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Bloggers who risked all to reveal the junta’s brutal crackdown in Burma

by Kenneth Denby, The Times, Oct. 1, 2007

Young men from Myanmar who helped to inform the rest of the World through their blogs

Rangoon, Burma -- Internet geeks share a common style, and Ko Latt and his four friends would not be out of place in cyber cafés across the world. They have the skinny arms and the long hair, the dark T-shirts and the jokey nicknames. But few such figures have ever taken the risks that they have in the past few weeks, or achieved so much in a noble and dangerous cause.

<< Blogs such as Ko Htike (www.ko-htike.blogspot.com) became an important source of information from Burma

Since last month Ko Latt, 28, his friends Arca, Eye, Sun and Superman, and scores of others like them have been the third pillar of Burma’s Saffron Revolution. While the veteran democracy activists, and then the Buddhist monks, marched in their tens of thousands against the military regime, it is the country’s amateur bloggers and internet enthusiasts who have brought the images to the outside world.

Armed with small digital cameras, they have documented the spectacular growth of the demonstrations from crowds of a few hundred to as many as 100,000. On weblogs they have recorded in words and pictures the regime’s bloody crackdown, in a city where only a handful of foreign journalists work undercover. With downloaded software, they have dodged and weaved around the regime’s increasingly desperate attempts to thwart their work. Now the bloggers, too, have been crushed. Having failed to stop the cyber-dissidents broadcasting to the world, the authorities have simply switched off the internet.

Now Ko Latt and his blogging comrades have abandoned their keyboards and gone underground, sleeping in a different place every night, watching and waiting to see if the democracy movement has been truly crushed or is simply on hold. “When things were hot on the streets, we were not the main worry,” Ko Latt says. “But as the situation cools down, they will follow us. They know who we are, they know we are bloggers, and I am afraid.”

Even in normal times it was hard to be a blogger in Burma. With characteristic paranoia, the Government monitored and controlled every aspect of the process, from licensing computers to issuing accounts through government-monitored internet service providers (ISPs). This is what makes political blogging so dangerous here — it is easy for military intelligence to identify a dissident’s name and address through his registered account.

Nonetheless, Rangoon and Mandalay, the two biggest cities, have undergone a boom in internet cafés and blogs, although initially they were uncontroversial. “I wanted to say something to other people, about my life and the news, and articles that interest me,” says Superman, who has been blogging for a year. “That’s why I like blogging — it’s another life for me on the internet.”

Then last month came sudden, devastating rises in the price of fuel oil and everyday goods, and the early, relatively small demonstrations that followed soon after. Around this time many of them realised, as Superman says: “Everything is bloggable.”

The realities of political oppression made life difficult. A blogger who posted a photograph of a demonstration found herself arrested, questioned and her computer seized.

On domestic blogs, they were able to express themselves only indirectly. The blogger nicknamed Sun, for example, posted quotations from a famous Burmese memoir of the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, full of observations about how to live with dignity under a brutal regime.

“Everyone knows what it’s really about,” a Burmese editor says.

“They’re making a comment about what’s happening now, about the cruelty and brutality of our rulers.” Even these subtle commentaries attracted great interest. The average number of daily hits went from 100 to more than 1,000 in a few days.

The best material — the digital pictures and videos of marching monks, the charging soldiers and their flailing batons — was sent outside the country.

One exiled blogger in particular — Ko Htike, said to be a student in London — has attracted intense interest and received many photographs and witness accounts that he posts on his site, www.ko-htike.blogspot.com.

Pointing cameras at the charging soldiers is a potentially lethal undertaking — last Thursday Kenji Nagai, a Japanese photographer, was shot dead. And then there is the job of sending files down laboriously slow internet connections. Free online software helped — such as SEND6, which compresses huge video and picture files into manageable packets, and Your Freedom, which enables internet users to get around the regime’s blocks and firewalls.

The regime responded, first by blocking individual Burmese blogs, then, last Wednesday, by blocking all of them. But the overseas sites were beyond its reach, so on Friday it switched off the internet altogether. Now e-mails can be sent only within Burma; the only pages that web browsers can view are those of the official websites.

The only solution now would be to dial up ISPs overseas but the cost of international calls makes this prohibitive. As Superman puts it: “Now Burma is like the Stone Age.”

The bloggers held out as long as they could, and if there is ever a monument to the heroes of the Saffron Revolution it should certainly feature a statue of a skinny boy in a T-shirt and thick glasses hunched over a computer and a digital camera.



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