The recent protests against the military junta in Burma, (also known as Myanmar), have again highlighted the vital role of technology in revolutionary movements.
Technology’s Role in Revolutionary Movements
Technology has long served as a facilitator for change. As far back as the early 16th century, followers of Martin Luther used a revolutionary type-set printer to mass-produce and disseminate Luther’s 95 Theses and other pro-Protestant propaganda.
In order to be effective, today’s revolutionary movements must also utilize the modern day printing press—the Internet and other digital communications technologies—as vehicles to quickly produce and disseminate propaganda.
The Saffron Revolution and the Cell Phone
During the ongoing protest in Burma, political dissidents within and outside the country have used a panoply of digital communications technology, including but not limited to: cell phones, email, digital photos and videos, websites, blogs, as well as instant messaging.
In many cases dissidents within the country have documented the protests against the junta by taking photographs with cell phones. The dissidents – operating as on scene reporters – have either posted these pictures to the Internet directly or emailed them to colleagues outside the country who have in turn posted the content online. Other dissidents have documented the events by posting entries to their personal blogs or by relaying information to friends outside the country via instant messaging applications. All of these digital communication technologies have effectively kept the world informed about the recent events.
The Junta’s Response
Burma’s ruling military junta responded to this digital revolutionary challenge by effectively disconnecting the country from the Internet on Friday September 28, 2007. While shutting down the country’s Internet cafés and disconnecting from the public Internet has certainly slowed the tide of news from Burma, it is too early to determine whether these responses will completely staunch information from dissidents within the country.
Despite Burma’s decision to pull the plug on the Internet, dissidents may still be able to circumvent this roadblock and get their message out to the rest of the world. While it is very expensive to do so, a well-funded dissident could still utilize a satellite phone to connect to the Internet and bypass the junta’s digital barricade Internet to send out news and photos of current protests.
Moreover, it is instructive to note that even before the junta disconnected from the Internet, Burma was one of the least connected and most censored countries in the world. Only one percent of the country was able to connect to the Internet and the Open Net Initiative noted in 2005 that Burma had deployed, “one of the world’s most restrictive regimes of Internet control.”
A current example of Iraqi insurgents offers useful insight to how groups can still disseminate propaganda under duress and limited resource conditions. Despite the chaos in Iraq, insurgent groups are still able to disseminate near daily updates and propaganda videos to the world even though the average Iraqi still lacks a reliable supply and by extension connectivity to the outside world.
In today’s digital world it is cheap and easy to create, store, transport, and disseminate content. Therefore, it is likely that dissidents in Burma will be able to adapt to the military junta’s digital blockade and develop a supply line to disseminate its propaganda to the world.