As soldiers in Myanmar intensified their crackdown on pro-democracy protesters Friday, authorities also went after the Internet and mobile phones that have proven so vital and powerful in documenting the dramatic confrontations.
The Internet has played a crucial role in the flow of information out of the reclusive Southeast Asian nation where few foreign journalists are permitted to operate and media freedom is severely restricted.
For days, the world has been watching television and still images smuggled out of the over the Internet, and many journalism and dissident Web sites and blogs are packed with images and links to more video and photos of the crackdown under way. The images have drawn global condemnation of the ruling junta.
Myanmar has been enflamed by protests against 45 years of repressive military rule. Security forces have killed at least 10 people in the past few days, arrested hundreds and sealed off hotbeds of dissent in Yangon and other urban centers. Exile groups and at least one western diplomat have said the actual death toll could be much higher.
Unlike in 1988, when a similar uprising was crushed in a bloodbath, dramatic photos arrive via e-mails to exiled activists and via mobile phones to journalists outside the country, also known as Burma.
“Modern technology has become the generals’ worst enemy. There were only rusty phones, if you could get through (in 1988),” says Bertil Lintner, a Myanmar expert and author of several books on the country.
But on Friday, the government closed Internet access, at least temporarily. It also cut some phone landlines and intensified confiscation of mobile phones, said Aung Zaw, Burmese editor of the independent Irrawaddy magazine in Thailand which covers Myanmar.
“The Internet was cut this afternoon. If you watch television, they are showing images from yesterday,” he said, predicting people would find other ways to gain access this weekend and resume the outflow of information.
The government suspended the services of the two Internet service providers, BaganNet and Myanmar Post and Telecom, but big companies and embassies hooked up to the Web by satellite remained online.
“I’m not surprised. They have always tried to control information,” Shari Villarosa, the top diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, told The Associated Press by telephone on Friday. “The photos and videos that are getting out reveal the truth about how they hold on to power.”
Though the government has cut some phone landlines, it has had less success clamping down on mobile phones.
Stopping the flow of information through new technology will be all but impossible, Aung Zaw said, adding that in 1988, “it took days, sometimes weeks, even months” to get images out and now people are finding ways to get them out swiftly.
The immediacy has been vital in telling the world so it can act quickly as developments unfold, he said.
“The world doesn’t know where Burma is. Now they see images about the situation and want to know more. That’s a huge difference from 1988,” Aung Zaw said.
Mobile phones have proven invaluable in getting information to people outside, said Soe Aung, a spokesman for the National Council of the Union of Burma, a coalition of opposition groups based in Thailand.
Communication inside the country is also important, said Aung Din, Policy Director with the U.S. Campaign for Burma in Washington D.C.
“Students use cell phones to SMS each other to share information,” he said, referring to text messages activists use to organize demonstrations or inform one another of the locations of soldiers. “The junta can’t control the technology totally, and it’s a huge difference (if you can) deliver the information fast.”