Blogging for Political Change: Myanmar's Dissidents

Even as Internet access is shut down, Myanmar's blogs make their presence felt.

LONDON, 28 Sept, 2007 — -- To those keeping an eye on the political developments in Myanmar, London-based ex-pat Ko Htike's blog is one of the first places to turn for news, views and pictures from inside the closely secured nation.

Since taking over power in a military coup in 1962, Myanmar's ruling junta has kept a tight lid on information leaving the country.

But now, thanks in no small part to the growth of digital technology, news of the regime's brutal crackdown on recent protests is reaching people all over the world.

Htike's blog -- one of many maintained by Myanmar-born exiles -- publishes pictures, video and text sent to him from people inside Myanmar. He told the BBC that he established contact with these dissidents via an Internet forum that has since been disbanded.

After a flood of blog entries and online video footage showed the world what was happening on the streets of Myanmar, Htike reported that the junta closed down Internet access on Thursday.

When ABC News interviewed Tayza Thuria, the London-based general secretary of Myanmar's main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, he confirmed the report, saying that "the whole Internet system has been shut down -- the troops have taken over the building that housed the main server."

Things were very different two decades ago, in August 1988, when the military cracked down on anti-government protesters, killing at least 3,000 people, according to estimates.

ABC News' Baghdad correspondent Terry McCarthy was there, and he remembered the difficulties of getting the story out to an international audience.

"There was only one telex machine in the Strand Hotel, where all the journalists were staying," McCarthy said.

There were of course no cell phones and no Internet. There were also, as McCarthy recalled, "no flights out of the country."

"After we flew into Myanmar -- on what was essentially a flight for diplomats -- there were no flights out of the country for a week. So there was no way to get film out of the country," he said.

"Part of the reason the Tiananmen Square massacre became so huge," he said, "was because there were TV cameras there to film it."

Footage of the 1989 protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square against China's communist government made headlines everywhere, but critics say it did not signify a move toward greater democracy in the country.

Now that the world is waking up to what is happening inside Myanmar, will international condemnation translate into regime change?

Observers say that is unlikely.

Vincent Brossel, director of the Asia-Pacific desk of Reporters Without Borders, told ABC News that citizen-journalists and cyberdissidents have "won the media battle."

"But," he added, "I am not sure if they have won the diplomatic battle and the street battle."

"You can have good journalists and good activists, but when the army is shooting people like rabbits you cannot do anything. People will be killed, and in the coming days, people will be arrested and tortured and the Internet can do nothing about it," he said emphatically.

Furthermore, as McCarthy pointed out, "the junta is impervious to international criticism, so the fact that its actions are publicized doesn't mean they are going to change."

But to those writing from inside Myanmar, blogs are not just a way to reach a global audience; they are also a way to connect with their fellow citizens and discover their own political conscience.

Before Internet access went down, Dawn, a blogger based in Yangon, Myanmar's capital, had been covering the protests since they began.

In one of her last posts, she mused: "My friend said I was brave blogging about this when I am confused about where I stand. I was not being brave. I am a coward hiding in the office.

"At first," she wrote, "I started removing my photo in my profile, and was going to hide the posts that provide personal details of me.

"Then I decided not to because I am not doing anything wrong."

Only 1 percent of Myanmar's population has access to the Internet, according to analysts cited by the BBC.

Despite such limited access, the role of the Internet in connecting dissidents with one another and giving them a space to exchange views cannot be underestimated, according to Brossel.

"In spite of all this filtering, this blocking, and also the fact that the Internet is very expensive, in the recent years there have been more and more cybercafés in town," Brossel told ABC News.

Activists in Myanmar, he said, have "learned how to use proxies. They know how to send their videos outside, all these things that are very basic for a journalist they learned in recent years," using their ingenuity and determination to bypass the junta's repressive measures.

Before such technology existed, any subversive activity against a dictatorial regime would have been much more "easy to trace," according to Tomek Rolski, an ABC News producer who covered the Polish Solidarity anti-communist movement in the 1980s.

"If you found a printing press in a basement, for example, you could bust it overnight and those leaflets were taken off the revolutionary market," Rolski explained.

"It was easier for the authorities and definitely more risky for those involved in those subversive activities," he said.

But blogging is no less dangerous, according to Brossel.

"In Myanmar, there is a law that says that if you have a camera, a computer or a satellite disk without a license you can be jailed for seven years. And most of the people that are doing those things now, they [have] already spent years in jail," Brossel told ABC News.

"Despite this risk, they are doing it," he said.

"They are ready to face the consequence of this. And it is my fear that in the coming days they will be targeted."

Observers say the fact of so many Myanmar citizens anonymously running or contributing to blogs that criticize the government will not go unnoticed. And the impact may be more complex than Brossel suggests.

According to McCarthy, "in 1988, the junta was able to make the protest seem much smaller. They created an impression that it was limited to cities."

"But now," he said, "people inside the country are getting a sense that this is not the case. So the question is: Will the junta be able to stay in power when they are dealing with a much more critical population?"