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The World

A digitally enhanced Myanmar opposition

January 07, 2008|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

YANGON, MYANMAR — During 45 years of military rule, Myanmar's generals drilled fear and suspicion so deeply into the minds of their people that when their opponents tried to harness the rage seething on the streets last fall, no one knew whom to trust.

The generals quickly took advantage, crushing the pro-democracy demonstrations, killing at least 15 people and jailing thousands. It was a brutally simple strategy that had worked before.

But this time may be different. An information revolution has come slowly to this poor, isolated country, and the military government may have inadvertently handed its enemies the keys to organizing a more effective underground movement.

Opposition activists and exiled leaders had tried before to tap into the growing discontent, but constant surveillance kept them off balance and on the run.

There seemed little chance of getting organized until more than 2,000 protesters, arrested and jammed into crowded jail cells, met one another and overcame their distrust. Now, most of them are on the streets again, carefully building a network for what they call a new revolution.

Their digital tools are e-mail and text messages, which are more powerful than a megaphone, and cellphone cameras that are so common that thousands of people are potential journalists.

The country's current turmoil is rooted in the military rulers' mismanagement, which has reduced a country rich in natural resources to an economic basket case surrounded by neighbors enjoying rapid growth.

Even as the generals and their cronies enriched themselves on oil and natural gas exports, they ended subsidies for their people in August, sharply increasing fuel prices overnight and compounding inflation. Anger rose with prices, and what began as small, isolated protests exploded into a full-blown crisis in September.

Many who joined the protests were ordinary people moved by the courage of marching Buddhist monks to take their own stand against the government. The peaceful demonstrators were easy targets for the military.

The government acknowledged killing 15 protesters; the United Nations says at least 31 died. Many others found themselves behind bars, where they could either try to sleep on the crowded concrete floor or get to know other protesters.

Most spent only a few days in jail, long enough to overcome distrust, make new contacts with the underground, and organize more cells that now communicate through coded messages, Internet drop boxes and old-fashioned couriers.

"Nobody knew what they were doing in the revolution. There was no organization," said a small businessman who joined the street protests out of frustration with mismanagement of the economy.

"But when people were in jail, they got to meet each other. They could exchange e-mail addresses, cellphone numbers and make plans," added the entrepreneur, who spoke on condition of anonymity because police are still arresting and torturing dissidents.

They walked out of jail with a new determination to tap into the growing sense that the generals are losing their grip, pro-democracy activists and their leaders inside and outside Myanmar said in interviews.

In the aftermath of the September protests, the businessman said, he took charge of a cell of young pro-democracy activists who are trying to keep information on the movement flowing to the outside world.

During the uprising, video, photographs and blog reports posted on the Internet played a key role in breaking the wall of silence surrounding Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.

The government has restored Internet links that it severed in the fall, and though access to some popular e-mail services is still blocked, many people here are savvy enough to breach the Web barricades, using proxy servers and other devices.

Secret couriers, who already run messages between exiled opposition leaders and supporters in Myanmar, could smuggle video and photos into Thailand to be sent across the Internet from there.

Despite the chinks in the government's defenses, it still has a vast army of spies and routinely taps telephones. Speaking at dinner on the edge of a quiet, dark restaurant, the activist businessman frequently looked over his shoulder to make sure no one was eavesdropping.

A Western diplomat said the generals hobbled their own intelligence operations by turning against former prime minister and intelligence chief Gen. Khin Nyunt, who is now under house arrest.

He was sentenced in 2005 to 44 years in prison for corruption in what was widely seen here as a power play by the government's leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe.

Meantime, the military leaders have staked their future on a well-tested strategy: While attacking protesters, they tried to appease international outrage with promises to talk with the opposition. When world attention quickly shifted to new crises, the generals tightened their grip again.

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