Burma's junta can't escape from the net

Cyber-activists plan to scrutinise the country's elections

Phoebe Kennedy
Tuesday 14 September 2010 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

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Burma's military rulers won't be inviting foreign observers to monitor November's general election – a poll already dismissed as a sham by Western governments – but the country's network of bloggers and "citizen journalists" is planning to do the job for them.

Despite internet censorship and harsh punishments for those caught criticising the junta online, Burma has a lively cyber community of bloggers and Facebookers who believe the internet is the strongest force for change in a country which has been locked under military dictatorship for half a century. The 7 November election won't be free or fair – senior general Than Shwe has already seen to that by bankrolling a huge proxy party stuffed with ex-military candidates, while intimidating and financially squeezing the small opposition parties which have dared to stand.

But gathered in an internet café in central Rangoon, a group of young cyber-activists say they are taking the vote seriously, even if the result is a foregone conclusion.

"The regime is going to keep power after the election – we all know that – but boycotting the election will not help. We need to grab any opportunity to bring change," said Aung, a 27-year-old female blogger and author of the popular Burmese-language blog "Me and My Stuff".

Optimistic and sometimes painfully idealistic, the bloggers are strongly opposed to the government but are fed up with what is written about Burma from outside the country: media reports, blogs written by political exiles and human rights websites are all damning of the junta but offer nothing positive, they say.

"They are just attacking the regime and nothing else," said Eugene, a 30-year-old blogger. "They don't show us a way out. They talk about the problems but not the solution – many people are searching for more, and we want to give them that."

Like everyone under the age of 38 in Burma, none of the bloggers has voted before. The last national election in 1990 was won overwhelmingly by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, but the generals overturned the result.

Despite their inexperience of democracy, the bloggers see their role as educating and informing.

"We want to explain how the election will work," said "Timpler" the cyber name of a 30-year-old IT consultant and father of two. "I already post information about political parties, the election commission and other things about politics. Some people can be quite outspoken, making fun of the government politicians, or saying that they are lying."

On election day itself, the bloggers plan to spread out across Rangoon and other cities and towns to create an network of election monitors.

"Our role as bloggers, or CJs (citizen journalists) will be to individually monitor the election," said Aung. "We plan to organise ourselves to phone in from the polling stations and use SMS and Twitter to get information out and to say whether the voting is free. This as our responsibility."

The bloggers are well aware of the risks. Fellow blogger Nay Phone Latt was arrested in early 2008 and sentenced to 12 years in prison for breaking the Electronics Act. The 30-year-old was a prominent blogger during the September 2007 "Saffron Revolution" and documented the uprising led by Buddhist monks and its violent aftermath, in which dozens of peaceful protesters were shot dead.

Nay Phone Latt, named this year as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people, is serving his sentence in the remote Hpa'an prison in eastern Burma. His family is able to visit him occasionally, but the only communication he now has with his online community is by hand-written letter.

The bloggers plan to be careful. Their individual blogs can be easily traced to them, so they may use a group blog such as Burmese Bloggers without Borders, the site they set up in 2007 to record the uprising. The regime has tried to block blog sites inside Burma and they cannot always be viewed. But the bloggers say the government's haphazard approach to controlling the internet and their own superior technical knowledge keep them a step ahead.

"We can get around their controls and blocks, it's easy for us. We use anonymity software and proxy servers outside the country. That's just natural for us," said Aung, an English language graduate and IT trainer. The bloggers' hope for the election is that a civilian-fronted government will bring some new freedoms, small cracks in the system that can be wedged open by their drive and activism.

"There will be no revolution, but even a little change will be good for us," said Aung. "We don't want to be politicians, we see ourselves as social activists. We believe in the power of new media to make a difference in our country."

From the blogs

Simple loss of faith, February 2009

We no longer have faith in the government, the education system and the health-care system, etc. A visit to any government office will require a string of briberies to get things done, starting from the lowest-rank. Many educators and health practitioners have traded in their sense of integrity in exchange for the pursuit of materialistic goals or simply the need of survival. Schools have lost their essence of education and nurturing. Our educational certificates no longer hold much worth. People no longer have a sense of pride at being "educated". Corruptions and lies have crept into Burma over the decades and slowly but surely, settled into the daily lives of our people.

Past is haunting, present is daunting, July 2008

So, what is the present situation in Burma now? Burmese civilians did try their best whenever the circumstances favoured. Then military regime has repeatedly tortured and killed whomever is against them. Many families were broken and destroyed under this oppression. Mothers are crying. Sons are dying. Political prisoner are lying in the darkness. Political crisis makes ever-deepening social crisis and in turn it's causing political unrest again. Moreover, Nargis cyclone pushes Burma to the edge of the worst. Everything seems hopeless and unimaginable what would happen to worrisome and desperate 50 million souls. Will it be another revolution? Will it be another cyclone to make us sufferer? Will it be another earthquake to punish dictator? Will it be any betterment? Will it be even worse? One thing for sure is present is daunting.

All of Burma is a prison, June 2008

Why is my brother in Insein [prison]? On Feb. 15, the military raided the offices of the Myanmar Nation and took my brother, the weekly journal's editor in chief, to jail. His crime? Possession of a UN report on the military's brutal crackdown on last September's demonstrations by monks and democracy activists – known around the world as the "Saffron Revolution".

My brother's name is Thet Zin, and he is one of hundreds of Burmese citizens who struggle to tell the truth about what is happening in their country – whether through traditional forms of journalism or through the internet – under threat of arrest or worse by the military regime. Along with my brother, his office manager, Sein Win Maung, was also arrested.

Source: Burmese Bloggers w/o Borders

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