When the cyclone hit her homeland a week ago, Mya Moeswe was frantic about her sister back in Myanmar. Thousands of miles away in Vancouver, Canada, the 38-year-old mechanical engineer sobbed as she tried over and over to get through the downed telephone lines.
Desperate for information, she turned to network television and other mainstream media, only to find them overly broad. The one thing that spoke to her as she faced the void was the network of expatriate Burmese websites stocked with invaluable, up-close details that helped her make sense of the devastation before her sister finally called with the news that she had lost a roof but was otherwise OK.
“These sites are hugely important for us,” Mya Moeswe said. “It’s often the only thing we know.”
Acting as newsstand, town hall, bulletin board and cheerleader, these virtual communities have played a vital role in easing anxieties in the last week, managing to evade the long arm of the cyber-police in Myanmar, also known as Burma, and thwart an isolated, repressive regime to bring news and personal information to the world.
The country’s media is among the most heavily censored in the world, according to the New York-based watchdog group Committee to Protect Journalists, with a tightly controlled official press and Internet filtering that blocks Google and Yahoo e-mail, the BBC and the expatriate websites.
In this environment, news gathering for the expatriate sites is done by informal networks of a few to several hundred volunteers in Myanmar sending out stories, tidbits, video clips and photos through Internet cafes, public phones or with departing travelers.
Some are given equipment and a few hours in reporting basics; others find their own way. Although the journalistic standards vary widely, some even call police stations and government officials for comments or a response.
In September, when pro- democracy monks led protests against the regime, the ragtag bands of news gatherers often had the best video of the events.
In this crisis, their role has been less newsworthy. But with power and Internet blackouts, an information vacuum and the official 23,000 death toll expected to rise sharply, their role has been invaluable personally to the 3 million to 5 million Burmese living overseas.
“The diaspora media has been critical,” said Aung Naing Oo, a political analyst in Thailand. “By using traditional networks of friends, they were able to get firsthand information about the cyclone.”
Mizzima News, one of the more popular expatriate websites, weathered its own storm last week.
Under the onslaught of 4 million hits in two days, Mizzima’s servers crashed, forcing it to temporarily relocate its virtual community, even as it remained proud of its coverage.
“It got overloaded,” said Soe Myint, editor of the New Delhi-based operation, which has 30 employees. “But starting at 7 a.m. the day the storm hit, we did near-hourly updates, complete with photos and news.”
Many editors and founders of the expatriate sites are exiled political dissidents, and that can color coverage. Soe Myint, for instance, served three months in an Indian prison for a 1990 “nonviolent” hijacking aimed at drawing attention to Myanmar’s repressive policies.
Perhaps in part because of this, the sites say they suffer periodic attacks by government hackers; unconfirmed reports claim that 1,000 low-level military officials have been trained in Russia to create computer viruses, crash websites and launch disinformation campaigns.
Thailand-based Irrawaddy, which has had 9 million hits in the last week, saw its website crash for several days in September in what it believes was an attack by the Myanmar government.
“They don’t like me,” said Myint Hlaing, founder of 5-year-old Burma Today, based in New York. “Last year they hacked us, sent us viruses and totally blocked our site. They’re very good.”
At other times, the government takes a more direct approach. Periodically, Burma Today receives e-mail complaints that it posts only negative news and profits by tarnishing the country’s global image. Myint Hlaing, who supports the site with his modest wage as an office worker, said he responded that open debate ultimately makes for a better Myanmar. “I hope to change their mind-set,” he said.
Website operators also believe some senior officials carefully read their sites to find out what is happening in their country and abroad.
When the government launched a brutal crackdown on the protests in September, some of the expatriate sites saw two-thirds of their Burmese volunteers arrested or intimidated. Since then, most of the human networks have been rebuilt, and the websites have expressed admiration for these unsung heroes for their bravery, resilience and willingness to perform, often at great personal risk.
Vigilance has remained tight, with cyber-cafe owners under increasing pressure to monitor their customers. Under a 1996 law, these businesses are required to install software that logs user activity every five minutes. In practice, however, proxy servers and other technological tools allow paths around the barriers, ensuring that more news seeps out of the country.
“When I was there, everyone in the cafes were accessing forbidden websites,” said Shawn Crispin, Asia program consultant with the Committee to Protect Journalists, who recently completed a report on the subject. “I even downloaded a video on YouTube of monks protesting to see what would happen, but no one was there.”
The sites continue to break stories. Mizzima was among the first over the last week to contradict the government’s initial death toll of just 351.
Above all, since the cyclone hit, the sites have provided reassurance.
“We’re not a relief mission,” Irrawaddy founder Aung Zaw said. “But a lot of people overseas are desperate for information, and we try to help them as much as possible.”