Yesterday I went to a really interesting discussion on how technology played a role in the Saffron Uprising in Burma (Myanmar) and helped bring international attention to the oppressive control of the military-led SPDC. The talk was organized by Digital Democracy and Not An Alternative and was held at The Change You Want to See gallery in Brooklyn as part of a series of talks curated by Upgrade NYC and Eyebeam. The featured guest of the talk was Stanley Aung, founder of ABITSU and Burma Bloggers, who teaches students to use technology to organize, communicate and to understand the change it can effect on society. You can watch some of the presentation here.
During the uprising in Burma, photos and videos spread to news agencies around the world and brought to light the nature of the situation. In response, the government cut phone lines and blocked internet servers. On Friday May 2, 2008 the deadly cyclone Nagris devastated the country and killed over 200,000 people. In the aftermath of the cyclone foreign aid workers dedicated to delivering emergency telecoms in disaster areas were prevented from going into Burma. Organizations such as Telecoms Sans Frontieres were denied visas into the country, see here.
Still, as reported in the Guardian “the internet has been a powerful force for opposition groups outside Burma. They maintain websites to provide uncensored news and organize opponents of the military regime all over the world. Though most people in Burma can’t access them, the sites raise awareness worldwide”.
As written in Politics Online: ” Globalization’s effect on the way information is transferred has become problematic for governments violating human rights or anyone wishing to prevent the spread of information. Many contemporary examples from U.S. satellite images of Serbian atrocities in the 1990’s, to disturbing cell phone images at Abu Ghraib, smuggled tapes containing anti-government rhetoric in Iran or the use of emails or blogs to organize revolutionary movements in China, show how challenging it has become for governments to suppress the distribution of unwanted information. Undoubtedly the internet can be seen as a democratizing force and those wishing to impede this facilitator must conceive new ways to fight an invisible enemy.”
But if it is to bring about change technology must work in two ways, it must not only bring access and empower people who are victims of their county’s regime or suffering under oppression, but it must also educate the people who are privileged to live in the free world, in a democracy – and were it not for the work of Amnesty International and smaller non-profits like Digital Democracy and Global Voices political prisoners would have no hope of survival and many people would be unaware of humanitarian issues throughout the world. This subject touches me because I was just 7 years old when my family fled Bucharest as political refugees in 1989, just weeks before the Romanian revolution. Both my grandfather and my father had spent time in jail and our family was heavily monitored by the government as my father sought correspondence with diplomats and senators and humanitarian organizations abroad. My family waited 7 years to leave the country, since I was conceived, until we were finally fortunate enough to be supported by a refugee organization in California.
As the talk yesterday broached on ways to circumnavigate the firewall in Burma, I wondered if ShiftSpace could be of help by providing a back-room channel for communication online…still ShiftSpace is not encrypted and as the government tracks keywords it might be able to trace keywords amongst ShiftSpace users as well…but I think this is a subject worth thinking about. There will be conference in May at UC Berkeley that will talk about how “recent innovations in science and technology have provided human rights advocates, journalists, and scientists with new tools to expose war crimes and other serious violations of human rights and to disseminate this information in real time throughout the world”, see here: http://hrc.berkeley.edu/events/newmachineconference/
image from this New Yorker article on the situation in Burma