights and democracy. The protests were brutally crushed, with the military rulers giving orders for shots to be fired directly into the crowd rather than in the air.

Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's party won free and fair elections in 1990 but she was never permitted to take power and has spent most of the intervening years under house arrest.

Now as I sit in the office watching the streaming news service on Sky and BBC, the situation seems very bad indeed - the most recent news is that soldiers have fired warning shots above the heads of 70,000 protesters in Rangoon. The death toll so far is at least eight and hundreds of monks have been arrested after monasteries were raided last night.

We know about this because of the presence of international media but also because of the efforts of Burmese citizens who are using email, blogs and mobile phones to send reports, eye-witness accounts, photographs and video footage to the outside world.

Internet communications in Burma are scarce and unreliable. Only 1% of the population has access to the internet and the authorities are moving swiftly to close cyber-cafes down.

Burma's internet policies are among the most repressive in the world, according to Reporters Without Borders. The regime filters opposition websites and forces internet cafes to capture screen images every five minutes in order to monitor user activity.

Yet, a stream of blogs and mobile phone videos has leaked out of the country, with Burma's intrepid citizen-reporters even using gaining access to foreign embassies where the internet links are less restricted.

It would be naive to think that international embarrassment will deter the military junta that runs Burma from acting to crush dissent, as the events of the past few days have shown. It's doubly unlikely since China and Russia forced the United Nations Security Council to water down its response, blocking sanctions, instead expressing "concern" and urging "restraint".

Yet, it's equally obvious that the regime is not immune to public opinion - otherwise they wouldn't be investing so much effort into trying to control the communications system.

The flow of communications to the outside world can only benefit the citizens of Burma and the brave individuals who are risking life and limb to highlight the plight of their country deserve nothing but admiration. It's no easy job, but technology has made it a whole lot easier than it was in 1988.

article originally published at http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/organgrinder/2007/09/new_media_brings_burma_to_the.h....

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey