Friday, September 28, 2007

BANGKOK — Burmese bloggers are playing a key role in getting information out as that country’s ruling generals crack down on more than a week of anti-government protests.

The protests were initially triggered by rising prices but have broadened into a struggle against military rule, seizing on a precedent uprising in 1988.

Burma, formally known as Myanmar, is largely closed to Western journalists, who are predominantly covering the crisis from outside the isolated country. But bloggers living in the commercial port of Rangoon, where Buddhist monks, pro-democracy activists and residents have been defying security forces, are recording the events in Burmese and flawed English.

The bloggers rely on word-of-mouth, cell phones, online chat groups, instant messaging and firsthand experience in barricaded streets amid tear gas and gunfire.

The best blogs provide photos, video and text updates purportedly by eyewitnesses, which are later confirmed by news organizations or, in some cases, can’t be verified.

One blog, by a Burmese woman who identifies herself as Dawn, appears at on the blogging site Xanga.

“Around 1:20 p.m. or 1:30 p.m., I heard someone saying that the police/army started shooting in the air,” Dawn wrote, describing Rangoon on Wednesday. Another, from blogger Ko Htike, warns Friday that the junta is methodically shutting down Internet access.

“At 2 p.m., I heard that buses have stopped running on Sule Pagoda Road. Someone from the office went out to there, and came running back when there were shots being fired.
Below: Demonstrations from September 25 in Rangoon

“I heard the gun shots too, but it sounded a lot like clapping. So I went out to look,” Dawn said.

“I was reading the news on a blogger’s Cbox, and it said that at least five monks were dead at Shwedagon Pagoda,” she said, referring to Burma’s holiest shrine and the starting point for recent protests.

“My sis had already called home and told my brother not to go to work. I called home too, and also to my father. He told me to stay at work and not to go out.”

Another blogger said, “now regime open fire into these group, and used fire engine to sweep the blood on the street.”

YouTube features a channel from Burma Digest with more than 30 uploaded videos from Rangoon, although the most recent footage much of which is rough and choppy is two days old. Even Hollywood is using the Internet to propel the new cause celebre: Jim Carrey’s video, in which the actor decries the country’s military regime and urges viewers to join human-rights campaigns, had more than 266,000 views on Friday afternoon.

The situation contrasts with Burma’s last major uprising, in 1988, when as many as 3,000 people were killed by soldiers firing on crowds and it took days for the news to emerge, but it could soon change.

“The window of information is closing,” Soe Myint, editor of the Internet-based Mizzima News Agency told Reuters yesterday.

“It’s getting more and more difficult,” Mr. Myint added, saying many blogging sites are now blocked and opposition activists have had their cell phone service cut.

Mizzima, partially funded through the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, is one of several outlets, like the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma, that have become major sources of information on the country.

Founded nine years ago, it collects clandestine reports from hundreds of Burmese citizens before trying to confirm the news with a network of secret reporters.

“Now the military have made the Internet slower and made it nearly impossible for photos to be downloaded,” said Mr. Myint, a democracy activist who helped hijack a Thai plane in 1990.

“We find that we are getting lots of video filmed there but it is increasingly hard to get those videos out. It’s also more and more risky for ordinary people there to film.”

Mr. Myint said he had previously received about 300 e-mails a day from inside Burma. That is now down to about 50.

“I haven’t yet received one photo today,” he added.

c This article was based in part on wire-service reports.

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