Junta restricts internet access

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A "window of information" is closing in Burma as the junta fights networks of disaffected citizens by restricting mobile phones and internet access, a leading dissident journalist said yesterday.

The biggest anti-junta protests in two decades in one of the world's most closed states has been broadcast around the world thanks to exiled journalists in countries such as Thailand and India.

So far citizen reporters have managed to send information and photos to external news outlets across the internet, even using the social networking site Facebook or hiding news in e-greetings cards to outwit the military government.

Pictures of monks and civilians marching and the response by security forces are on TV screens around the world in hours.

It all contrasts with Burma's last major uprising, in 1988, when as many as 3,000 people were killed by soldiers firing on crowds but it took days for the news to emerge.

It could soon change.

"The window of information is closing," said Soe Myint, editor-in-chief of the internet-based Mizzima news agency. "It's getting more and more difficult. Many blogging sites are now blocked and opposition activists have had their mobile phones cut."

Mizzima is one of several outlets, like the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), that have become a major source of information on the country.

Founded nine years ago, it is based in a run-down office in Delhi, collecting clandestine reports from hundreds of Burma citizens before trying to confirm the news with a network of secret reporters.

Myint and a friend hit the headlines in 1990 when he hijacked a Thai International Airways plane to protest at the junta's rejection of elections won by pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

He used fake bombs made out of soap cases to hijack the plane flying from Bangkok to Rangoon with 220 passengers on board. The two friends were released in 1991 after a three-month jail term and recognised as refugees in India.

"Now the military have made the internet slower and made it nearly impossible for photos to be downloaded," Myint said.

"We find that we are getting lots of video filmed there but it is increasingly hard to get those videos out. It's also more risky for people there to film."

Myint said two days ago he received about 300 emails a day from people within Burma. "I haven't received one photo today." But despite fearing a total blackout, Myint remains upbeat. With a wry grin, he said: "We still have our ways of getting information out."