The winds of change have bypassed Burma

When Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate in Tunisia, set himself alight two months ago in protest at the police’s confiscation of his unlicensed fruit and vegetable cart, the news spread like wildfire around the internet. The masses in the Arab world latched on the incident and anti-government protests erupted, eventually forcing Tunisian leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country.

When the thousands of Tunisians took to the streets, social media websites and international broadcasters beamed the images back into Tunisia, where for a decade and a half Ben Ali had resided over of the strictest press environments in the world. Facebook and YouTube carried footage of police beating and tear gassing youths in the streets, fanning the flames of unrest that eventually left dozens dead, some of whom were gunned down by armed security. But the protests continued, organized largely through social networking sites, while warnings of army deployments were spread via email and SMS. The culmination of weeks of defiance against the former military man who came to office in a coup saw Ben Ali forced to leave the country and flee to Saudi Arabia.

And after Tunisia, there was Egypt. In its thirteenth day today, hundreds of thousands of citizens remain on the streets, despite attacks from pro-regime security and superficial concessions by the Mubarak government. And like Tunisia, social media and television played a key role in mobilising demonstrators for what could be the biggest upset to the Arab dictator world in decades.

On this side of the world, however, we’ve learned to approach such fanfare with caution. Burma’s experiences in September 2007 were also a cause célèbre for the advent of social media and the rise of the ‘citizen journalist’, but they failed to remove the junta. Here, protestors and undercover reporters used mobile phones to capture footage of the marches and the subsequent crackdown, which were then sent to television stations such as Al Jazeera, CNN, BBC and DVB. And like Tunisia, this was then broadcast both internationally and back into Burma on satellite television, ostensibly reaching millions of Burmese who similarly languish in one of the world’s most repressive media environments.

Realisation of the power of new developments in technology to affect change is beginning to spread. Just before the opening of Burma’s new parliament in Naypyidaw last week, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party launched their first official website. How Than Shwe will respond to this is unclear, but he is rumoured to have been uneasy about the images being beamed out from the two northern African states, and may be digging himself in, proverbially speaking, to avoid a repeat of Ben Ali.

But the chances of that happening are slim, for Burma is closed in a way that few countries are. Although after 2005 Tunisia became the kleptocracy that Burma has long been, its exposure to the West may have held it back from the brink. Ben Ali has keep tight controls over media and has imprisoned journalists, but he has also hosted a UN conference on the global information society. Contrast this with Than Shwe, who has never given an interview to foreign media.

Moreover, it was Ben Ali who initiated and invested in one of the most advanced fiber optic grids in North Africa. More than one third of the Tunisian population, or 3.6 million people, now uses the internet compared to the 200,000-odd in Burma, less than one percent of the population. This network of internet users were a driving force behind the protests which eventually forced Ben Ali from office, perhaps meaning that he was party to his own downfall.

The Burmese junta’s reaction to Egypt and Tunisia may indeed be to further tighten media controls. Following the September 2007 uprising, the cost of owning a satellite television license soared from $US5 to $US800, well beyond the reach of most Burmese. Critics said it was likely aimed at limiting access to foreign media. One of the key challenges for Burma’s new government thus may be to curtail use of proxy websites which allow social networking to continue unmonitored, as well as restricting mobile phone use (although the $US1000 cost for a SIM card has already made headway on this).

So while the winds of changes are blowing in some parts of Middle East, there is barely a breeze to be felt in Burma. The government’s recent upgrade of the internet, which it claims will mark a huge step forward in the country’s technological development, has been dismissed by critics as a means to strengthen its powers of surveillance. With myriad obstacles in place that thwart social mobilisation, the Burmese junta is ensuring the country doesn’t become another Tunisia.

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