Saturday, December 6, 2008

Technology and protest in Myanmar



An ordinary telephone SIM card costs just two US dollars in Bangkok. In Myanmar, less than an hour away by plane, it costs 1800 US dollars. This in a country where a surgeon is lucky to take home 100 US dollars a month.

et there are more mobile phones in the towns and cities of this closed country than its army led government would like. And mobile phones were key instruments in the organisation and news dissemination of last September's pro democracy protests led by monks - illustrating exactly why the leading Junta fear the access to the outside world that technology offers.

The September protests were caught by the countless mobile phones of ordinary people or shot at great risk by the hidden video cameras of undercover reporters and sent out of the country within minutes through the internet. Smuggled video tapes found their way to mainstream media around the world.

Mobile video footage of a Japanese journalist shot at close range
Al-Jazeera film
Scenes of violence shown on Al-Jazeera
Unprecedented coverage

For a few days Burmese monks led civilian protesters on the streets of Yangon, and the international community watched, electrified by the unprecedented images of a country that had remained behind its own bamboo curtain for years. At first, the Myanmar government was paralysed with indecision. Then it did what most feared it would - it called in the troops.

And still the cameras rolled, still the images were loaded onto YouTube. A Japanese cameraman, shot at point blank range by a soldier, troops shooting into crowds of civilians, police beating monks with iron bars, and dragging off peaceful demonstrators holding banners.

Having their story told
The world was watching Myanmar for the first time in decades and the Burmese people, forcibly isolated for so long, were exultantly aware that they were not forgotten. "It's almost an existential desire for the Burmese to have their story told," says one journalist who has written and reported from the country for more than 20 years. She was there during the protests last year, and she was there when the retribution came.

Just a few weeks ago, the government of Myanmar apprehended leaders of the protests, monks, journalists, and bloggers and sentenced them to up to 65 years in prison. The bloggers were accused of violating the Electronics Act which regulates electronic communications.

The sentences are breathtakingly harsh, and they send a clear message from the government - that it will brook no opposition from within during the run-up to the elections planned for 2010. But there is also a hidden message in the single-minded way people who sent images of human rights violations out of the country have been hunted down: that the government too can use technology to its own benefit. People have been traced through their email and mobile phones and internet servers have been examined for "improper use". 

Cat and mouse
The government has even mined the very same images of the violent put-down of the demonstrators to locate the shops, doorways and homes where people may have taken the footage and then made group arrests to find the photographers.

But as the journalist says, "it's a cat and mouse game. The government blocks the technology in one way and people find alternatives to go around it. There are proxy servers springing up all the won't stop. The people will always find a way of making their voice heard. It's always been that way in Burma."

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