The Cyber Dissident
covering burma and southeast asia
Saturday, March 23, 2019


The Cyber Dissident



Burma’s generals may have underestimated the power of the Internet during the 2007 uprising, but they are now playing catch-up

The Burmese military government has found a new enemy—the growing number of “cyber dissidents” who are gaining popularity both inside and outside the country. The bad news is that the junta usually finds a way of defeating each new enemy.

During the September 2007 uprising in Burma, citizen reporters and bloggers played a key role in exposing the junta’s brutality.

Burma’s state-controlled media and privately owned journals operate under tight controls and, understandably, shy away from accurately reporting the situation in the country.

And so it fell to citizen reporters—equipped with cell phones, digital cameras and memory sticks—to connect with the exiled and international media.

Digital technology facilitated a fundamental contrast between the two mass uprisings in recent times—1988 and 2007.

In 1988, millions of Burmese took to the streets. However, the international community, the media and the people of the world had only a vague idea of what was truly happening on in Burma.

Although about 3,000 demonstrators were killed between March and September 1988, images of casualties were scarce. In those days, a person walking the streets with a camera would be suspected of being a spy or informer and be picked up immediately.

Now, thanks to cell phones (still very expensive in Burma at around US $1,500 for a SIM card alone), satellite phones, the Internet and e-mail in the hands of eyewitnesses, thousands of images came out of Burma during the 2007 uprising. 

News traveled very fast; photographs and accounts arrived at our desks in The Irrawaddy office within seconds, and we were able to tell the world what was really going on inside the country. In 1988, the protesters on the streets stood alone.

The vivid images of the September 2007 uprising were unforgettable, such as the barefooted monks marching in the rain with their alms bowls turned upside down. Consequently, the amount of airtime devoted to Burma by BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera, was startling.

Suddenly, Burma was attracting the full attention of the international media, world leaders and ordinary people around the globe. The success of the grassroots media invigorated the demonstrators—they knew the world was watching and what they were fighting for.

Just before last year’s uprising, a group of bloggers inside Burma began communicating and occasionally meeting in person—almost as if they were anticipating the events and bloodshed that were to follow.

The virtual forum linked activists inside Burma with those outside the country and strong bonds were established.

Several young Burmese who had been studying in Singapore returned home, bringing with them new technology, ideas and, most importantly, proxy settings.

Although less than one per cent of the total population have access to the Internet in Burma, the effective use of Google and proxy Web sites were instrumental in the exchange of information during September’s crisis.

Until then, the Myanmar Blogger Society had about 1,000 members. On September 1, 2007, they held a seminar at Myanmar Information and Communication Technology Park in Rangoon. They mostly posted personal opinions about romance, skyrocketing prices and the electrical blackouts in Burma. But it was rare for anyone to get overly political.

After the demonstrations began, the bloggers went underground and a new group was born—“Bloggers without Borders.”

These “chat room” blogs overnight became virtual news agencies providing news (and sometimes rumors) to international publications. Images of the demonstrations, the crackdown, indiscriminate killings and reprisals were all captured digitally and sent abroad.

The regime effectively barred professional journalists and photographers from entering Burma during the crisis. However, it was powerless to stop the citizen reporters.

During the September uprising in Burma, as with Hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami, 9/11 and the London bombings, citizen reporters showed that they were able to send some of the most effective messages and pictures that the world would see.

The footage and images may not have been as well framed or steady as the ones taken by trained, professional photojournalists, but they definitely proved to be newsworthy and appeared as powerful statements of political dissent and people’s aspirations for change and a democratic society.

Traditional news agencies are no longer the sole gatekeepers of breaking news.

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