One day, perhaps, a free Rangoon will have its own Monument to the Unknown Blogger. It's clear that Web sites and camera-equipped mobile phones were instrumental in spreading stories and images of the turmoil in Burma to a wide global audience. But it's not just the flow of information to the outside world that will prove crucial to the ultimate outcome of the Saffron Revolution. The news that's coming into Burma is just as important.
That was brought home to me by one of my recent phone conversations with a prodemocracy activist in Rangoon, Burma's biggest city. He was confidently detailing opposition plans for a next round of protests when I stopped him. How, I asked, did he and his fellow organizers intend to spread the word about their campaign? I pointed out that the ruling generals have kept tight control over the state-run press, as well as arresting numerous opposition leaders. Surely it would be almost impossible to get the message out under conditions like these?
He assured me that these obstacles were easily surmounted. Everyone in the country, he explained, listens to the Burmese-language shortwave radio broadcasts from stations like the BBC, Radio Free Asia, Voice of America and especially the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma. (The DVB alone sent dozens of correspondents into Burma before the big protests began, a source close to the group tells NEWSWEEK, many of them supplied with digital video cameras and satellite phones.) Any information that makes it onto one of those programs, he assured me, will be heard by millions of Burmese. "In our country it is hard for people to get information about the real situation," says Myint Thein, a spokesman for the National Council of the Union of Burma, an opposition umbrella group based in Thailand. "People really depend on [outside] radio."
Thein is evidently not the only one who thinks that way. If you've been watching Burmese TV over the past few days (as I have, though I've been doing it from the safety of a hotel just over the border in Thailand), you'll have noticed frequent government warnings about the dangers of listening to foreign broadcasters. One newsletter published by Burmese exiles this week recounted that people in the provinces have been subjected to "harassments and arrests" for defying the junta's orders against tuning in. The junta has periodically tried to jam foreign broadcasts, apparently without much success.
The government has also cut off most Internet access to the outside world, clearly hoping that that will leave its citizens with no choice but to return to the stultifying programming on state-run TV. Certainly one of the regime's motives is to prevent locals from exporting still more damning images of the state's assault on unarmed protesters. But the Internet shutdown has also prevented many activists within the country from sharing news and ideas with each other.
It's very hard to prove, but there's some evidence that the junta has also taken its assault on the Internet beyond the country's borders. On Sept. 27, just as the demonstrations were moving into high gear, the Web site of the online magazine Irrawaddy was knocked out of action by unknown attackers. The weapon was apparently a Trojan virus, a snippet of hostile code that lodged itself on the site and surreptitiously caused the computers of visiting users to download huge amounts of information from the server until it crashed. Sources close to Irrawaddy tell NEWSWEEK that the Trojan in question has been traced back to Russia.
Kimberly Zenz, an Internet security analyst at VeriSign iDefense, says that doesn't prove that the attackers were Russians themselves. The programs in question can be easily purchased from Russian hackers, though a good one, she notes, could cost as much as $3,000—an amount certainly within the means of the Burmese military. "My money's on the Burmese [government]," she says. "There are cases of Russian hackers for hire. But the industry is so specialized that you wouldn't pay them to hack the site." She thinks the Trojan infiltrated Irrawaddy.org as an attachment to an e-mail sent from inside Burma—virtually impossible to detect among the flood of messages and images flooding the magazine during the protests. Whoever the attackers were, they were clearly eager to cut off Irrawaddy (which received millions of hits during the peak period of the demonstrations) from its users inside Burma, as well as from those in the outside world.
Controlling the Internet is of the utmost importance to the regime. One of the most explosive bits of content for Burmese Internet users has been the now notorious video of the wedding last year of the daughter of Senior General Than Shwe, the leader of the military junta. The video, circulating in multiple versions on YouTube, shows a lavish event involving vast amounts of shockingly expensive bling and tables heaped with luxurious foodstuffs. That conspicuous display of wealth in a country that is now one of the poorest in Asia evidently hasn't gone down well with those Burmese who have watched the video, and tales of the excess have apparently done much to stoke popular anger. Not that the Burmese need many extra reasons to be mad, of course.