Burma: Junta Draw Veil of Ignorance September 29, 2007Posted by Joanne KY Teoh in Essays, Journalism, News, Web Video.
Surely and swiftly the military junta in Burma have returned a veil of ignorance to the country while they shoot people on the streets. But the week has been an extraordinary moment for civic media and the Web, with grassroots witnesses to a pacifist struggle posting images and accounts out of Burma for global scrutiny.
The last time Burmese soldiers fired on their own people there were few witnesses, and those who were there had no way of telling the story. This time, the demonstrations had persisted and spread in part because of new technologies.
What’s amazing is the cadre of people on the ground, gathering and disseminating information through the sieve of the state despite low internet penetration, low connection speeds and the need for proxy servers. This uprising in Burma is a compelling argument for citizen media forcing the world to confront a reclusive regime with draconian Internet control.
People sharing photographs and writing blogs aren’t doing it because they are journalists, but because it is a natural impulse to want to share experiences. Images of chaos and casualties have circulated with a battery of videos and an outpouring of comments (see here and here)
The Burmese people know must keep international attention on themselves if they want to succeed. Armed with mobile phone cameras, they have become the eyes of the “saffron revolution”. For days they risked their lives to stand in for the hundreds of foreign journalists banned by a government with much to hide.
To be sure, citizen media will not be the only source of information in events like a revolution, coup or civil war. They are welcome complements and sources of experts.
It is a risk. The soldiers arrest anyone who takes photos, destroy their phones and beat them up. But we have to show the world what is happening. Kyaw, medical student
I’m scared that if we stop sending photos and video the world will forget about us. Lynn, Burmese
Raw footage capturing the last gasps of Kenji Nagai has been aired on Japanese TV and posted on the Web, raising official suspicion that the 50-year old photo-journalist was murdered by Burmese troops.
The footage shows Nagai on the edge of a crowd of panic-stricken demonstrators, shoved to the ground by a soldier and shot at point-blank range, clutching his video camera to protect it from the fall. Evidence like this contradicts official Burmese explanation that Nagai was killed by a “stray bullet”.
The monks were moral shields; without them the marchers had lost a lucky charm. They felt less like crusaders for justice and more like what they resembled – scared, angry kids in T-shirts facing well-drilled troops with automatic weapons. TIMES ONLINE
The images have certainly spoken louder than words, catalyzing action by the international community. So far, UN talk of sanctions has been mere slaps on the wrist that failed to force the junta’s hand.
Weasely diplomatic response by Burma’s allies did not lead to wider influences. The tired rhetoric of outrage from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is motivated more by threat of financial sanctions from the West than compassion.
Elements of the armed forces may rebel and overthrow the old guard. But this has not happened yet. The junta will ignore international calls for restraint, unless China, ASEAN and other nations that hold the most leverage on Burma join the outcry.
From the point of view of TV, the situation is the same as it was in 1988. No foreign TV crews have been able to enter Burma and networks such as BBC and CNN have been reporting from neighboring Thailand.
The junta has calculated that it can again win the propaganda battle if it controls traditional media. It is countering the impact of information smuggled out of Burma with news broadcasts, and surreal official versions describing the soldiers as victims.
Indeed, TV has made us so used to seeing popular uprisings topple authoritarian regimes that the difficulties involved can be underestimated. The first flush of images and accounts from citizen witnesses may create premature expectations about a new era of public protest.
It is unclear how much this “saffron revolution” resembles the “color revolutions” that took place in Georgia and Ukraine, where “networked” movements maximized cell phone technology and used the Internet as a platform in political mobilization for new elections.
To be sure, protesters in Burma faced an implacable military junta that showed subtle and malignant cunning in moving against the monks. The crackdown is a reminder that street protests do not necessarily lead to revolution.
Citizen journalism is a movement in progress. Where sovereignty is at stake, there will be the struggle between the Utopian roots of the Web, and the hegemony of the state. As much as we would like to think the Web is an unbridled new frontier, realistically on the ground, the force of law, or in Burma’s case – the might of the fist – will be invoked at tipping point.
It would be naive to think that a media of the people has immediate power to undermine hard power. While the Web ensures that the world will continue to keep watch, the question is whether this will sway a regime which cares nought about its image.
In many countries of Asia, journalism is battle ground territory between authority and media. It is worth remembering that however cyber the space is, it is also real and subject to real space power.
Since Thursday the military junta have made themselves felt in cyberspace, blocking Websites and cutting mobile phone lines while they shoot people on the streets. But a handful of people has already ensured that the perpetrators will face some measure of accountability for their repression.