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Downloading the Burma uprising: Did it help?

The ruling junta cracked down on protesting monks anyway, but it knew the world was watching.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 3, 2007

Oakland, Calif.

When protesters took to the streets of Burma two decades ago, activists relied on fax machines to tell the world what was going on. In last month's uprising in the isolated police state, they photographed and uploaded the demonstrations via cellphone. Images and videos bounced from Internet cafes to foreign blogs and international media, then sometimes back again to Burma (also known as Myanmar) by satellite TV and shortwave radio.

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The leap in technology didn't prevent the military from choosing – as it did in 1988 – to launch a violent crackdown. But it did make it harder for the regime to act quickly and secretly, say Internet-savvy activists.

The citizen reports and short videos of the protests and initial crackdown helped build sympathy in the international community, which could in the long term increase the pressure other nations put on Burma to ease its response, they say. Already, it may have softened – or at least delayed – the initial response from Burma's security forces.

"They know a lot of people can take photos – that's why they didn't shoot as much," says a veteran of the 1988 crackdown who is a California-based editor with the Mandalay Gazette, an ethnic newspaper that covers Burma. "But now they've closed everything down, and I'm very worried about everybody inside [the country] now." The editor requested anonymity because he feared it could put several people abroad in jeopardy.

On Friday, the military launched a crackdown against the protests – and at the same time took dramatic measures to shut down cellphone and Internet traffic to the outside world. It's a move, activists and observers say, that shows how keenly the generals felt their temporary inability to control news coming out from Burma.

"This is the first time I know of that the state decided to turn the lights out on the Internet before they did their bad acts because they realized the power of brave citizen journalists on the ground," says John Palfrey, executive director of the Berman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

The government says 10 people have died, but citizen reports and the few foreign journalist accounts suggest the toll is certainly much higher. Burmese expatriates say the cellphones of friends, family, and informants still in Burma are no longer working.

The Internet shutdown was practically complete, according to Reporters Without Borders, leaving access to only embassies, some international organizations, and a few journalists with satellite phones.

But simply severing Internet links to the outside world isn't a painless proposition even for an isolated nation like Burma, which has several thousand broadband connections mostly for businesses, according to a 2005 study by the OpenNet Initiative.

"I don't think they can totally ban all of the Internet traffic," says Aung Din, policy director for the US Campaign for Burma. a human rights group based in Washington. "If they break down the system, it would hurt their business, too."

Yet the broad silencing of the Internet came after it was clear the regime couldn't – or wouldn't – selectively block the stream of reports about the peaceful protests.