Arab Protests Spark Internet Uprising in Burma

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  • Burmese refugee
    (Photo: The Christian Post/Anugrah Kumar)
    A Karen woman at a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border. There are over 150,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand.
By Anugrah Kumar, Christian Post Contributor
March 8, 2011|11:11 am

Inspired by protesters in the Arab world, Burma’s democracy activists have set off an online revolution to oppose their junta-led government braving its Internet censorship and security upgrade.

Political activists inside and outside Burma are using the Internet to denounce the military dictatorship and call for true democracy, Ba Kaung, a journalist with a Thailand-based Burmese news agency, The Irrawaddy, told The Christian Post.

Kaung said two days after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned from office under pressure from protesters, activists in Burma’s former capital Rangoon created a page on Facebook, “Just Do It Against Military Dictatorship.” The page now has over 1,500 supporters, mostly Burmese.

Some activists were also training Burmese citizens, including students and laborers in rural parts, to use the Internet, hoping they would join the protests against the military rulers, Kaung added.

Following the Facebook campaign, many activists began to distribute anti-junta pamphlets and posters across Burma – some of them saying, “Get Out Than Shwe,” Kaung said.

Senior-General Than Shwe is the head of the Burmese army who continues to rule the country through a proxy political organization, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which claimed victory in the allegedly rigged election held in December 2010 – first in two decades.

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Of late, the government has beefed up security in Burma’s former capital Rangoon, Kaung said. “But we cannot confirm if it is linked to the Facebook campaign, but that’s what activists inside Burma assume,” Kaung added.

The State-owned media in Burma does not cover revolutions in other countries and the government restricts access to website that may incite protests. Burmese access “banned” websites with a software that bypasses government’s proxy servers.

However, of the Burma’s 60 million people, only an estimated 400,000 use the Internet, mostly with a low data download speed. But Burmese people can beat that challenge, thinks Benedict Rogers, East Asia Team Leader at London-based advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

“They are very conscious of the value of Facebook, Twitter, mobile phones and other technology, and although they are not as widely available in Burma as they are in Egypt, for example, their availability is growing,” Rogers told The Christian Post.

Even during the 2007 uprising in Burma, when Buddhist monks led demonstrations, technology played a crucial role, and “that is even more the case now,” Rogers added.

Debbie Stothard, Coordinator at Bangkok-based Altsean-Burma, agreed with Rogers. “Burmese have always followed anti-authoritarian struggles with excitement and hope ‘it’s our turn next time’,” she said.

“They have always been keen to learn from the strategies of other struggles. That’s why the regime has always suppressed news of political movements in the Burmese media,” she added, pointing out that the news of the 1998 Reformasi movement in Indonesia which pushed out President Suharto was suppressed for several days in Rangoon.

“Instead of world news, the Burmese public is fed a steady diet of pro-military propaganda, and stories of crime and sex scandals in foreign countries,” Stothard added.

Alana Golmei, in charge of advocacy group Burma Centre Delhi, said the Burmese pro-democracy activists were closely watching the protests in the Arab world despite media and Internet restrictions which is an inspiration for them.

An activist from Thai-Burma border, who identified himself as Tha U Wah A Pah, said, “Every act of freedom anywhere in the world is an encouragement to the people here and gives hope and courage.”

However, the impact of the Internet campaign is expected to be low in Burma’s frontier states where most ethnic minorities, including Christians, live and have been fighting for independence or greater autonomy. “People in ethnic minority states have limited access to the Internet,” Kaung said.

Tensions in ethnic states, particularly Karen, Kachin and Shan, rose when the 2010 election was announced. Many pockets in these states are under the control of armed ethnic resistance groups and it is feared that the Burmese army may launch a major military offensive to reclaim its hold on them.

Ethnic minorities – some with large Christian populations – have allegedly faced brutality, discrimination and neglect by the military rulers, who are predominantly ethnic Burman, for over five decades. Burmese media operating from across the country’s borders routinely report on Burmese army personnel launching violent indiscriminate attacks on minorities, raping their women and girls and forcing them to become laborers without pay.

Burma’s military, seen as one of the world’s worst violators of human rights, has forced a large number of the citizens to flee the country in the last few decades.

Last month, U.N.’s Special Rapporteur to Burma Tomas Ojeas Quintana said Burma had become a burden to the South-East Asia region due to increasing numbers of Burmese asylum-seekers.

It is estimated that Bangladesh has nearly 400,000 refugees from Burma, Thailand over 150,000, India roughly 100,000, and Malaysia over 85,000.

 

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