Mobiles Hidden in Monks' Robes

Posted by admin on Nov 04, 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. Names of individuals in this account have been changed to protect their identity. 

Burma – a modern anomaly

In September 2007, Buddhist clergy in the Southeast Asian nation of Burma (also known as Myanmar) led hundreds of thousands of citizens in peaceful protest against the ruling military regime. Armed with camera phones and limited internet access, they coordinated the largest protests the country had seen in 19 years, and broadcast the story to the outside world. These tools proved so threatening that the Burmese government responded by shutting off all Internet and mobile phone communications for five days. Why is this significant?

Globally, mobile phone penetration has reached an estimated 4.6 billion subscribers by the end of 2009, more than half the world’s population. Yet in Burma, mobile phone usage remains the exception rather than the rule. Government-imposed barriers and prohibitive prices have kept mobile penetration to approximately 1% of the population, a rate comparable to Internet access in the country.

Burma’s technological isolation accompanies the country’s greater political isolation. Ruled by a military dictatorship since 1962, the nation has become increasingly estranged from the global community. Even the name, changed from Burma to Myanmar by the military government in 1989, is disputed around the world as well as among Burmese political groups. Economic sanctions have been leveled against the country by the US and EU for its human rights abuses, and The Economist ranked Burma163 out of 167 countries in its 2008 Democracy Index.

Burma’s ruling military junta does maintain business deals with neighboring countries including China and Thailand, but the nation lags far behind its neighbors economically and technologically.  While there were only 610,000 mobile users in the country at the end of 2008 (1% of the population), India and China were expected to account for a quarter of global mobile penetration – approximately 1 billion subscriptions - by the beginning of the year, according to the ITU. In neighboring Thailand, meanwhile, approximately 92% of the population is covered by mobile telephony.

Compared to its neighbors, Burma’s mobile access seems woefully behind. Despite this, mobiles have played a critical role in crisis moments, such as the monk-led protests in 2007 and in coordinating recovery from the devastation of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008.  Additionally, mobile availability in neighboring countries has been effectively harnessed by Burmese groups operating in the bordering countries, where an estimated 3.5 million Burmese have been displaced.

Two of those countries, Bangladesh and China, have coverage that extends into parts of Burma. Across the region, mobiles are being used by Burmese community groups and dissident organizations to work for social change in their communities and their homeland. In the decades-long struggle for increased freedoms and rights in the country, Burmese civil society and opposition groups are increasingly using new technologies to their advantage.

What is the current state of mobile use in the country?

Burma is the only country in the region to have only one mobile provider, the state-run MPT. Because of this control, users are aware that both calls and SMS can be monitored.  By spring, 2007, Burmese font was introduced for text messages. The use of SMS has started to spread, and International SMS has been available since September 2008.

On Dec. 3, 2008 the Burmese govt. announced it would allow more SIM cards into the market, selling cards for $50 US, 25 times less than the current rate. However the increased sim card access is accompanied by a steep increase in call costs, “from the current rate of 35 kyats (three cents) per minute for outgoing domestic calls, up to the equivalent of 30 cents.” Since then,MPT announced that it would add more than 200,000 GSM mobile phone SIM cards in 2009. An official at MPT said, according to a recent article, that Burmese authorities will sell 80,000 GSM mobile phone SIM cards and 150,000 CDMA phone SIM cards before the military government sponsored 2010 election, most likely to raise fund for the cash-strapped regime. 

Following the monk-led uprising of September 2007, my colleague Mark Belinsky and I set off to work with Burmese tech activists in Thailand, and conduct research for the Center for Peace Building International along Burma’s Western borders. We witnessed the ways in which mobile phones are being used to communicate, report, and strategize, and more broadly the ways in which new technology is empowering political engagement. Since then we have been back twice, witnessing the remarkable transformations that have been taken place since 2007.

The Uprising of 2007

Here, an examination of how mobiles were used during the nonviolent protests of fall 2007, and how they are being used by Burmese in the neighboring countries of Bangladesh, India, China and Thailand.

The protests of September, 2007, commonly called the Saffron Revolution or Uprising due to the leadership of the saffron and crimson-clad monks, were the largest the country had seen since the violently suppressed student-led uprising of August 8, 1988. Then, the military brutally suppressed the popular uprising by opening fire on tens of thousands of protesters. In 1988, even though an estimated 3,000-10,000 people were killed by the military, there was little international news, due to the country’s isolation and the ban on foreign press.

Aung Aung Ye was in high school during the ’88 protests. Living in Rangoon, he was friends and neighbors with many of the older students who led the protests, many of whom are still serving jail time.

A skilled computer programmer, he became involved with the IT sector in 1998, when the Burmese government first opened Internet lines to the public. He began conducting IT trainings to high-school and college age students, enough to arouse the suspicion of authorities. Arrested for this work, he was sent to a remote part of the country and forced to be a human land mine sweeper. Several of his friends died in this task before he successfully fled to Thailand. He still lives on the Thai-Burma border, teaching computer skills to Burmese refugees and migrant workers.

For weeks tension had been building inside his country. Like other Burmese living in exile, Aung Aung Ye was spending sleepless hours on the computer and working his phone, gathering updates of the growing unrest inside the country.

In mid-August 2007, the military government increased fuel taxes, immediately doubling the prices of most fuels, while gas prices rose by 500%. Small protests against this economic hardship gained momentum when Burma’s clergy – Buddhist monks and nuns, in their saffron, maroon and pink robes – took to the streets in mid-September. They were peacefully demanding removal of the fuel tax, release of political prisoners, and dialogue between the military and opposition political parties. At first, they asked the people to support but not join in the marches. After a week, they invited ordinary Burmese to join. They did so, and on Sept. 24, over 100,000 people marched in cities and towns across the country.

Tech made the difference

The events of 8/8/88 may be etched in people’s memory, but there is little photo evidence. In 2007, there was documentation from the beginning, in the form of digital images taken by cameras and camera phones. As the protests grew, new technology played a pivotal role. Access to mobile technology in particular represented a sea change in how information was transmitted and what it meant for the people involved, because mobiles connected protesters to each other and to the outside world. In a closed society where people fear the consequences of speaking openly with a neighbor, new technology allowed for new kinds of mobilization. Information was broadcast to organizations operating freely in exile, including in Thailand, India and Bangladesh. Information was then transmitted back inside by trusted contacts, allowing many people to take part.

How was this possible, given low penetration? For one, the majority of internet and mobile users are based in Burma’s cities, where the protests were taking place. Secondly, many monasteries had been given donations of mobile phones by military families who had access to SIM cards at the official government rates (approximately $1200 US at the time). Although the majority of monks did not carry mobile phones, a few from each monastery were enough to coordinate the actions and share critical information.

Throughout the unrest, protesters, including monks and laypeople, used mobiles to coordinate the logistics of the protests, communicate breaking news to Burmese living in exile and international news organizations, and to document them through mobile images and mobile video that were either uploaded via the internet and shared with international news sources or smuggled out – on discs and flashdrives – through underground networks, to neighboring countries. All this was coordinated and executed with the added restriction that international text messaging didn’t exist for Burmese mobile users.

“During the Saffron Revolution, mobiles were used in taking images, movies and communication, but mostly used for reporting and networking among activists and politicians,” Aung Aung Ye explained. During that time, he stayed online approximately 20 hours a day, gathering news on his phone or email then uploading and sharing it with “medias, blogs and websites.” Due to the lower costs of mobiles in Thailand, he was able to make phone calls to contacts in Burma to gather this information.

Global news

The efforts of Aung Aung Ye and other citizen journalists had successfully turned international attention to Burma. As Aung Aung Ye explained in an interview in November, 2007, “During the Saffron Uprising, most of my time was spent on the Internet and mobiles in order to get real-time information from inside Burma to the international (community).”

This information was important to spread inside the country as well as internationally. Because news inside is heavily censored, many in the rural areas depend on dissident radio to get their news. Burmese language services such as Voice of America, Democratic Voice of Burma and the BBC Burmese service were widely listened to during the protests. They worked closely with Burmese citizen journalists to get information out of the country, which was then broadcast back inside. For a group of thousands protesting in Sittwe (Arakhan State) it was critical to know that tens of thousands had protested the same day in Rangoon. Though the junta had effectively cut these groups off from one another, by communicating outside and back in they could access this information.

Inside-outside-inside communication

Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, I met with exiled Burmese activist Kyaw Win who had found himself playing an unexpected role – getting information back inside the country. On the 26th, a friend called Kyaw Win because he knew shooting had begun, but didn’t know where to find it. Thanks to Burmese bloggers, Kyaw Win was able to direct him to Shwedagon Pagoda.

Kyaw Win was just 12 years old during the pro-democracy uprising of 1988, but he still remembers the hope of the events, and the crushing pain of the junta’s violence and jail sentences against student protesters. Around September 23, when the protests intensified, he moved his bed into his computer room in order to receive updates throughout the night. “That way I won’t miss anything.”

Moving the bed allowed Kyaw Win to stay up through the night in order to link communications in and out of the country. Sleep-deprived, he explained over afternoon coffee that, "Information is not (flowing in) only one direction." Inside Burma, where the watchful eye of government censors is never far, it was sometimes easier to get information from trusted contacts abroad, in an inside-outside-inside communication chain. 

The Crackdown

As the protests mounted, people inside the country waited anxiously to see how the military would respond. Initially the government made no move to halt to protests, though plain-clothed police monitored the demonstrations.  

On Sept. 26, the protests were still going strong. It was 11 am, and Aung Aung Ye was juggling two computers and a mobile phone from his office in Thailand. That morning he was on his mobile talking with contacts in Burma’s commercial capital, Rangoon. At 1:34 am EST, he told me that more than 10,000 people had gathered near Traders Hotel in downtown Rangoon.

By 1:40, the mood, still palpable electronically, changed. He had received frantic calls – the military had begun using tear gas and bullets against the peaceful demonstrators. His status message read, "Now, shooting in North/Oakalapa." Two minutes later, it changed again –Don't brake my heart into a million pieces.”

In order to stop the growing unrest, the government employed harsh tactics as they had in ’88 – mass arrests, firing upon civilians, banning any gathering of more than five people. After he received the news, he passed it on to other contacts, who in turn posted it on blogs and began the initial coverage:

"NEWS just in: Monks being attacked by security personnel and police on Bahan 3 Road at the foot of Shwedagon (Pagoda)." 

On that first day of shootings, Kyaw Win called his family in Rangoon. "My sister said I couldn't talk to my older brother because he was at the demonstration. He also brought his 14 year old daughter." They took the risk, knowing it could mean death.

"My sister said - 'If we fail to do this, everyone will be arrested anyway and put in prison and tortured. Everyone is willing to risk their lives because there might not be another opportunity for another 20 years.'" Every day as more crowds gathered by the thousands in the streets, there was a sense of duty and urgency. And this feeling wasn’t limited to protesters in the large cities of Rangoon and Mandalay.

The difference between ’88 and ‘07 

The news of the crackdown traveled quickly, first through personal networks – phone calls by witnesses to outside contacts like Aung Aung Ye, who then reported the news in chat programs and blogs, eventually reaching more traditional media. Thus emerged citizen journalism in a country where the press has not been free since the military first took power in 1962. Digital technology allowed witnesses to take photos and video footage that then spread around the world and turned the protests into a front-page story. People from London to the Philippines viewed video of the protests taken from apartment balconies, and mobile images of the protests and the government’s bloody response.

On Sept. 28, Aung Aung Ye received eight photos from a friend of a friend in Rangoon. This man, a doctor at Rangoon General Hospital, had shot camera phone images of patients – head wounds, a dead monks. He used a private internet connection to send the photos to Thailand.

Images of monks bleeding from baton injuries and crowds fleeing tear gas quickly gained media attention. From the balcony of a hotel, video footage caught the close range killing of a Japanese video journalist Kenji Nagai, shot by a Burmese soldier. This video was uploaded to, helping to keep international attention on the violent (happenings) in Burma.

The military’s response echoed ’88, but international response differed sharply. Twenty years ago there were few foreign journalists in the country, and no way to get images out. As a result, the massacre of protesters received little international attention. In 2007, Burmese used the modest penetration of mobiles and  internet to share news updates before international media outlets confirmed the reports. By the end of the second day of the military’s crackdown, Sept. 27, even the Myanmar state-controlled media had capitulated to reporting ten dead and 37 injured.

Part II of 'Mobiles Hidden in Monks' Robes': The Interent crackdown and communications across the border.


Photo courtesy Racoles.



Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><p><br> <b><i><blockquote>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options