The Real, Sad Lesson of Burma 2007
I fear another myth is in the offing: that Burma's brief uprising last month was a tipping point in citizen journalism. Take this from Seth Mydans' (an excellent journalist, by the way; I'm just choosing his piece because it's in front of me) article in today's IHT:
"For those of us who study the history of communication technology, this is of equal importance to the telegraph, which was the first medium that separated communications and transportation," said Frank Moretti, executive director of the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning at Columbia University.
or this, from Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project and an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, quoted in the same piece:
"By shutting down the Internet they show themselves to be in the wrong, that they have something to hide," he said. "On this front, even a closed-down blog is a powerful blog. Even silence on the Internet is a powerful message."
There are a couple of things here. None convinces me either of the above is true.
First off, the first Burma uprising, back in 1988, was not conducted or repressed in a media blackout. Journalists were able to get in, and get out extraordinary, iconic images. One still sticks in my mind, and I wish I could find it: a photo splashed across the cover of Newsweek of an impossibly beautiful female demonstrator, blood soaking her longyi and her face a mask, as she was carried by comrades through the wet streets of Rangoon. The junta took its time in closing down the media, but 1988 was no different to 2007: when they did pull down the shutters, they did it completely.
It's true that there have been a lot of images, videos and information finding its way out via both the Internet and sympathetic agencies and embassies. This is not greatly different to 1988. People had cameras back then, and were extremely inventive in how they got information out. I would get calls all the time in Bangkok from people smuggling out cassettes, photos and other material. When I visited Rangoon in 1990 the NLD headquarters was a mine of printed and other information of strikingly high quality.
Burma's generals are cleverer than the image they portray. Back in 1988 they bided their time, allowing all those who opposed them to show themselves, from students and monks to government departments and even soldiers. Their parading in the streets, watched by spies and plain clothes officers, made it easy for them to purged later. The same thing, it seems, is happening today: As another story in the IHT on the same day by Thomas Fuller wrote, loudspeakers on trucks and helicopters are telling terrified citizens
"We have your pictures. We're going to come and get you."
They may lack the sophistication of a more civilized form of repression, but Burmese leaders understand the importance of photographs and videos as evidence, and I fear all those pictures posted on blogs, on YouTube, on television, in emails sent out of the country, will all resurface in show trials in months to come.
Xiao Qiang's point about the blackout showing the world who these generals really are is to me naive. No one, I believe, was under any illusion about what these people were like, or the lengths they were prepared to go to preserve their position. The 'democratic' process that was underway was a fig-leaf as old as 1990, when the NLD won the election I witnessed. In other words, 17 years old.
More importantly, as far as technology is concerned, I don't think that silence on the Internet is any different to a news blackout. It's the most effective way for people to stop paying attention. Initially there's outrage, then people shrug and move on. Soon Burma will be back to what it has been for the past 19 years -- a peripheral story, a sad but forgotten piece of living history. Soon the Facebook groups and red-shirt days will fade.
I would love to think it was and will be different. I would love to think that technology could somehow pry open a regime whether it pulls the plug or not. But Burma has, in recent weeks and in recent years, actually shown the opposite: that it's quite possible to seal a country off and to commit whatever atrocities you like and no amount of technology can prevent it.
By holding the recent uprising as an example of citizen journalism and a turning point in the age of telecommunications we not only risk misunderstanding its true lesson, but we also risk playing down the real story here: the individual bravery and longtime suffering of the Burmese people who had, for a few heady days, a flickering of hope that their nightmare was over.