Sneaking Cyclone News Out of Myanmar to Facebook

Myanmar people and aid workers risk jail to sneak disaster photos to West.

WASHINGTON, May 14, 2008 — -- A half-clothed baby's body entangled in brush. Rows of lifeless children lying on the muddy ground, the face of one of them blue. Survivors crouching close together in mud under tarps.

These are images from the disaster caused by Cyclone Nargis that the military regime that rules Myanmar does not want you to see, but they have found their way out of the repressive country on

The social networking Web site is accomplishing what Myanmar authorities have tried to prevent Western journalists from doing, by barring them from visiting refugee camps and keeping them away from the few aid workers who have been allowed into the country.

Relief workers and survivors inside Myanmar, formerly Burma, are sending e-mail updates and photos to friends and contacts outside the country to be posted on Facebook.

This one was posted May 13, 8:29 a.m.:

"Most health issues we encountered were cuts and injuries (all of them with some degree of serious infection), water borne diseases. There were two people with serious infections and one of them for sure will have to amputate her arm. The other one may be ok if he can get to the hospital in time. We left them money to be taken to Yangon Hospital ASAP but not sure if they will go. The doctors in our group saw more patients in half a day's time than one week's practice in Yangon."

Another one, titled "Fwd: Situation in Burma, May 12, 2008, Generals Making Fortune by Stealing Aid for the Victims" reads:

"Plenty of relief materials, provided by UN and INGOs for the cyclone victims, are being sold at some markets in Rangoon. Some shop owners said that they bought them from soldiers and they are now reselling. As instructed by the military junta, some business companies are also distributing relief assistance, but they are not trained to make relief effort and their way of delivery is not professional. In some cases, a truck with Htoo Companies Logo arrived at the waiting victims and threw the food packages to the crowd from the car, without setting foot on the ground. Many packages were damaged.

"Meanwhile, the junta's press scrutiny board is instructing journalists to cover the story of soldiers helping the victims, generals visiting disaster areas and distributing aid to the victims, and asking the people to vote for the constitution, etc."

Since the cyclone hit 11 days ago, already there are more than a dozen online groups on Facebook devoted to Nargis-related news and relief efforts with thousands of members.

One of the groups called Support the Relief Efforts for Burma (Myanmar) Cyclone Disaster Victims has more than 6,500 members. Its creator, Sophie Lwin, is the director of Burma Global Action Network and a Burmese native who lives in the United States.

Lwin said since the Facebook group has gained popularity, more people with eyewitness accounts have come forward with pictures and updates on conditions from inside disaster area. There are now more than 90 pictures on the group's page, including many that are not from news organizations.

Lwin said they were getting firsthand accounts from their contacts inside Myanmar by phone, e-mail and instant messaging. She added that it was a risky practice.

"If the junta finds someone who is corresponding information with any foreign entities, those individuals face 10 [years] to 15 years in prison, torture, with their families' lives at risk," Lwin said. "No fair trial, no defense."

According to Lwin, any foreigners caught sending photos abroad would be "blacklisted, deported immediately and will never be allowed back in the country, fined and have their media related items confiscated."

Jason Slack, an administrator for the page, said that "for their security and so the junta can't counteract the means by which it comes out," the less said about how the group is receiving the information, the better.

"At the moment, what information is coming out is through the carefully guarded and difficult-to-trace means that they've been using for a long time," Slack said.

He said that after the Saffron Revolution -- a Buddhist-monk-led protest in September 2007 that ended in a violent government crackdown -- activists were worried that Myanmar people featured in protest pictures would be hunted down and arrested. "So we're more careful with what we use now," Slack said.

Freedoms of speech have been restricted by the ruling military junta since it seized power in 1962. The current regime came to power in the late 1980s as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, which later changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council.

The SPDC ignored the results of the country's first democratic elections in May 1990, which delivered a resounding victory to the opposition National League for Democracy, and arrested its leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Price winner who is the daughter of a slain national hero.

Since then, Suu Kyi has been mostly under house arrest. The regime refuses to address political reconciliation and remains under heavy U.S. economic sanctions.

Freedoms of speech are still heavily restricted, and the country once dubbed "the rice bowl of Asia" is now plagued with poverty, disease, crime and corruption. Cyclone Nargis threatens the country's more than 45 million people who are already living a precarious existence.

A nationwide referendum was scheduled for May 10, on a constitution drafted by the SPDC. The elections were expected by Myanmar experts to be "free but not fair." The junta refused to postpone the elections as the country's people struggled with the aftermath of the cyclone.

With the junta attempting to block foreign reporting on the extent of the damage and on the government's response, Web sites like Facebook may become a more important source of news and information.

There are still some restrictions -- you must be a member of Facebook to see the group's page.