The world has been watching as thousands of saffron-robed monks march through the streets of the Burmese captial Yangon in protest against the repressive military regime -- thanks to the images seeping out of the country via the Internet. While foreign journalists are being refused visas and are forced to wait in Bangkok hotels, ordinary Burmese are taking huge risks by taking photographs and blogging to communicate with the outside world.
As the protests enter their 10th day, the military regime seems to be ignoring international pleas for restraint and is instead continuing its crackdown on the protestors. In the early hours of Thursday morning, troops raided a number of monasteries and dragged away hundreds of monks. Just a few hours later, images of the blood-spattered floor of the monasteries were posted on Internet news sites across the world.
Ko Htike's blog's traffic has increased tenfold over the past few days. The Burmese national, who lives in London, has turned his literary blog into a political forum. "I have around 10 people inside in different locations They are walking along with the march and as soon as they get any images or news they pop into internet cafes and send it to me," he told BBC News on Wednesday. Ko Htike said that the bloggers usually use chat rooms like Yahoo Messenger to communicate.
The latest entry on his blog on Thursday read: "Three men were shooted (sic), one is already dead, in Sule there are only people, they are shooting in the group, but never run away the people," posted from Yangon at 2:10 p.m. local time.
When riot police shot at crowds on Wednesday to disperse them, the regime eventually admitted that one man was killed, while the opposition reported the deaths of five monks. The small radio and TV network, Democratic Voice of Burma, based in Oslo, Norway, was the first to break the news.
The station, founded in 1992 by exiled Burmese students, has been able to pass on information about the protests in almost real time. Director Aye Chan Naing said the station has around 30 to 40 "undercover reporters," inside Burma. "Mobile phones are essential," he told the Associated Press on Wednesday. "Mobile phones are the way they can report from the ground. This morning (the military) cut off some mobile phones, so we can't get hold of some of our people."
When the junta murdered more than 3,000 pro-democracy activists in 1988, it hardly registered outside the country at first. Now the mass protests are being closely followed. Aung Zaw, editor of Irrawaddy, a news magazine for expatriate Burmese in Thailand, told AP: "The world doesnt know where Burma is. Now they see images about the situation and want to know more. That's a huge difference from 1988."
The hundreds of bloggers and people sending information are risking severe punishment. Anyone who has a computer and does not use the state Internet provider can be imprisoned for up to 15 years. But the bloggers seem to have managed to circumvent the censorship with relative ease.
According to the press freedom non-governmental organization Reporters without Borders, the ousting of former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in October 2004 saw a marked reduction in the regime's monitoring of the Internet. "He was a military intelligence guy ... . After he was removed, they no longer have much knowledge in this area," Vincent Brossel, the organization's Asia director, told BBC News.
Brossel told AP that the junta was now trying to stem the flow of information by slowing down Internet connections, blocking mobile phone services and closing Internet cafes. But the opposition is now using satellite phones, which can bypass censors and firewalls to get the message out.
Burma's state-run media has blamed "saboteurs" for causing the protests. "Saboteurs from inside and outside the nation and some foreign radio stations, who are jealous of national peace and development, have been making instigative acts through lies to cause internal instability and civil commotion," said The New Light of Myanmar, a mouthpiece for the regime, on Thursday.