BURMA: With Technology as Weapon, Citizens Become Reporters: IPS Asia-Pacific

September 28, 2007 at 7:25 pm | Posted in 1 | Leave a comment

BANGKOK – In sharp contrast to the lack of information during the 1988 military crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Burma, streams of graphic accounts of the biggest uprising in two decades continue to come from within the country, aided by technology and the Internet.

This has also seen something of a reversal of roles in providing information from a country that for many years, has taken great pains to limit easy access to the Internet and mobile telephones.

In the days after Wednesday’s violent crackdown of Burmese monks and protesters and the muzzling of news by state-run media, ordinary citizens have been taking over in providing up-to-date information and journalists, the receivers.

Even though foreign correspondents not allowed in Burma, reports of how security forces shot at crowds, mauled monks and scenes of panic in Rangoon continue to inform international audiences – thanks to blogs, as well as photos and videos taken from mobile telephones and sent to news organisations or uploaded on the Internet.

In the Sep. 27 entry in his blog, ‘Ko Htike’s Prosaic Collection (http://ko-htike.blogspot.com/), Ko Htike wrote: “To all folk, it is really bad in Yangon. Please, can someone do something for our country…. Inside Yangon it looks like a war zone. I even heard shooting over the phone…They even used teargas in a primary school.”

In another blog site,
http://dathana.blogspot.com, the blogger who directly participated in the series of Buddhist clergy-led protests asked the United Nations to step in. “We, the people of Burma, need direct actions from the U.N. A possibility could be deploying UN peace-keeping troops and help establish [an] interim government,” it pleaded.

Such reports are also coming in a situation where the local media have been controlled for decades, and where new restrictions were issued recently. On Sep. 23, the Burmese press was ordered by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division to publish or air announcements stating that they are not supporting the anti-junta protests.

Thus, people are taking matters into their own hands.

“The media are the only defence the people have in this kind of situation and it is clear that there is a synergy going on between traditional media and citizen journalists. This sense of collaboration is apparent in the information and images that are being transmitted to the media worldwide,” said Premesh Chandran, founder of the independent Malaysiakini.com news site.

Since the crackdown began, we’ve been getting information through emails and images every half hour,” Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN) director Khuensai Jaiyen said in an interview, “This is so different from the events in 1988 when information was hard to come by. We didn’t have sophisticated tools like the Internet to help us then.”

“It’s amazing to watch the quality of the materials coming out of Burma,” added Aung Zaw, the editor-in-chief of the Chiang Mai-based ‘Irrawaddy’ magazine (www.irrawaddy.org).

“These images tell the whole story and highlight the nature of the Burmese military junta, their brutality and their intentions,” said the former student activist, who had also joined the 1988 uprising.

Foreign journalists are also relying on blogs set up by young Burmese living abroad, such as Ko Htike’s blog ‘Ko Htike’s Prosaic Collection (http://ko-htike.blogspot.com/), as well as soneseayar.blogspot.com, http://niknayman.blogspot.com/, where dramatic images of the situation are uploaded as they come in.

Other Burmese uploaded videos of the monk-led demonstrations on You Tube. A cursory check of the site reveals over a hundred videos related to the ongoing protests, with one video, posted by a CSPANJUNKIEdotORG, getting as many as 21,000 hits.

International news channels such as the BBC and CNN have been flooded with emails and images from within Burma.

Time Magazine ran an exclusive story about a first-hand eyewitness account of the crackdown in its Sep. 26 online issue. “With foreign journalists locked out of the country by Burma’s military government, this dispatch was written by TIME staff based on eyewitness reports,” it said.

The article described an 80-year-old monk bleeding from a baton gash on his head, people throwing down water bottles from their shop balconies in aid of protesters, burning cars and motorcycles on the road, enraged younger monks carrying clubs and one toting a riot shield snatched from a policeman.

According to the New Delhi-based exiled Burmese news group Mizzima News, these popular blogs and sites have been blocked by the Burmese junta as of Sep. 26.

Internet-savvy users in Burma are reported to have turned to proxy sites and other creative means to be able to get access to the banned sites.

Internet access in Burma, says OpenNet Initiative, accounts for only .56 percent of the population, with two Internet providers under state control.

Support for the anti-government demonstrations is being sought through different ways, including through a signature campaign online, www.avaaz.org, put up by a global advocacy group, Res Publica, and MoveOn.org, an online community of Internet activists in the United States.

As of last count, the campaign has gathered more than 160,000, a big jump from the less than 50,000 a couple of days ago.

The Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma says it is getting much-needed information from their underground journalists in Burma.

“Right now, we are getting information from three online sites set up by citizen journalists. As a rule, we make sure to confirm everything from other sources, including news agencies both within and outside Burma,” Jaiyen of SHAN news agency explained.

“The timeliness of the flow of information is getting close to real time. In our case at Malaysiakini, we’ve been getting new stuff about the unrest every hour. Now whether we can translate this into an actual outcome is a different matter,” said Chandran.

The outcome of the protests and whether resistance from inside Burma will survive the military crackdown remains unclear for now.

But “the effect of citizen journalism to the traditional forms of media will definitely have a long-term effect, perhaps giving way to a closer interaction in the future,” said Jaiyen. (Lynette Lee Corporal/IPS Asia-Pacific)

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