As media ecologist Jacques Ellul explained in his classic book, Propaganda, even totalitarian governments base their legitimacy on the consent of the people. Whether they actually have that consent is irrelevant, the bottom line is that they must maintain the appearance of government of, by, and for the people. Look how quickly the mighty Soviet Union collapsed, even with the largest army in the world, once its legitimacy was revealed to be illusory. There is no doubt that the lesson was learned by the government of China, and neighboring Burma.
How could the junta not see the writing on the wall when the monks turned on them in this deeply religious society? The significance of the events was discussed in last Sunday's Week in Review section of the New York Times (September 30, 2007), in an article entitled "What Makes a Monk Mad" by Seth Mydans:
As they marched through the streets of Myanmar’s cities last week leading the biggest antigovernment protests in two decades, some barefoot monks held their begging bowls before them. But instead of asking for their daily donations of food, they held the bowls upside down, the black lacquer surfaces reflecting the light.
It was a shocking image in the devoutly Buddhist nation. The monks were refusing to receive alms from the military rulers and their families — effectively excommunicating them from the religion that is at the core of Burmese culture.
That gesture is a key to understanding the power of the rebellion that shook Myanmar last week.
The country — the former Burma — has roughly as many monks as soldiers. The military rules by force, but the monks retain ultimate moral authority. The lowliest soldier depends on them for spiritual approval, and even the highest generals have felt a need to honor the clerical establishment. They claim to rule in its name.
Begging is a ritual that expresses a profound bond between the ordinary Buddhist and the monk. “The people are feeding the monks and the monks are helping the people make merit,” said Josef Silverstein, an expert on Myanmar at Rutgers University. “When you refuse to accept, you have broken the bond that has tied them for centuries together.”
Instead, the monks drew on a different and more fundamental bond with Myanmar’s population, leading huge demonstrations after the government tried to repress protests that began a month ago over a rise in fuel prices.
By last week, the country’s two largest and most established institutions were confronting each other, the monkhood and the military, both about 400,000 strong, both made up of young men, mostly from the poorer classes, who could well be brothers. Rejected by both its spiritual and popular bases, the junta that has ruled for 19 years had little to fall back on but force.
It unleashed its troops to shoot, beat, arrest and humiliate the men in brick-red robes, definitively alienating itself from the clergy whose support gives it legitimacy. Soldiers surrounded monasteries, preventing monks from leading further demonstrations — or from making their morning rounds to collect the alms that feed them.
In Myanmar and other Buddhist nations, many join the monkhood as a lifelong vocation, but many other young men become monks for shorter periods, ranging from a few months to a few years. These young monks remain closer to the lives and concerns of the people whose alms they receive.
Burmese monks have taken part in protests in the past, against British colonial rule and against a half-century of rule by military dictatorship. The most notable recent occasion was in 1990.
Their militant resistance to the British produced the most prominent political martyr of Burmese Buddhism, U Wisara, who died in prison in 1929 after a 166-day hunger strike.
His statue stands near the tall, golden Shwedagon Pagoda, the country’s holiest shrine, which was a rallying point for the recent demonstrations and the scene of the first violence against the monks last week.
That attack came as a shock to people who said the military would not turn violently against the monks, and it had the predictable effect of arousing the fury of a devout population.
But monks have not always been in the political front lines. It was students, for example, who led the mass demonstrations of 1988 that brought the current junta to power in a military massacre.
The monks’ power comes instead from their role in bestowing legitimacy on the rulers.
“Legitimacy in Burma is not about regime performance, it’s not about human rights like the West,” said Ingrid Jordt, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and an expert on Burmese Buddhism. “It is something that comes from the potency and karma bestowed by the monks. That’s why the sangha is so important to the government,” she said, referring to the Buddhist hierarchy and the spiritual status that its monks can convey. “They are actually the source of power.”
The junta has gone to great lengths to identify itself with Buddhism. Like their predecessors through the centuries, the generals have been busy building temples, supporting monasteries and carrying out religiously symbolic acts. In 1999, they regilded the spire of the Shwedagon Pagoda, which now glitters with 53 tons of gold and 4,341 diamonds on the crowning orb.
The gilding of the spire was a high-risk ploy for an unpopular regime, an act permitted only to kings and legitimate rulers. When the two-ton, seven-tier finial was added and the spire was complete, the nation held its breath, waiting for the earth to send a signal of disapproval through lightning or thunder or floods, Ms. Jordt said. But nature remained indifferent.
“Aung pyi!” the generals shouted. “We won!”
But their grip on power has never been secure. They have ruled through a security service that keeps order through intimidation. They have arrested thousands of political prisoners and have held the pro-democracy leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years.
In that context, the huge street demonstrations were an act of courage and catharsis.
They started tentatively on Aug. 19 after a fuel price increase raised the costs of transportation and basic goods. Veterans of the student demonstrations of 1988 staged small protests, but most were quickly arrested or driven into hiding. The unrest was fading when security officers beat monks and fired shots into the air during a confrontation in the city of Pakokku on Sept. 5.
That became a spark that grew into a broad-based challenge to the government, culminating last week in the breach between those who hold moral authority and those who have the guns.
“This was not an accidental uprising,” said Zin Linn, a former editor and political prisoner who is now information minister for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, an exile opposition group based in Washington. The transition in leadership in the protests — from militant former students to activist monks — was well planned, he said, through secret meetings among young men sharing similar grievances and aspirations for their country. For the most part, it was not the elders who backed the protests. Over the years, the junta has worked to co-opt the Buddhist hierarchy, placing chosen men in key positions just as they have done in every other institution, angering and alienating the younger monks.
After the military clampdown on the monasteries last week, the streets of Yangon were mostly empty of monks. But their gesture of rejection of the junta, and the junta’s violent response, had changed the dynamics of Burmese society in ways that had only begun to play out.
The junta’s action “shows how desperate they are,” Ms. Jordt said. “It shows that they are willing to do anything at this point in terms of violence. Once you’ve thrown your lot in against the monks, I think it will be impossible for the regime to go back to normal daily legitimacy.”
And so, the military tries to draw the blinds and curtains, by cutting off the internet, a strategy that only seems feasible because of the slow diffusion of technology in this impoverished nation. As usual, my friend and colleague at the University of Toronto (where he is an heir to the media ecology legacy of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan), Ron Deibert, and his OpenNet Initiative has assessed the situation--the following comes from an OpenNet Initiative Blog entry posted on Saturday, September 29:
The brave citizen journalists of Myanmar
IT vs Guns
The Guns can’t shoot down the “IT”
The Winner is Burmese People
-thread on overseas portal Mandalay Gazette
An extraordinary mobilization by “civilian” or citizen journalists and bloggers to keep information flowing out of Myanmar continued even as Burmese authorities violently targeted monks, protesters, and journalists. Images of bloody, ransacked monasteries, chaos, and casualties have circulated around the world along with a battery of videos and an outpouring of comments (see Cboxes here and here).
However, after blocking certain blogs and websites, the junta then moved to shut down the Glite revolution (named after a proxy server popular in Burmese cybercafes, this refers to the use of small-scale technologies to circumvent the firewall) and cripple the essential communication tools used by citizen journalists: cellphones and the Internet.
While filtering is typically employed to keep information from reaching within a country’s borders, the junta used a tactic much more crude than a firewall by cutting off Internet access altogether in Yangon and Mandalay. Raids on ISP offices were also reported. As a result, many of the lifelines of images, updates, and witness accounts fell at least momentarily silent or slowed to a trickle.
A chorus of voices from Myanmar, China, and elsewhere around the world calling for UN action have also pointed out the importance of China’s role, beyond the resonant example of Internet censorship that it provides. The Chinese government, Myanmar’s largest trade partner, has also recently rendered tens of thousands of websites inaccessible as a result of the unplugging of Internet data centers.
It is unclear whether or how much this “saffron revolution” resembles the “color revolutions” that took place earlier this decade in several countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States. In Georgia and Ukraine, for example, “networked” movements maximized cell phone technology and used the Internet as a platform in political mobilization for new elections. The New York Times reports that the US government is now considering purchasing cellphones to disseminate information.
Mobilization funneled through exile organizations, NGOs, and independent media has gone viral. And although media is already weighing in on the potential loss of political impact as Internet and phone access is compromised, a relatively small number of individuals has already virtually ensured that Burmese authorities will face some measure of accountability for their repression.
Some accountability indeed. I discussed the situation in Burma in my Communication and Technology class on Monday--at least some of the students should be reading this post--and talked about the larger context of censorship and technology. Simply put, you can intercept and confiscate material items such as books, magazines, newspapers, tapes, discs, etc., at a border, but it is much harder if not impossible to censor or block electronic communications, especially wireless transmissions and broadcasts. Looking back again at the fall of the Soviet Union, it was the widespread diffusion of television, and satellite TV reception in particular, during the eighties, that set the stage for the collapse of that empire.
Ron Deibert and another media ecologically minded scholar, Mitchell Stephens of New York University's Journalism Department, are quoted in another New York Times article published today, entitled "Myanmar Junta Unplugs Internet," also by Seth Mydans:
BANGKOK, Oct. 3 — It was about as simple and uncomplicated as shooting demonstrators in the streets. Embarrassed by smuggled video and photographs that showed their people rising up against them, the generals who run Myanmar simply switched off the Internet.
Until Friday television screens and newspapers abroad were flooded with scenes of tens of thousands of red-robed monks in the streets and of chaos and violence as the junta stamped out the biggest popular uprising there in two decades.
But then the images, text messages and postings stopped, shut down by generals who belatedly grasped the power of the Internet to jeopardize their crackdown.
“Finally they realized that this was their biggest enemy, and they took it down,” said Aung Zaw, editor of an exile magazine based in Thailand called The Irrawaddy, whose Web site has been a leading source of information in recent weeks. The site has been attacked by a virus whose timing raises the possibility that the military government has a few skilled hackers in its ranks.
The efficiency of this latest, technological, crackdown raises the question whether the vaunted role of the Internet in undermining repression can stand up to a determined and ruthless government — or whether Myanmar, already isolated from the world, can ride out a prolonged shutdown more easily than most countries.
OpenNet Initiative, which tracks Internet censorship, has documented signs that in recent years several governments — including those of Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — have closed off Internet access, or at least opposition Web sites, during periods preceding elections or times of intense protests.
The brief disruptions are known as “just in time” filtering, said Ronald J. Deibert of OpenNet. They are designed to quiet opponents while maintaining an appearance of technical difficulties, thus avoiding criticism from abroad.
In 2005, King Gyanendra of Nepal ousted the government and imposed a weeklong communications blackout. Facing massive protests, he ceded control in 2006.
Myanmar has just two Internet service providers, and shutting them down was not complicated, said David Mathieson, an expert on Myanmar with Human Rights Watch. Along with the Internet, the junta cut off most telephone access to the outside world. Soldiers on the streets confiscated cameras and video-recording cellphones.
“The crackdown on the media and on information flow is parallel to the physical crackdown,” he said. “It seems they’ve done it quite effectively. Since Friday we’ve seen no new images come out.”
In keeping with the country’s self-imposed isolation over the past half-century, Myanmar’s military seemed prepared to cut the country off from the virtual world just as it had from the world at large. Web access has not been restored, and there is no way to know if or when it might be.
At the same time, the junta turned to the oldest tactic of all to silence opposition: fear. Local journalists and people caught transmitting information or using cameras are being threatened and arrested, according to Burmese exile groups.
In a final, hurried telephone call, Mr. Aung Zaw said, one of his longtime sources said goodbye.
“We have done enough,” he said the source told him. “We can no longer move around. It is over to you — we cannot do anything anymore. We are down. We are hunted by soldiers — we are down.”
There are still images to come, Mr. Aung Zaw said, and as soon as he receives them and his Web site is back up, the world will see them.
But Mr. Mathieson said the country’s dissidents were reverting to tactics of the past, smuggling images out through cellphones, breaking the files down for reassembly later.
It is not clear how much longer the generals can hold back the future. Technology is making it harder for dictators and juntas to draw a curtain of secrecy.
“There are always ways people find of getting information out, and authorities always have to struggle with them,” said Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of “A History of News.”
“There are fewer and fewer events that we don’t have film images of: the world is filled with Zapruders,” he said, referring to Abraham Zapruder, the onlooker who recorded the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
Before Friday’s blackout, Myanmar’s hit-and-run journalists were staging a virtuoso demonstration of the power of the Internet to outmaneuver a repressive government. A guerrilla army of citizen reporters was smuggling out pictures even as events were unfolding, and the world was watching.
“For those of us who study the history of communication technology, this is of equal importance to the telegraph, which was the first medium that separated communications and transportation,” said Frank A. Moretti, executive director of the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning at Columbia University.
Since the protests began in mid-August, people have sent images and words through SMS text messages and e-mail and on daily blogs, according to some exile groups that received the messages. They have posted notices on Facebook, the social networking Web site. They have sent tiny messages on e-cards. They have updated the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.
They also used Internet versions of “pigeons” — the couriers that reporters used in the past to carry out film and reports — handing their material to embassies or nongovernment organizations with satellite connections.
Within hours, the images and reports were broadcast back into Myanmar by foreign radio and television stations, informing and connecting a public that hears only propaganda from its government.
These technological tricks may offer a model to people elsewhere who are trying to outwit repressive governments. But the generals’ heavy-handed response is probably a less useful model.
Nations with larger economies and more ties to the outside world have more at stake. China, for one, could not consider cutting itself off as Myanmar has done, and so control of the Internet is an industry in itself.
“In China, it’s massive,” said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project and an adjunct professor at the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.
“There’s surveillance and intimidation, there’s legal regulation and there is commercial leverage to force private Internet companies to self-censor,” he said. “And there is what we call the Great Firewall, which blocks hundreds of thousands of Web sites outside of China.”
Yet for all its efforts, even China cannot entirely control the Internet, an easier task in a smaller country like Myanmar.
As technology makes everyone a potential reporter, the challenge in risky places like Myanmar will be accuracy, said Vincent Brossel, head of the Asian section of the press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders.
“Rumors are the worst enemy of independent journalism,” he said. “Already we are hearing so many strange things. So if you have no flow of information and the spread of rumors in a country that is using propaganda — that’s it. You are destroying the story, and day by day it goes down.”
The technological advances on the streets of Myanmar are the latest in a long history of revolutions in the transmission of news — from the sailing ship to the telegraph to international telephone lines and the telex machine to computers and satellite telephones.
“Today every citizen is a war correspondent,” said Phillip Knightley, author of “The First Casualty,” a classic history of war reporting that starts with letters home from soldiers in Crimea in the 1850s and ends with the “living room war” in Vietnam in the 1970s, the first war that people could watch on television.
“Mobile phones with video of broadcast quality have made it possible for anyone to report a war,” he said in an e-mail interview. “You just have to be there. No trouble getting a start: the broadcasters have been begging viewers to send their stuff.”
Simply put, there can be no secrets in the electronic media environment. And you can see some of the smuggled video on the CNN website.
The problem for so many of us is that there seems to be no effective way to channel the outrage we feel over these events into some form of constructive action. With this blog, I have become part of International Bloggers Day for Burma, and together we are registering a significant protest on the internet. And clicking on either banner will take you to www.free-burma.org, where you can sign the list of participants to register your protest. You can also get the code for graphics, etc., to add to your website, blog, etc. And it's not too late, even if you are reading this after Oct. 4th. To give another example, here's a blog entry by one of my MySpace friends and a leading poet, Amanda Joy, devoted to Poems for Free Burma that represents the response of an entire community (and here's my own modest one). And let me also encourage you to sign this online Stand with Burma Petition.
But, will this make a difference, or does it just provide the illusion of action? I don't know. But, like chicken soup, it can't hurt, perhaps we'll learn something more about the internet through this campaign, and even if it is a losing battle, you still have to fight it, don't you?
Another MySpace blogger asked these kinds of questions, which I responded to in a comment, and having thought this through further, would like to add that here:
There is a sense of impotency that comes with these kinds of events, and it is hard to say whether registering our outrage through posts or signing petitions means anything at all, beyond making us feel better. Perhaps, though, if enough people are concerned about this issue, then our elected officials will feel obliged to take some kind of action. Apart from that, it is very astute of you to ask about markets, and there are some attempts to pressure China, Burma's neighbor and ally, to do something, as China has much more to lose, particularly as host of the next Olympics. It's not much to go on, given China's own dismal record. The only other thing we can do is to collectively send a message saying, we are watching, we are paying attention, there are witnesses, which may not prevent the crime, but perhaps guarantee that sooner or later there will be justice.