Blogging in Burma

In an age where technology connects most of the world, the East Asian country of Burma stands as one of the few exceptions to the rule. After undergoing a military coup in 1962, Burma has been run by an isolationist military junta that brutally rules the country; its human rights abuses have been well documented by groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and political activity, both on and off the Internet, is regularly suppressed by the government. However, with the advent of Web 2.0, or Web sites that emphasize social networking and a sense of community between users, it has become increasingly harder for isolationist countries to stay as such, and the recent demonstrations in Burma are a prime example.
Peaceful demonstrations began on Aug. 19 when the Burmese government dropped fuel subsidies, resulting in massive jumps in fuel and food prices. The Burmese government responded by violently cracking down on the initial protestors. From there, the situation escalated rapidly, leading to the Sept. 24 protest in Yangon, attended by an estimated 30,000 to 100,000 protesters and monks, making it the largest Burmese protest in 20 years. The Burmese government responded by sending soldiers into the city and over two days, the military violently ended the demonstrations, leaving an untold number dead.
If the Burmese government had its way, it is likely no one would have heard about the protests in Yangon and resulting violent crackdown, but thanks to the Burmese online community, video and photos of the crackdown taken by them spread online at a breakneck pace. It is a testament to the power of Web 2.0 that the resulting online presence helped greatly in increasing the profile of the story, putting global attention on a country whose government actively tried to avoid it.
The fact that blogs offer a free space for any number of people to discuss political events and offer their opinions provides for more varied coverage of the events in general, said journalism professor Bonnie Bucqueroux. This opportunity for anybody to disseminate information puts fewer limits on where news comes from and in turn, makes coverage of events like those in Burma more powerful. “[The Internet] allows more minority voices to be heard as well, which I think is critically important,” said Bucqueroux. “All too often in our culture, causes are portrayed on the basis of left or right, when there are actually 15, 20, 30 different viewpoints, and the web allows more people to have a voice.”
[bucqueroux3]As word on the demonstrations entered the news cycle, activist groups followed similar methods to bring more attention to the Burma protestors. For recent Leeds University graduate Johnny Chatterton, the coordinator between advocacy group Burma Campaign UK and Facebook group “Support the Monks’ Protest in Burma,” the benefits of using Facebook have been apparent.
“[Facebook has] been very useful in reaching a wide audience. We passed the 400,000 member mark on Facebook and we have just launched a new video on our YouTube site showing the protests around the world [on Oct. 6],” said Chatterton.
Many in the media have posited about how the social interconnectability of Web sites like Facebook and YouTube would revolutionize the political process by democratizing the flow of information in the online age, but proof had yet to be seen until the demonstrations began. After the crackdown began, groups like Burma Campaign UK and Amnesty International, along with numerous grassroots activists, used Facebook to connect and organize events with people across the globe and push the issue of Burma onto the global stage.
Much of the initial push in the online movement for Burma can be credited to the Facebook group “Support the Monks’ Protest in Burma.” The group is one of the largest political groups on Facebook, with more than 425,000 members. Putting that in perspective, the group “Barack Obama (One Million Strong for Barack),” the most prominent pro-Obama group on Facebook, has 380,000 members.
University of British Columbia freshman Alex Bookbinder formed the group to support the Burma demonstrations when they began, but once news of the Burmese government attacking protestors broke, group membership numbers skyrocketed, catching the attention of many, including Chatterton – he contacted Bookbinder and joined the group soon after.
“I first got involved with the Facebook group because I wanted to do something about what was happening in Burma. After a few days, [Burma Campaign UK] got in touch with me and suggested I come into their offices to work closely with them and make sure the Facebook group is up to date,” said Chatterton. In addition to acting as a liaison between the two groups, Chatterton also spends his time at Burma Campaign UK generating ideas for events and getting prominent British figures involved in the movement.
Thanks to Burma Campaign UK, the Facebook group has played a prominent role in the protest movement, coordinating numerous international events including global demonstrations throughout Europe and Asia on Oct. 3 and Oct. 24. The group also promotes several external campaigns in the movement, including “The Dirty/Clean List,” a secondary campaign run by Burma Campaign UK that protests against corporations that invest in Burma. The group held an event on Oct. 9 protesting oil company Chevron’s involvement in the country.
International relations sophomore John Simpkins, who also is a member of the “Support The Monks’ Protest in Burma” group, agrees the effect of social networking on Burma is significant.
“Information technology has played a pivotal role in the ability of Burmese citizens and the ability of independent journalists to expose the atrocities being committed there, despite efforts by the Burmese government to impose an Orwellian regime of information control. This demonstrates both the adaptability and vital nature of an open Internet and the proliferation of mobile telephony,” Simpkins said. “Whether or not this affects the situation on the ground in Burma is dependent upon policy makers worldwide, but hopefully the increased transparency of the situation as a result of technology garners some attention on the world stage.”
[chiu]However, the protests have not been without their risks. In a country that few foreign journalists cover, Burmese bloggers quickly took up the role of journalists, thanks to the proliferation of Internet access. Though private Internet access is still lacking, public Internet access has been fairly accessible in the country in recent years, as the number of netcafes and blogs boomed. However, the Burmese government has kept a tight leash on citizens’ access; the only two Internet service providers in the country are government-owned, and surveillance of online traffic is common. With the degree of control that Burma exerts over citizens, its response to bloggers was accordingly harsh.
After Burmese bloggers managed to subvert the regime’s safeguards to get photos and video of demonstrations online, Internet and telephone access was completely cut off until Oct. 6 and many Burmese bloggers have been tracked, threatened or arrested for disseminating information about the demonstrations. Many protestors are still missing since demonstrations ended and are thought to have fled the country. Thousands of other protestors were not so lucky and are currently in government custody. Bloggers also have had to watch for direct violence against them; Japanese photojournalist Kenji Nagai was killed by soldiers while he was covering the first days of demonstrations on Sept. 27. The regime’s quick response of shutting down the Internet to prevent the rest of the world from hearing the voices of the protestors shows the power bloggers and online grassroots activists hold, said Bucqueroux.
“We’re hoping that the Internet in Burma allows the people within the country to organize and also, we hope it’ll get to the point where they can share it with the outside world. But it shows you that when it’s a technological thing like the Internet, governments can step in and snip the wire and it’s gone and that’s really frightening,” said Bucqueroux.
Even with these roadblocks, the Burmese blogging community’s accomplishments are still significant, especially considering how limited their resources were. Armed with cameras and video-recording cell phones, the Burmese blogging community covered the demonstrations with photos and video and created a page on Wikipedia to follow any developments. Prominent Burmese blogger Ko Htike, said to be a student in London, published many of the photos he received from Burmese sources on his blog, and they were picked up by media outlets like CNN and Getty Images, along with images from other bloggers.
In addition to the Burmese blogging community, various online news outlets have supplemented their coverage. Sites like the Mizzima News, run by a group of journalists exiled from Burma, continue to cover news in the country, despite the numerous risks. The intermeshing of politics, journalism and blogging in Burma is an exception compared to other protest movements in recent years, which relied on standards grassroots methods. The availability of the Internet in Burma, combined with the authoritarian grip over the flow of information into the country, bred the ideal environment for the three to converge.
For now, the only thing Burmese bloggers can do is wait and see. The regime’s willingness to kill monks, who are traditionally revered, during the protests has muted most of the dissent within Burma, as citizens cope with constant reminders of the demonstration’s aftermath. Photos of beaten monks now line the entrances to the Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the central hubs during the demonstrations, to discourage protestors. Rising inflation has combined with the government’s efforts to stifle dissent, making for a living environment that is questionably more oppressive and economically demanding than before the uprisings started. In 1988, a bag of rice large enough for a family of 4 sold for $2.50. Today, that same bag costs $125.08.
Nevertheless, the push against Burma has continued with increasing strength. To the Burmese online movement’s credit, its biggest accomplishment has been publicizing the regime’s response to the demonstrations, leading to political pressure from other countries. The U.S. announced major sanctions on supporters and officials of the government on Oct. 20, banning many from entering the country and accessing any funds in the U.S., along with trade restrictions on high-end computer equipment for civilian and military use. In addition, the European Union has also placed their own sanctions against Burma. Many leaders are also calling for a boycott of the 2008 Olympics to protest China’s refusal to take any substantive action, because of the country’s strong political and economic ties to Burma.
With the world’s leaders now working toward ending the junta’s rule, the role of bloggers as the catalysts for political change can readily be seen. Typical outlets for the publication of political change, like major news organizations, are supplementing their content with coverage from bloggers. With this trend, social networking sites like Facebook, which are often viewed as providing nothing more than a place to post pictures from the weekend, are becoming forces of change.

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