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Myanmar: The world is watching

  • Story Highlights
  • Burma rates 164 out of 168 in a tally of the most repressed media in the world
  • One per cent of the Burmese population have internet access
  • On Friday the government blocked use of the country's main internet server
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By Brigid Delaney for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Close the borders, shut down the media, expel dissidents and restrict visitors: The world's most oppressive regimes have developed watertight ways of shielding themselves from the eyes of the world.

Myanmar is no exception. Democracy has been repeatedly quashed; an uprising in 1988 left thousands of citizen protesters dead, while a democratically elected leader has not been allowed to govern and remains under house arrest.

The military junta rules and the press is government-controlled and heavily censored. Yet as images of the monks' protests are splashed around the world's media, it is apparent technology in the form of blogs, digital photos, and text messaging has become the chink in the regime's armor.

"The technology is making a huge difference. Now everyone in the world can know what is happening in Burma (Myanmar) via the Internet," said Sein Win, managing editor of Mizzima News, an India-based news group run by exiled dissidents, "It is a reality of globalization. Whether the junta likes it or not, the government cannot isolate itself from the international community," Sein Win said.

While the Myanmar government has reportedly moved to shut down the Internet, the events in the country in the last week show technology can transform the geo-political landscape and empower dissidents and activists. It has transformed the world into a witness; and that, activists hope, will be enough to subdue the military.

The dissidents

Today's dissidents in Myanmar were politicized in the 1988 uprising in the country, according to Vincent Brossel spokesman for the Asia branch of Reporters Without Borders.

He told CNN that as a result of that uprising many journalists were expelled. Those that remained were required to work in a "censor's paradise." Reporters Without Borders rates Myanmar 164 out of 168 in a tally of the most repressed media in the world.

Says Brossel: "Everything that is published -- articles, cartoons, even calendars are scrutinized by the army censors. The censors have the power to control everything and restrict the power of journalists."

The government also restricted visas to foreign journalists; prior to the new wave of technology, news had a difficult journey out of the country.

"From this oppression and the 1988 uprising there was an organized group of dissenters, usually professionals. Now you have a particularly strong exiled community of Burmese journalists in Norway, Thailand, India and UK. Most of them left after the '88 movement. They are working with underground networks."

Underground networks in the past relied on word of mouth, letters and mailed newsletters to keep in touch, restricting the speed and impact of the dissenters' message, but now according to Brossel, "technology has made the underground network more effective. Technology has been used by the activists for a couple of years."

Although less than 1 percent of Burma's population have access to the Internet, the government underestimated how it would be used and were unprepared for this "leak" in the system according to Brossel.

Established journalists have been joined by a legion of citizen journalists -- or bloggers -- who operate from within Myanmar.

"Young people love to blog and it's popular in Burma," said Brossel.

This week, skilled Myanmarese bloggers have been able to evade firewalls set up by the government to restrict the flow of information in and out of the country.

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These new style activists include blogger Ko Htike whose blog has splashed across the world's media in recent days. Ko Htike is London-based but has up to 40 contributors inside Myanmar who take photos and send information to him via the Internet.

But on Friday the military appeared to have cut public Internet access to prevent more videos, photographs and information getting out. Cyber cafes were closed and there was no access to the main Internet service provider.

And in the West

If technology has made the voice of Myanmar activists heard, in the West it has transformed many people into activists.

On social networking sites, dozens of action groups have formed in the past week and their membership has snowballed due to word of mouth and group emails.

One group, "Support the Monks' protest" in Myanmar, is attracting members at a rate of more than 10,000 new members every 12 hours.

With almost 100,000 members it has, according to spokesman Johnny Chatterton, harnessed concern in the west over the Myanmar junta. "Many people who join up are trying to find out about protests -- it all effects political change. It's a way of communicating that people care about an issue."

Groups such as "Support the Monks' protest" in Myanmar on social networking sites serve several purposes according to Chatterton -- they are able to quantify the support for the cause which could affect how politicians in the West respond. And the site acts as a clearinghouse for information coming in from Myanmar.

Although the sources of the material such as video footage, stories and photos are untested, Chatterton says the Facebook site has been breaking news on the protests up to half an hour earlier than traditional news agencies.

The group also informs members of protests in many of the world's capital cities, has a message board (or Wall) for people to post their support and features celebrity endorsements with videos from singer Damien Rice and comedian and actor Jim Carrey.

Chatterton believes technology has changed the face of activism; "Leaders can't do things and screw people over today. We have a medium (the Internet) and it happens so fast you can be called to account."

But can the masses of information we now receive about human rights abuses translate into real change? Chatterton believes it can act as a "motivator to politicians such as (UK Prime Minister) Gordon Brown to keep the pressure up on the Burmese government."

A spokesperson for Amnesty International is also optimistic that technology is improving the job of activists.

"Since the onset of the recent political crisis in Myanmar, supporters and activists worldwide have been able to respond not only in greater numbers but also with much greater speed. Rapidly developing technologies in information technology and communications has empowered supporters of different causes around the world by supplying them with the information, organization and motivation to take action on their streets or even from their own homes."

But Brossel is more circumspect, believing just because the world is watching, it does not mean the world is acting; "We are witnesses but we are witnesses of something that we cannot stop. We have been witnesses of Bosnia, Burma and Darfur but the international community is useless." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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