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BURMA: Junta Exposed by Information Technology

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Aug 30 2007 (IPS) - As public protests in Burma enter a second week, Burmese journalists living in exile and other expatriates are finding new appreciation for the marvels of modern communication and information technology.

Mobile phones and e-mails are feeding them with vivid facts, photographs, video clips and eyewitness accounts of the demonstrations unfolding on Burma’s streets – despite the harsh censorship enforced by the South-east Asian nation’s military dictatorship. The public anger followed a sudden spike in fuel prices in mid-August.

The details of attacks on protestors by thugs and organised gangs linked to Burma’s junta have also been fed into this surreptitious information supply line from inside the country to Burmese journalists working in countries such as Thailand and India.

‘’When events happen in Rangoon or elsewhere, it gets out very fast, in five minutes or even quicker,’’ says Aung Zaw, editor of ‘The Irrawaddy,’ a current affairs publication on Burma produced by those like him, journalists who fled their country for the safety of Thailand. ‘’On Tuesday we were getting an eyewitness account on a mobile phone of protestors being attacked as it was happening.’’

Protest reports from Burma are giving shape to a new role citizens are daring to don as they stand up to the military regime, Aung Zaw told IPS from Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand where his publication is based. ‘’The citizens have become reporters for us; they are using all the latest gadgets they have to get the information out fast about the protests.’’

It is a reality that marks a shift in the Burma story when set against the events of 1988, the last time the country witnessed a pro-democracy uprising to bring down the previous military regime. That military government, which had come to power following a 1962 coup, turned the guns on its people protesting against economic hardships early in the year.

Those attacks led to a showdown in August 1988 between tens of thousands of people who took to the streets clamouring for political change and the military. The army responded with brutal force, killing thousands.

At the time there was no sign of a Burmese journalistic community in exile for the local people to communicate with, says Aung Zaw, then a 19-year-old university student in Rangoon and a witness to the bloodshed that crushed the country’s young democracy movement. ‘’The story was told through the international media, specially radio, and the photographs that were taken by the foreign press.’’

But this new media landscape is not the only reason the Burmese junta may have to worry about as the current protests continue. In exile today is another group that was hardly a visible power nearly two decades ago: a vast array of political activists living in areas as far away as North America, Europe, Japan and Australia and closer home in India and Thailand.

‘’The Burmese political exile community is much stronger and better organised now. There is so much lobbying going on across the world to increase international awareness about the attacks on the protestors,’’ says Soe Aung, foreign affairs spokesman for the National Council for the Union of Burma (NCUB), an umbrella body of Burmese political and human rights groups in exile. ‘’Those demonstrating inside Burma must know that they are not alone, that they have support outside.’’

This was not the case when protestors took to the streets in 1988, Soe Aung told IPS. ‘’Many of us inside Burma knew little of what the few exiled activists were doing then; there was little communication between the two groups to work together.’’

By Thursday, the current burst of protests had spread to six of the country’s 14 states and divisions. Monks in the predominantly Buddhist country have also come out to express dissent, adding strength to the citizens in Rangoon and former university students who have been in the vanguard following the Aug. 15 price hike – which saw fuel prices rise by 500 percent overnight and with no warning.

Some 150 Buddhist monks and novices were among the estimated 400 people who took to the streets in the Arakan state, in north-western Burma, this week. Mandalay, home to a large community of Buddhist monks, has also drawn the junta’s attention. ‘’Burma’s military leaders have been trying to persuade monks in Mandalay not to take part in protests,’’ The Irrawaddy reported on Monday.

Yet for the moment the junta appears to be in control. That partly stems from the measures the generals have taken since the 1988 clash to avoid a repeat. Among the measures was to undermine the speed and capacity of the leaders in the country’s protest movement – the university students – to organise.

‘’The military has moved the eight main campuses out of Rangoon. They are now two or three hours away from the city so it is difficult to organise quickly as we did in 1988,’’ says Khin Ohmar, who was then a 20-year-old reading for a degree in chemistry at the University of Rangoon but decided to stop mid-way to join the emerging pro-democracy movement.

‘’The military has also imposed restrictions on students going from one department to another in the main campus, which is still in Rangoon,’’ she told IPS. ‘’The University of Rangoon has been turned into a prison. New walls have been built to block usual paths; it has been compartmentalised.’’

Yet she feels the protests are a beginning of another movement for political change that would take more months to strengthen as it did in 1988. The bloody clash in August 1988 had its roots in the public anger that emerged in September 1987 when the military regime of the day demonetised the local currency, the kyat.

‘’This momentum is enough to lead to more demonstrations,’’ says Khin Ohmar. ‘’The anger against the military regime will spread.’’

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