Burmese Exceptionalism: The uncertain future of electronic networks in pro-democracy organizing

February 17, 2009

A few weeks ago (after examining the use of technology in the 2005 Orange revolution in the Ukraine) we got to talking about the ways in which other oppressive regimes might respond to increasingly technologically equipped opposition groups.  The Ukrainian example was the only case of a digital revolution we had examined up until that point and as such, much of our discussion was informed by the government’s response in that particular case.  It follows then that our ideas about the future conflict between activists and governments pre-supposed a few things that perhaps may not always be true.  Having just examined the failed 2008 Burmese pro-democracy protests, I would like to reflect on some of the things that were brought up in the discussion in regard to this new case study.

Firstly we pre-supposed that there would be some sort of arms race between governments and agitators on the technological front; that both side would be actively seeking ways to subvert the other’s networking abilities. On a more fundamental level we also presumed that these communication systems woul be in place for the duration of a given protest.  Thus, we viewed the future battle not as over the use of these networks but control of the content on them.  In the Ukraine, the government’s response to the networked protestors was to pay people to go in and disrupt dissident message boards and blogging sites.  The Yanukovych regime did not even think of shutting down internet and cell phone access; it would have thrown the country into chaos.

It is this assumption of governmental restraint, this idea that the welfare of the country is important to the regime that is missing in the Burmese case, which is also what makes it so interesting.  As in the Ukraine, Burmese protesters used cell phones and the internet to coordinate their activities as well as record and disseminate evidence of government repression and brutality.  Despite the similarity in methods the governmental responses were drastically different. Instead of using the networks themselves to fight back, the Junta simply shut them down altogether.  Having run their country into the ground so effectively, there was nothing left for the Junta to lose.  The lack of the communications network was simply a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the country’s problems. I have no doubt that if they wanted too the Burmese could simply cut off all electronic networks inside the country indefinitely.

As the Junta has already demonstrated that it is willing to use the “nuclear option” with regard to its communication networks, then perhaps the technological fight has already been won by the government.  Any group that relies too heavily on electronic organizing would be crippled by a government mandated network shutdown. Perversely, protestors should most likely focus their efforts on more traditional ways of organizing to try and stay one step ahead of government.

-Mike Stillman


2 Responses to “Burmese Exceptionalism: The uncertain future of electronic networks in pro-democracy organizing”

  1. […] Burmese Exceptionalism: The uncertain future of electronic networks in pro-democracy organizing A student responds to my research on Burma before I present at the Digital Democracy class @ Tufts (tags: technology burma) […]

  2. […] that I posted about and something I would like to bring up again given Mike Stillman’s post,  Burmese Exceptionalism: The uncertain future of electronic networks in pro-democracy organizing in preparation for the Digital Democracy class I will be presenting at at […]

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