Burma Unrest: Can Internet, Blogs Sustain the Saffron Revolution?

by Mark Glaser, MediaShift, Oct 8, 2007

Chicago, USA -- When the ruling military junta in Burma cracked down on protesters, killing unarmed Buddhist monks, the world was watching.

While mainstream journalists have to work undercover in Burma for fear of the junta’s wrath, Burmese citizens and tourists were able to shoot photos and videos of the protests and transmit them to the outside world. The contrast between this uprising in 2007 and the previous one in 1988 in Burma is stark: What could be previously kept in the dark is now out in the open.

“The violent crackdown is the same, but the world can see what is happening which is different,” Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, told the Telegraph. “That’s why so many activists don’t want to go abroad. They want to stay and continue their work. People know it’s risky, but the 1988 generation were beaten and tortured and imprisoned and we’re still carrying on.”

Just how effective was the stream of videos onto YouTube and the blog eyewitness accounts that crossed over into the mainstream media? The junta reacted by shutting down Internet access in Burma for a week, finally re-opening limited access at night during curfew hours.

Traditional journalists who recoil at the thought of amateurs becoming an important part of the media ecosystem will have to rethink their mindset. In this case, established news sources such as AP, Reuters, CNN and the BBC ran images from activists and citzen journalists at the scene, bringing the horror of the sitution to millions of people around the world.

Aung Zaw, the editor of Irrawaddy, a Thailand-based publication monitoring Burma, told the Wall Street Journal: “They [citizen journalists] are doing their job on the ground, and nobody is even giving them the assignment. It is our job to check again with our sources, to see how close to the truth it is.”

Slowly but surely, mainstream publications are starting to work in concert with citizen reporters on the scene of important news events, trying to get timely images and stories to the public while verifying that the information is correct. The Burma protests, known also as the Saffron Revolution because of the monks’ pivotal role, became a watershed moment for citizen media because average folks were vital in telling the story, advocating for change, and keeping the story alive in the public’s consciousness.

Online Organizing and Beyond

As chaotic, violent scenes were being recorded and distributed online from Burma, the outside world was also using the Internet to help organize more protests. Bloggers refrained from blogging and put up a “Free Burma” graphic on October 4 to show solidarity with the monks and people of Burma. A Facebook group sprung up to support the monks, and swiftly grew to more than 350,000 members.

The long string of planned protests on the Facebook group’s page — including a call-in protest tomorrow to Chevron for doing business in Burma — shows that activists are unwilling to give up their fight to keep Burma on the media’s radar.

But here in the U.S., news from Burma is quickly relegated to inside newspaper pages as it competes with news from Sudan and the Iraq War.What will keep the story on the world stage?

Despite the Internet and cell phone service blackout in Burma by the junta, travelers were still able to smuggle out images and video with small storage devices. Even in Boulder, Colorado, so far removed from Southeast Asia, students were mobilizing to protest and lend support for the National Campus Day of Action for Burma last Friday.

There’s no question that online organizing and citizen journalists have helped tell this story to the world. But how much of a political difference that makes in the long run remains unclear. Mick Hume, a columnist for the Times of London, noted that blogs and online video can only help report on the revolution — rather than actually bringing about a real revolution:

There might be a problem with the extent to which the internal opposition has been orientated towards international opinion. It has sometimes seemed as if the main aim of the peaceful protests is to get images and reports of them around the world, via the Internet. Now that their protests have been suppressed and the World Wide Web largely cut off, isolated activists are left to appeal for aid from without.

Publicity is important, and real international solidarity more so. But it would be naive to imagine that Internet petitions or UN representatives in Rangoon could somehow confront armed power…Today we can be pretty certain that whatever happens, even in Burma, will be broadcast or blogged around the globe. But before you can televise a democratic revolution, you need to start one.

What do you think? Can online activism help bring about political change in Burma? Which online sources do you trust for news from the area? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

UPDATE: Roby Alampay, the executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), wrote an eloquent piece for Washingtonpost.com’s Think Tank Town blog about the importance of an open Internet. While the international community is considering ways to tighten security for the Net to reduce terrorist recruiting and child pornography, Alampay argues that they should also consider standards of openness for all countries so that events such as the Burmese junta’s crackdown will be kept on the world stage. His conclusion:

As the demand and criterion for free access grows, so does the anxiety of governments and Internet pillars like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. But it is also hard to imagine the citizens of Mountain View, Sunnyvale and Redmond not being moved by the testimony of Burma: Thanks to the same Internet-based innovations that governments and markets are trying to co-opt, the Internet not only chronicled death, it saved lives.

Whether or not consensus is easy, the need for universal principles governing access to the Internet is clear. The Burmese will say it is painfully obvious.

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