Downloading the Burma uprising: Did it help?

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

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.

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.

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.

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.' "

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