A digitally enhanced Myanmar opposition

Times Staff Writer

During 45 years of military rule, Myanmar’s generals drilled fear and suspicion so deeply into the minds of their people that when their opponents tried to harness the rage seething on the streets last fall, no one knew whom to trust.

The generals quickly took advantage, crushing the pro-democracy demonstrations, killing at least 15 people and jailing thousands. It was a brutally simple strategy that had worked before.

But this time may be different. An information revolution has come slowly to this poor, isolated country, and the military government may have inadvertently handed its enemies the keys to organizing a more effective underground movement.

Opposition activists and exiled leaders had tried before to tap into the growing discontent, but constant surveillance kept them off balance and on the run.


There seemed little chance of getting organized until more than 2,000 protesters, arrested and jammed into crowded jail cells, met one another and overcame their distrust. Now, most of them are on the streets again, carefully building a network for what they call a new revolution.

Their digital tools are e-mail and text messages, which are more powerful than a megaphone, and cellphone cameras that are so common that thousands of people are potential journalists.

The country’s current turmoil is rooted in the military rulers’ mismanagement, which has reduced a country rich in natural resources to an economic basket case surrounded by neighbors enjoying rapid growth.

Even as the generals and their cronies enriched themselves on oil and natural gas exports, they ended subsidies for their people in August, sharply increasing fuel prices overnight and compounding inflation. Anger rose with prices, and what began as small, isolated protests exploded into a full-blown crisis in September.

Many who joined the protests were ordinary people moved by the courage of marching Buddhist monks to take their own stand against the government. The peaceful demonstrators were easy targets for the military.

The government acknowledged killing 15 protesters; the United Nations says at least 31 died. Many others found themselves behind bars, where they could either try to sleep on the crowded concrete floor or get to know other protesters.

Most spent only a few days in jail, long enough to overcome distrust, make new contacts with the underground, and organize more cells that now communicate through coded messages, Internet drop boxes and old-fashioned couriers.

“Nobody knew what they were doing in the revolution. There was no organization,” said a small businessman who joined the street protests out of frustration with mismanagement of the economy.

“But when people were in jail, they got to meet each other. They could exchange e-mail addresses, cellphone numbers and make plans,” added the entrepreneur, who spoke on condition of anonymity because police are still arresting and torturing dissidents.

They walked out of jail with a new determination to tap into the growing sense that the generals are losing their grip, pro-democracy activists and their leaders inside and outside Myanmar said in interviews.

In the aftermath of the September protests, the businessman said, he took charge of a cell of young pro-democracy activists who are trying to keep information on the movement flowing to the outside world.

During the uprising, video, photographs and blog reports posted on the Internet played a key role in breaking the wall of silence surrounding Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.

The government has restored Internet links that it severed in the fall, and though access to some popular e-mail services is still blocked, many people here are savvy enough to breach the Web barricades, using proxy servers and other devices.

Secret couriers, who already run messages between exiled opposition leaders and supporters in Myanmar, could smuggle video and photos into Thailand to be sent across the Internet from there.

Despite the chinks in the government’s defenses, it still has a vast army of spies and routinely taps telephones. Speaking at dinner on the edge of a quiet, dark restaurant, the activist businessman frequently looked over his shoulder to make sure no one was eavesdropping.

A Western diplomat said the generals hobbled their own intelligence operations by turning against former prime minister and intelligence chief Gen. Khin Nyunt, who is now under house arrest.

He was sentenced in 2005 to 44 years in prison for corruption in what was widely seen here as a power play by the government’s leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe.

Meantime, the military leaders have staked their future on a well-tested strategy: While attacking protesters, they tried to appease international outrage with promises to talk with the opposition. When world attention quickly shifted to new crises, the generals tightened their grip again.

A government minister named to lead talks with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi hasn’t met with her since Nov. 19 and has not scheduled any further meetings with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, according to Western diplomats.

“There was great hope when the first meeting took place, and people welcomed this,” said U.S. Charge d’Affaires Shari Villarosa, the top American diplomat here. “But where’s the follow-through?

“Everybody keeps saying it’s a process, but ‘a process’ means something is going on. Here, it’s stopped.”

Ibrahim Gambari, the United Nations’ special envoy to Myanmar, is due back soon. But he has won few concessions from the generals on previous visits, so people here have little faith that he can persuade the military to start serious negotiations with Suu Kyi.

The government is still holding more than 800 political prisoners after releasing about 1,400 rounded up after the September protests, Western diplomats estimated. It is still hunting for people it accuses of undermining stability and security.

The diplomats said the jailed activists include Buddhist monks and leaders of the 88 Generation Students group, named after a 1988 uprising in which troops killed thousands of protesters.

“People have not given up,” said Soe Aung, a spokesman for a coalition of opposition groups in exile based in the Thai border city of Mae Sot. “They are just backing off because of the junta’s strong onslaught. But if the junta’s security slackens, then they will come out on the streets again.”

Activists and diplomats say the government has become more like a greedy mafia than an all-powerful military regime. And it appears increasingly shaky.

“Living in any authoritarian country, while you’re in the midst of it, it’s hard to see that they’ll ever cede power or go away -- or anything,” Villarosa said. “But actually, they cause their own destruction. And their foundations are rotting.

“It’s going to happen here,” she added. “It’s a question of time. None of these [regimes] go on forever. It is going to collapse. The foundations are getting weaker and weaker.”

Some activists suggest the 20th anniversary of the March-to-September uprising in 1988 would be an ideal time for a final push to bring the generals down. Activists say the timing is still being debated, but they hope to strike when they have a chance to sustain large protests across the country.

The economy could be the government’s Achilles’ heel.

The current crisis grew out of protests against an overnight fuel price hike of 66%. As the generals and their allies raked in higher profits from exports of oil and natural gas, they rationed fuel supplies for everyone else.

Under strict government quotas, private vehicles are allowed 2 gallons a day in the country’s principal city, Yangon, while those in Mandalay, the second-largest city, receive half that amount.

Drivers who can afford to are turning to the black market. There they can buy as much as they need, at just over $2 a gallon, 75% above the government-set price. Sharply higher fuel costs are driving up inflation, which is the highest in Asia at more than 35%, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Tourism, which the United Nations says is an increasingly important source of jobs and foreign currency for Myanmar, has been hit hard by images seen around the world of soldiers beating and shooting protesters.

Suu Kyi has asked tourists to avoid her country until democracy prevails.

It is high season for tourism in Myanmar, yet most hotels in popular spots, such as those surrounding the ancient Buddhist temples of Bagan, are virtually empty. That’s hurting laid-off cooks and chambermaids as well as curio hawkers, tour companies and craft industries.

About 150,000 tourists visited the country in 2007, half the number who came in 2006, a record year for tourism in Myanmar.

There is hope here that Suu Kyi’s example will inspire ordinary people to take bigger risks for freedom. But the few people who take the chance to talk to strangers about politics have another dream as well.

Those brave enough to broach the subject with a foreigner often ask the same question: “When is the U.S. going to bomb our military?”

That, they say, would topple the generals in an instant. News of airstrikes and invasions toppling tyrants has fed a fantasy here that Myanmar might be freed the same way. Diplomats are unusually blunt in discouraging that kind of thinking.

“There are too many people here who would like to see us do more,” the Western diplomat said. “And I say, ‘It’s not going to happen. What you can count on from us are words.’

“ ‘We will speak out in support of your desires for freedom and democracy. We will criticize human rights abuses. But don’t expect more.’ ”