Friday, September 28, 2007

Myanmar: Repressive Governments Can Try, but They Will Never Repress Freedom

Myanmar--formerly Burma--has lived behind closed doors for almost two decades. Only now, in the midst of yet another humanitarian crisis--do we discover the extent to which the regime will go to control the flow of information to and from its citizens.

But this is not the world of the mid-20th century. Try as they might, in the age of the Internet, governments (no matter how repressive or controlling they seek to be) cannot close the information spigot. Like water, when sufficiently compelling and forceful, information will find a way around, over, and through any obstacles placed in its way.

The fact that the images of a violent crackdown on anti-government protesters in Myanmar have made it to the outside world is nothing short of a miracle.

Credit for this goes not to international media but to the efforts of hundreds of Myanmar's citizens using the Internet and mobile phones to send first hand accounts, pictures and video footage to the rest of the world.

This despite the assertion from Reporters Without Borders that Myanmar's Internet policies are among the most repressive in the world: The regime filters opposition websites and forces Internet cafes to capture screen images every five minutes in order to monitor user activity.

In 1988, the government absolutely and brutally crushed a similar uprising. News was slow to reach the outside world precisely because Myanmar had obsolete technology. Now, dramatic photos arrive via e-mails to exiled activists and via mobile phones to journalists outside the country.

According to the Associated Press, "modern technology has become the generals' worst enemy. There were only rusty phones, if you could get through (in 1988)," says Bertil Lintner, a Myanmar expert and author of several books on the country.

It's no surprise that in the face of global condemnation of its brutal crackdown on anti-government protests, the Myanmar regime today pulled the plug on the Internet. The government suspended the services of the two Internet service providers, BaganNet and Myanmar Post and Telecom. A telecom official blamed the interruption on a "damaged undersea cable." (... shades of Soviet Union disinformation?!)

"I'm not surprised. They have always tried to control information," Shari Villarosa, the top diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, told The Associated Press by telephone on Friday. "The photos and videos that are getting out reveal the truth about how they hold on to power."

As the Internet reaches into the darkest corners of the world, information becomes more accessible to all of the world's citizens. With information comes ideas--and Myanmar's repressive military leaders will rapidly learn that no barrier can stand in the way of the free flow of information.

What's happening right now in Myanmar provides a valuable lesson for leaders in governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations: Your precious resources are better devoted to crafting and disseminating your key messages on your terms rather than trying to stem the irreversible tide of information.

I always say: Tell the truth. Tell it early. Tell it often.

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