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Technology vs. Tyranny

The rulers of Myanmar and other repressive nations try to control the flow of information to keep their grip on power. But are they any match for cell phones, blogs, and YouTube?

By Seth Mydans in Bangkok

It was about as simple and uncomplicated as shooting demonstrators in the streets. Embarrassed by video and photographs smuggled via cyberspace that showed their people rising up against them, the generals who run Myanmar simply switched off the Internet for two weeks.

Newspapers and TV and computer screens abroad had been flooded with scenes of tens of thousands of red-robed monks in the streets peacefully protesting—followed by images of chaos and violence as the junta stamped out the biggest popular uprising in Myanmar, also known as Burma, in two decades.

But on September 28, the images, text messages, and blog postings stopped, shut down by generals who belatedly grasped the power of the Internet to jeopardize their crackdown.

"Finally they realized that this was their biggest enemy, and they took it down," says Aung Zaw, editor of a Burmese exile magazine based in Thailand.

The efficiency of this technological crackdown raises the question of whether the Internet, which has been credited with helping to undermine repressive regimes around the world, can stand up to a determined and ruthless government.

Military Vs. Monks

Peaceful protests in Myanmar began in mid-August, after steep increases in fuel prices drove up the cost of transportation and commodities. During the demonstrations, the country's two largest and most established institutions—Buddhist monks and the military, both about 400,000 strong—confronted each other. The monks retain ultimate moral authority and are revered by the Burmese people. Opposed by both its spiritual and popular bases, the military government that has ruled for 19 years had little to fall back on but force.

On September 26, security forces raided Buddhist monasteries and beat back demonstrators with tear gas and gunfire. The generals confiscated cell phones and cameras, then turned their attention to the Internet, where a guerrilla army of citizen reporters had been blogging, posting notices on Facebook, updating entries on Wikipedia, and sending tiny messages on e-cards. Those reports were broadcast back to Burma by foreign radio and television stations, informing a public that hears only propaganda from state-controlled media.

Myanmar has just two Internet service providers, and shutting them down was not complicated, says David Mathieson, an expert on Myanmar with Human Rights Watch. "The crackdown on the media and on information flow is parallel to the physical crackdown," he says.

OpenNet Initiative, which tracks Internet censorship, has documented that in recent years several governments—including those of Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, former republics of the Soviet Union—have closed off or restricted Internet access during periods preceding elections or times of intense protests.

Repressive governments have also recognized the threat of "smart-mobbing"—using text messages to organize massive demonstrations. During the Orange Revolution in 2004 in Ukraine—also formerly a part of the Soviet Union—text messaging and online forums helped topple a corrupt regime. In June, Iran's government shut down the nation's text-messaging service when gasoline rationing generated unrest.

But controlling the Internet and cell phones is a lot more difficult than censoring state-controlled newspapers and TV stations, as the Soviet Union and former Communist governments in Eastern Europe did during the Cold War. Even China—with its "Great Firewall" that blocks hundreds of Web sites—cannot entirely control the Internet.

Repressive regimes throughout history have had to contend with technological advances that made organizing people and transmitting the news easier—from the sailing ship and the telegraph to computers and satellite phones.

The printing press, which enabled the widespread distribution of political pamphlets that stirred up unrest against England's King George III, was a key factor in the American Revolution, according to Frank A. Moretti of the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning at Columbia University. Without the printing press, Moretti says, "the notion of a national consciousness is actually inconceivable."

The same might be said today about the power of the Internet in a repressive nation like Myanmar.