Burmese activism in the new technology: How IT is helping and hampering movements
Advancement of new media and communication has substantially impacted on the social and political movements of the Burmese democratic activists. The political activists from inside and outside Burma are using new media and communications as a tool to struggle for democracy and Human Rights in Burma.
In this essay, I will analyse the new technology of ‘internet’ and how it has positively impacted on the Burmese social and political movements. Burma issues have been highlighted globally due to the fact that Burmese movements based in overseas countries have used new media and communication for their campaigns. I will examine this by discussing how the monks’ protest in September 2007 in Burma links to new technology and how the global community have united with the people of Burma after the campaigns’ messages reached to a worldwide community. The uses of new media and communications have become essential and central strategies for networking within Burmese pro-democracy movements as well as people who support democracy and human rights in Burma.
The free Burma campaigns have been organising in many countries, particularly in democratic countries. Of the new media and communications, the Internet is a central platform for struggling for freedom and democracy in Burma as the Burmese democratic activists are based in countries around the world. Additionally, campaigns against the Burmese military government have been highlighted in local, national and global arenas, and the activist groups use the Internet to send messages – for example, to their fellow activists that the protest will be held in front of Burmese embassy on the same day (Eng, 1998). Moreover, new media development has led to substantial change for the contemporary activists because before the electronic communication emerged, activist groups could not organise global rallies, and it was costly and took substantial time to deliver messages from one continent to another. Furthermore, new media and communication has provided a convergence for advocacy campaigners and activist groups, members of individuals and organisations from around the world who are working on the same objective for their campaigns (Danitz & Strobel 1999). For example, activist groups may use similar information and banners in the protest rallies, and make the same demand on a particular issue to different governments.
According to Hirst & Harrison (2007), technologies that are converging rapidly today are telecommunications, computing, and broadcasting. Before ‘computer’ meant the machines as we know them today, it simply means a person employed to do laborious and tedious additions, subtractions, and other sums. In addition, a ‘computer’ was a low-paid clerical worker who did calculations day in, day out. Additionally, the internet offers citizens the capacity to influence the democratic process in previously unforeseen ways. Burmese democratic movements are in accord with Hirst & Harrison’s argument. They use computer as a tool to highlight democracy and human rights issues in Burma. It is inexpensive and saves substantial time to organise global activities and campaigns. Bennett (2003) stresses that the Internet is implicated in the new global activism far beyond merely reducing the costs of communication, or transcending the geographical and temporal barriers associated with other communication media. Various uses of the Internet and digital media facilitate the loosely structured networks, the weak identity ties, and the patterns of issue and demonstration organizing that define a new global protest politics. For example, there are many strategies that Burmese activism movements use in their advocacy campaigns. The information disseminates on websites, blogs, e-groups and e-mails where a clink on computer will reach to millions people around the world.
In September 2007, new media and communication technologies played a crucial role in nationwide protest rallies in Burma. Monks and civilians demonstrated against the military government for fuel hikes of up to 500%. Monks have become central for media campaigns, particularly online media campaign such as websites and blogs, where the use of the colour red indicated the symbol of Burmese Buddhist monks. Despite internet being tightly controlled by the military government, many videos and photos from the demonstration in Rangoon have been posted online (Williams 2007). With the advancement of new technology, global audiences are able to access information and watch the actual crackdown in Rangoon. The videos and photos of a Japanese journalist Mr Kenji Nagai would be an instance which the innovative technology has captured the actual incident and informed people around the world (Lewis, 2007). This evidence helped media advocacy group to highlight their global campaigns. They were able to use this kind of photos, videos and information to convince the global citizens to support Burmese democratic movements.
According to Freeman and Johnson (1999), of utmost importance is consciousness that one is part of a group with whom one shares a particular concern. Alternatively, a movement can create consciousness. Not all movements have a complete ideology, nor is one necessary. What is necessary is identification of a problem, and a vision of making change for injustice. Australia Campaign for Burma is an online campaign which has allowed Australian community to access many photos and video of monks’ in protest rallies and the actual images of military members’ attacked on the peaceful demonstrators. Internet is an effective tool by which campaigners have been able to organise substantial global rallies. People from different parts of the globe took part in demonstrations (Broomhall, 2008). Global communities have united with the people of Burma. With the impact of political consciousness on Burma issues, diverse religious groups around the world organised global prayer rallies for the people of Burma (Young, 2007). This has had substantial impact from the convergence of new media where campaigners from diverse geographies were able to organise prayer rallies on similar issues in Burma.
Internet is a major factor that has pushed rapid growing of individual and organizations - public, private, or non-profit activities to involve in political, social, environmental and human rights issues. In the mean time, with the rapid development of new media, individual online activists have significantly increased in Burma. The protest in September 2007 had shown that young activists played a major role in helping monks and civilians to organise a nationwide demonstration. The international media groups have revealed that bloggers from inside Burma were the key reporters who contributed substantial news and information from inside Burma while the military members attacked thousands of innocent monks and civilians in peaceful demonstrations (Holroyd, 2007). Despite internet being tightly controlled in Burma, young activists are still able to access outside information via internet as they are more knowledgeable in new media or Information technology while the military are not. A blogger said that they can browse online beyond military government’s controlled websites by using different servers (interview with Burma blogger, 2008).
According to Bennett (2003), digital network configurations can facilitate various ways. Increasing global campaigns and ideology ties, transformation of individual member organisations and whole networks, and the capacity to communicate messages from desktops to television screens. Networks of activists demanding a greater voice in global economic, social, and environmental policies raise interesting questions about organizing political action across geographical, cultural, ideological, and issue boundaries. This vast web of global protest is also impressive in its capacity to continuously refigure itself around shifting issues, protest events, and political adversaries (Bennett, 2003). Moreover, digital technology is steering people towards an era where an entire global network of resources and freedom of information for many appears on the horizon. The cyber-mythology also states that the digital media have the power to shrink both time and apace. Furthermore, there are numerous advantages to be gained from the convergence of new media, not the least of which is the much freer, hence more democratic, dissemination of information (Hirst & Harrison, 2007).
The convergence of new media and communications has created significant advantages for the activists. On 10 February 2008, Thailand based activist groups Shan Women Action Network (SWAN) and Shan Youth Power (SYP) organised a campaign of demanding the military government release Sao Khun Htun Oo and other Shan leaders who have been in prison since 2005 and serving sentences for up to 106 years. More than ten countries took part in this campaign. The campaign was costless and it saved substantial time for the campaign organisers. More importantly, it convinced the global community to take concern on Shan political issues. It was simply run by disseminating messages via emails to individuals and community groups around the world to join the campaign (SWAN & SYP, 2008). Similarly, the global campaign for free Aung San Suu Kyi and her annual birthday have been highlighted around the world. Burmese democratic activists and theirs supporters have been actively taking part in the protest rallies demanding the military government release her. This has been on going process since she was kept in house arrest and after she retuned to Burma from overseas while there was nationwide uprising in Burma in 1988. The global rallies of supporting her have drawn more attention after she won Noble Peace Prize in 1991. Her photos have been displayed globally (Rice, 2007). This is an instance of the impact of new media and communications which has created the world as a ‘global village’ where activists can share messages for their campaign within minutes. It is also advantage for the ethnic groups to use new technology to raise awareness on social and political issues on global scale.
On the other hand, Dahlgren (2003) argues that formal social and political participation has declined while social and political activists excessively rely on new technology. Many citizens have ‘bailed out’ of formal politics and begun generating their own ‘counter public spheres’. According to Bennett (2003), patterns of individual participation appear to be affected by hyperlinked communication networks that enable individuals to find multiple points of entry into varieties of social and political actions. While there are many indicators that digital media have become important organizational resources in making the social and political movements, there are also potential problems or vulnerabilities associated with these communication-based networks. The ease of joining and leaving polycentric issue networks means that it becomes difficult to control campaigns or to achieve coherent collective identity frames. In addition, organizations may face challenges to their own internal direction and goals when they employ open, collective communication processes to set agendas and organize action. Burma movements face vague strategic plans while most movements’ members based in online campaigns, and there is blurring within the boundaries and activities’ role in movement. Moreover, it is difficult to measure whether the aims and objectives of campaigns have been achieved, particularly while the campaigns have been taken place globally but lacked the actual activities inside Burma.
To sum up, the campaigns against the Burmese military government have been emphasized globally. Online campaigning is relatively costless and saves substantial times where messages can be delivered to millions of people within minutes through new media and communications form such as texts, signs, photos and videos. In addition, new digital technology has uncovered the military government’s brutal attack on the innocent monks and civilians in peaceful demonstrations. Moreover, individual activism has grown considerably since new technology has emerged. This has created the decentralised institutional movements and encourages young people to be involved in social and political issues. On the other hand, some scholars have pointed out that new technology presents difficulty in achieving coherent collective identity frames. However, in this age of information development there is no activism or social and political movements that can stay away from new digital technology because it is costless, save substantial time and is more effective for the campaigners to raise global awareness.
The writer is a student of journalism in Australia – Editor
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