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Technology is the most valuable weapon

In contrast to the bloody suppression of the democracy movement almost 20 years ago, the world is now learning extensively about the protests in Myanmar – mainly thanks to private mobile phones and the Internet. The military is trying to block the flow of information.

Although information from Myanmar is sometimes slow to come across, activists are often the only source of dramatic events in the Southeast Asian country. According to the organisation Reporters Without Borders, the military junta has already cut several mobile phone connections.

Seen from Myanmar on the other side of the world, in the Norwegian capital Oslo, the transmitted information arrives at a small transmitter: The Democratic Voice of Burma, founded by exiled Burmese in 1992, transmits the news via satellite television and short-wave radio. Pictures and information about the protests could be passed on almost in real time, says editor-in-chief Aye Chan Naing. This would allow the world, unlike in 1988, to follow the protests today via television reports and stills. Exiled Burmese received emails with dramatic images, and journalists received cell phone calls, Naing continues. Hundreds of pictures were also simply posted on the Internet, and people in Burma were informed about shortwave radio. In contrast to 1988, there are now plenty of technical possibilities to transmit news from Myanmar, says Vincent Brossel of Reporters Without Borders. People could use photos and videos to prove what was going on during the protests.

Secret reporters

“Technology is the most valuable weapon that can be used in such pacifist battles,” explains Brossel. Aung Zaw of the independent magazine “Irrawaddy” in Thailand explains that in 1988 it took “days, sometimes weeks, even months” to transmit pictures from Myanmar. The world doesn’t know where Myanmar is. Now they see pictures of the situation there and want to know more. That’s a big difference from 1988,” says the editor. Naing of the Democratic Voice of Burma stresses that the new technical possibilities are extremely important. But he doesn’t want to say exactly how his 30 to 40 “secret reporters” work.

Because anyone who openly works as a journalist in Myanmar could be arrested. “Mobile phones are crucial. Mobile phones are the way our people can report from the field,” explains the former student of dentistry. In the morning, the armed forces switched off some mobile phones, says Naing. Previously, activists had reported five deaths from violent action by the security forces against the demonstrators on Wednesday – the government spoke of at least one dead and three injured. Brossel says the military junta is trying to stop the flow of information by slowing down internet connections and cutting off mobile phone connections. Already on Wednesday, lame connections had made sending photos and videos more difficult. Many Internet cafés – only a few Burmese have an online connection at home – have been closed, reports the Reporter Without Borders employee.

Complete censorship is impossible

In the meantime, however, the opposition is working with satellite telephones, which could be used to circumvent censorship, firewalls and other restrictions. Aung Din of the U.S. Campaign for Burma in Washington says that it is not only important to communicate abroad, but also to provide information within Burma. Students used SMS to exchange information, mobile phones to organize demonstrations, and soldiers to inform fellow combatants about the location of soldiers. The frequently confiscated cell phones have proven invaluable, says Soe Aung of the National Council of the Union of Burma, a Thai-based association of opposition groups.

Myanmar expert Mary Callahan of the University of Washington says that in 1988 the armed forces could have simply shut down rail links, set up roadblocks and cut off telephone lines, making it much more difficult to organise protests. Today, demonstrators can use the Internet and cell phones to “mobilize internal and external support. Din is also convinced that the junta cannot fully control the technical possibilities. “And it makes a big difference if you can transmit information quickly.”

Myanmar or Burma?

Dear readers, as you may have already noticed, there are various terms for this Southeast Asian country: Burma, Myanmar. In many German media it is called Burma, as is usual in the English-speaking world. Since 1989 it has officially been called Union Myanmar. This is how it is called by the United Nations and the Federal Republic of Germany. Some countries have stayed with Burma/Burma in protest against the military regime there, such as the USA and Australia.

About Myanmar

Myanmar is located in Southeast Asia on the eastern shore of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. British colonial rule ended in 1948, with unrest, insurrection, political oppression and ethnic conflict soon dominating. When the National League for Democracy (NLD) won free elections in 1990, the military prevented it from taking office. The most important economic sector is agriculture. Myanmar’s natural resources include fish and teak forests.

Tropical monsoon climate. Summer rainy season (SW monsoon) from May to October. The western mountains on the windward side receive precipitation of up to 5000 mm, in the central highlands only 600 mm. Summer temperatures up to 40ºC. Winter dry season with cooler temperatures from Janur to March. In the extreme north over 1000 m occasional frost.

In Burmese the syllable Myan means “fast”, the syllable Mar means “strong”. The Southeast Asian state was formerly called Burma or Burma. Beside the official name (Pye Tawngsu Myanma Naingngan = “Union Myanmar”) the inhabitants call the state also briefly Myanma Naingngan (“state Myanmar”). Burma and Myanmar are not really different names. Bama, from which the English pronounced Burma (and from this presumably Germanized Burma) obviously derives, and Myanma have always been the names for the largest population group of the Bamar in their own language and for their country. The term Myanma is said to date back to the 6th century. It comes from the written language, while Bama is used colloquially.

Since the 1920s there have been efforts to find a uniform term for all ethnic groups living in Myanmar. Thus Bama was replaced several times by Myanma and vice versa. The official renaming of the country into Union of Myanmar by the military was primarily a project with external effect. The country was to present itself as a definite escape from the colonial era. The United Nations approved the new name of the state a few days after the proclamation. This has now been followed by many states, while the United States and Australia are sticking to the name Burma as a sign of their disapproval of the regime.