Downloading the Burma uprising: Did it help?
The ruling junta cracked down on protesting monks anyway, but it knew the world was watching.
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Young Burmese had grown adept at avoiding government surveillance and firewalls at cybercafes and businesses with the help of so-called "tunneling software." They uploaded photos and videos to file-sharing systems commonly used to swap music. A network of dissident news sites and blogs, run mainly by expatriates around the world, disseminated the footage and text messages from those inside the country. That type of information has been reduced to practically nothing since Friday, say expatriates who operate those sites.Skip to next paragraph
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The efforts spread some of the uprising's iconic images, including that of a Japanese news photographer, Kenji Nagai, who was shot by a soldier but attempted to take more photos before succumbing to his wounds. The footage has put Japan at the forefront of diplomatic pressure on the regime.
Discussion boards on foreign websites also allowed those inside and outside Burma to swap information and work together to dispel rumors and propaganda.
Such electronic outreach carries huge risks for those in Burma.
"I was one of those activist leaders during [Burmese protests in] 1974. Things haven't changed much," says Dr. Tun Kyaw Nyein, a dean at North Carolina Central University in Durham. "We always hoped that somebody would know what is going on – the injustice we are facing, the odds we are facing. I think the same thing goes here.... I can ascertain a desperate hope by many of these people that the world will intervene."
Those formerly in touch with these Burmese bloggers fear for their safety now that the regime is violently attacking monks and rounding up their leaders. They worry that the military could bring to bear its reportedly extensive Internet censorship tools to track them down.
The country has implemented "one of the world's most restrictive regimes of Internet control," according to the OpenNet Initiative study. The digital censors blocked nearly 11 percent of pages tested and filtered 85 percent of e-mail service provider sites.
Burmese control over the Internet has been helped with filtering software from a California-based company named Fortinet, according to both the report and Reporters Without Borders.
New monitoring technologies, however, can also be turned against the regime to corroborate reports of human rights violations. Satellite imagery has upheld some stories filtering out of eastern Burma in recent years of the military forcing the relocation of villages, according to the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project in Washington.
The technology is limited by the weather – cloud cover can obscure views – as well as spotty high-resolution satellite coverage and slow turnaround times for images. But even on fast-moving events like the uprising, the technology can be helpful. The group has acquired one close-up urban view from Monday morning showing vehicles clustered around monasteries and large buildings, with the streets devoid of traffic.
"The combination" of satellite imagery and on-the-ground reporting, says Aung Din, "can show the world that these tragic events are really happening in Burma, and to tell the Burma junta, 'We are watching you from the sky.' "