Mobiles Hidden in Monks' Robes, Part III: Cracks in the Walls

Posted by admin on Nov 06, 2009

This article was written by Emily Jacobi from Digital Democracy. We are publishing her extensive report on Burmese dissidents' use of technology in three parts.  Part I with an overview of mobiles in Burma is here and part II that describes cross-border dissident communications here. All names of individuals have been changed to protect their identity.

Cracks in the Fortress' Wall

It was May 2008 in Thailand,  and Win Tun was anxiously watching his phone. Early May marks the beginning of rainy season, and reports were coming in of a major cyclone hitting Rangoon. A couple of days after the initial landfall on May 2, residual rains had made it to Thailand, and it was clear that Cyclone Nargis - “butterfly” - had destroyed major swaths of land in the Irawaddy delta. Up to 140,000 were missing or dead. Win Tun was worried about his family in Rangoon.

A former political prisoner, he spent 5 years in the infamous Insein prison for democratic activities in university in the ‘90s. When we met in early 2008, he had a sad air to him. Twenty years have passed since since the uprising of ’88, in which he was too young to participate. The exhaustion of fighting for something that seemed so far out of reach was wearing on him. Worse yet, he missed his family but couldn’t return home without bringing undue attention to them or risking another prison sentence.

After Nargis he was lucky. It took three days for him to get through to his family on their mobiles, and he learned they were okay – just upset, like most Burmese, at the government’s negligence of the victims. In the wake of Nargis, international aid groups waited in Thailand and offshore as the government refused to grant entrance to most.

The first few days after the Cyclone, bewildered Burmese in Rangoon stumbled out of their houses to survey the damage. In the streets, monks helped residents clear felled trees and downed power lines. But there were much bigger problems in the delta. Entire villages had been destroyed, and farmland had turned into swamps, contaminated by drowned bodies. Survivors often lost everything – their houses, food stores and relatives. Perhaps most critically, they were awash with water but had nothing safe to drink. Despite the military’s prowess, they proved ill-adept at responding to the crisis, and very little relief was to be found.

However, in this crisis as in others, ordinary citizens responded, and used what tools were available to them (a couple of phones here, a truck there, etc) to organize small-scale relief efforts. These were largely coordinated with support from outside, as youth like Win Tun snuck back across the border and, using pseudonyms, delivered food, medicine and water. Comedians and actors gave charity performances in the major cities, while voluntary groups of all forms gathered what they could and drove to the region, demonstrating the strength of their sense of civic duty.

What is Next for Burma?

Throughout the developing world, mobiles have been harnessed as tools of communication and commerce. In emerging markets with limited land-line infrastructure, mobile use has exploded as a way to leap-frog over limited infrastructure. Government controls have kept usage extremely low in Burma, and even as this is expected to open up, use will be limited by costs.

Despite their limited penetration, mobiles have proven to be important tools. In the past two years they have been used to coordinate protests, in donation drives following Cyclone Nargis, and to raise the profile of Burma around the world.  Imagine the possibilities if access to mobiles were to increase, and government controls decrease. What if Burmese villagers in the Delta region had as much mobile penetration as the cyclone-susceptible regions of Bangladesh, or flood-prone regions of India? The loss of life might have been greatly reduced, both by early warnings and better coordinated relief.

For Kyaw Win, China’s close business relationship with Burma represents an opportunity. In the past year, the Saffron Uprising and Cyclone Nargis revealed the deep flaws within the junta’s rule. In September ’07, the military came under pressure from China, its ally and business partner, to cooperate with international protocol and exercise restraint in dealing with the protesters. In late September, China strongly urged the junta not to turn off the internet and mobile phones. The junta did not heed this. Can further pressure from China, India, or ASEAN countries prevent the junta from shutting off mobiles once again? Can business interests from neighboring countries encourage increase mobile usage inside?

The military finds itself in a tricky situation. For the past 20 years the SPDC has fought hard to maintain stability in the face of internal protests. International pressure results from footage, images and breaking news being sent through telephone and the Internet, whether they are of protests or of Cyclone damage. Cutting the phone and internet again would tarnish this image, but the Burmese military is having difficulty controlling these methods of communication, other than fully turning them off. "They're not sophisticated like Chinese to shut down the internet, censor and block. They need the help of foreigners," said Kyaw Win.

Surveillance continues. “Mobiles are being watch by SPDC until today as well as landlines. Most of mobile users are aware and afraid of their mobile have been cut by SPDC,” explained Aung Aung Ye. However, users have learned to speak in code, and or focusing on using the mobiles’ capabilities to capture images or video.  When the military cuts individual phone lines or blocks certain sites, people use other phones, and tech savvy activists use proxy sites.   

As mobile phone usage surpasses 4 billion, the effects are far reaching. In Burma’s neighboring countries, Indians can choose between a plethora of mobile carriers. Bangladeshis are using their phones for mobile banking and income generation. Chinese people are wide-spread mobile users, and Thai use theirs to access the web. As time goes, on it will surely be harder and harder for the military to keep the country so isolated, particularly given this rapid growth in neighboring countries. The India-based editor of Mizzima News, one of the leading Burmese independent news services, spoke of the importance of building ICT inside the Burma. “This is a good time for investing in the country – to invest in networks and equipment.” Now is the time, in his view, to get equipment and network connections inside so that citizens can more effectively coordinate and report in the next case of a mass mobilization or natural disaster.

Despite the present obstacles, mobiles have changed the social landscape inside Burma, and proven to be important tools for burgeoning civil society groups. From the Saffron Uprising to Cyclone Nargis, it’s incredible what ordinary Burmese citizens have been able to do with mobiles in the face of such low penetration. How long can the government hold back progress? This is the question for Burmese groups as they move forward in an increasingly interconnected world.

Photo courtesy Racoles.


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