Monks Are Silenced, and for Now,
Internet Is, Too
by Seth Mydans
www.nytimes.com/, October 4, 2007
It was about as simple and uncomplicated
as shooting demonstrators in the streets. Embarrassed by smuggled
video and photographs that showed their people rising up against
them, the generals who run Myanmar simply switched off the Internet.
Until Friday television screens and newspapers
abroad were flooded with scenes of tens of thousands of red-robed
monks in the streets and of chaos and violence as the junta stamped
out the biggest popular uprising there in two decades.
But then the images, text messages and
postings stopped, shut down by generals who belatedly grasped
the power of the Internet to jeopardize their crackdown.
"Finally they realized that this
was their biggest enemy, and they took it down," said Aung
Zaw, editor of an exile magazine based in Thailand called The
Irrawaddy, whose Web site has been a leading source of information
in recent weeks. The site has been attacked by a virus whose timing
raises the possibility that the military government has a few
skilled hackers in its ranks.
The efficiency of this latest, technological,
crackdown raises the question whether the vaunted role of the
Internet in undermining repression can stand up to a determined
and ruthless government - or whether Myanmar, already isolated
from the world, can ride out a prolonged shutdown more easily
than most countries.
OpenNet Initiative, which tracks Internet
censorship, has documented signs that in recent years several
governments - including those of Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan
- have closed off Internet access, or at least opposition Web
sites, during periods preceding elections or times of intense
The brief disruptions are known as "just
in time" filtering, said Ronald J. Deibert of OpenNet. They
are designed to quiet opponents while maintaining an appearance
of technical difficulties, thus avoiding criticism from abroad.
In 2005, King Gyanendra of Nepal ousted
the government and imposed a weeklong communications blackout.
Facing massive protests, he ceded control in 2006.
Myanmar has just two Internet service
providers, and shutting them down was not complicated, said David
Mathieson, an expert on Myanmar with Human Rights Watch. Along
with the Internet, the junta cut off most telephone access to
the outside world. Soldiers on the streets confiscated cameras
and video-recording cellphones.
"The crackdown on the media and on
information flow is parallel to the physical crackdown,"
he said. "It seems they've done it quite effectively. Since
Friday we've seen no new images come out."
In keeping with the country's self-imposed
isolation over the past half-century, Myanmar's military seemed
prepared to cut the country off from the virtual world just as
it had from the world at large. Web access has not been restored,
and there is no way to know if or when it might be.
At the same time, the junta turned to
the oldest tactic of all to silence opposition: fear. Local journalists
and people caught transmitting information or using cameras are
being threatened and arrested, according to Burmese exile groups.
In a final, hurried telephone call, Mr.
Aung Zaw said, one of his longtime sources said goodbye.
"We have done enough," he said
the source told him. "We can no longer move around. It is
over to you - we cannot do anything anymore. We are down. We are
hunted by soldiers - we are down."
There are still images to come, Mr. Aung
Zaw said, and as soon as he receives them and his Web site is
back up, the world will see them.
But Mr. Mathieson said the country's dissidents
were reverting to tactics of the past, smuggling images out through
cellphones, breaking the files down for reassembly later.
It is not clear how much longer the generals
can hold back the future. Technology is making it harder for dictators
and juntas to draw a curtain of secrecy.
"There are always ways people find
of getting information out, and authorities always have to struggle
with them," said Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism
at New York University and the author of "A History of News."
"There are fewer and fewer events
that we don't have film images of: the world is filled with Zapruders,"
he said, referring to Abraham Zapruder, the onlooker who recorded
the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
Before Friday's blackout, Myanmar's hit-and-run
journalists were staging a virtuoso demonstration of the power
of the Internet to outmaneuver a repressive government. A guerrilla
army of citizen reporters was smuggling out pictures even as events
were unfolding, and the world was watching.
"For those of us who study the history
of communication technology, this is of equal importance to the
telegraph, which was the first medium that separated communications
and transportation," said Frank A. Moretti, executive director
of the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning at Columbia
Since the protests began in mid-August,
people have sent images and words through SMS text messages and
e-mail and on daily blogs, according to some exile groups that
received the messages. They have posted notices on Facebook, the
social networking Web site. They have sent tiny messages on e-cards.
They have updated the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.
They also used Internet versions of "pigeons"
- the couriers that reporters used in the past to carry out film
and reports - handing their material to embassies or nongovernment
organizations with satellite connections.
Within hours, the images and reports were
broadcast back into Myanmar by foreign radio and television stations,
informing and connecting a public that hears only propaganda from
These technological tricks may offer a
model to people elsewhere who are trying to outwit repressive
governments. But the generals' heavy-handed response is probably
a less useful model.
Nations with larger economies and more
ties to the outside world have more at stake. China, for one,
could not consider cutting itself off as Myanmar has done, and
so control of the Internet is an industry in itself.
"In China, it's massive," said
Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project and an adjunct
professor at the graduate school of journalism at the University
of California, Berkeley.
"There's surveillance and intimidation,
there's legal regulation and there is commercial leverage to force
private Internet companies to self-censor," he said. "And
there is what we call the Great Firewall, which blocks hundreds
of thousands of Web sites outside of China."
Yet for all its efforts, even China cannot
entirely control the Internet, an easier task in a smaller country
As technology makes everyone a potential
reporter, the challenge in risky places like Myanmar will be accuracy,
said Vincent Brossel, head of the Asian section of the press freedom
organization Reporters Without Borders.
"Rumors are the worst enemy of independent
journalism," he said. "Already we are hearing so many
strange things. So if you have no flow of information and the
spread of rumors in a country that is using propaganda - that's
it. You are destroying the story, and day by day it goes down."
The technological advances on the streets
of Myanmar are the latest in a long history of revolutions in
the transmission of news - from the sailing ship to the telegraph
to international telephone lines and the telex machine to computers
and satellite telephones.
"Today every citizen is a war correspondent,"
said Phillip Knightley, author of "The First Casualty,"
a classic history of war reporting that starts with letters home
from soldiers in Crimea in the 1850s and ends with the "living
room war" in Vietnam in the 1970s, the first war that people
could watch on television.
"Mobile phones with video of broadcast
quality have made it possible for anyone to report a war,"
he said in an e-mail interview. "You just have to be there.
No trouble getting a start: the broadcasters have been begging
viewers to send their stuff."