Grassroots media in Burma

Mischa Foxell 8 October 2007

Over the past weeks hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters defied the military dictatorship and took to the streets of Burma in demonstrations led by monks and pro-democracy activists. Now hundreds have been arrested and injured and it is estimated that up to 200 have been killed, including monks.

The streets, manned by armed soldiers on every corner, have practically emptied. However, the world is now awake to the crisis in Burma, thanks in no small part to the determination of the youth and student activists in Burma who have risked their lives demonstrating and getting news and images out of the country to the international community. Many of the most determined demonstrators who were among the last to dare to remain on the streets are students and young people. They continued to demonstrate even after most of the monks had been halted in their marches by arrests and raids on monasteries. Frequently they have had to disperse as government troops threatened to open fire after a five minute deadline.

Now the presence of around 15,000 troops on the streets of the city of Rangoon have stopped even these from coming out and there were no reports of further protests on Sunday September 30. There is a long history of severe human rights abuses in Burma and student activists have been among those most targeted. Cambridge University Amnesty International campaigned for two years on behalf of Thet Wing Aung, a student activist who had been organising anti-government demonstrations since he was at high school in 1988.

He was first arrested and tortured in 1991 when he was 19 years old and in 1998 he was arrested again after helping to organise student protests against the poor quality of education and the denial of human rights. He suffered from various illnesses and abuses whilst imprisoned and was refused proper medical treatment. Thet Wing Aung tragically died in prison in the autumn of 2006. He was 34 years old and had been in prison for eight years.

In the last wave of mass demonstrations in Burma in 1988 students also played a leading role and suffered greatly for this when 3,000 monks and student activists taking part in a pro-democracy uprising were brutally massacred.

Then, as now, foreign TV crews were unable to get access to the country and these murders went largely unreported. Although the state is still trying to block film crews as well as the internet, today a new generation of young protesters is getting the evidence through to the outside world. The country’s state-owned principal internet server has been closed down, internet cafes in Rangoon have been shut and their owners threatened with reprisals. In defiance of this crackdown the activists are still using mobile phones and alternative internet connections to send out information and images. Dozens of blogs written by students in Rangoon and Mandalay are giving daily updates on the democracy movement with eyewitness testimonies.

This impromptu reporting is often carried out by demonstrators at the risk of their lives; the military police have been targeting and shooting those seen carrying cameras on the streets. Earlier this week a Japanese photo journalist was shot and killed on the streets of Rangoon.

Meanwhile awareness about the crisis is being spread across the globe not only through news channels but on sites such as Facebook, helping to galvanise hundreds of thousands of young people to the cause of the Burmese demonstrators. The Facebook group ‘Support the monks’ protest in Burma’ has swelled over the past few days to well over 200,000 members and is connecting activists and co-ordinating events across the world.

The world is now awake to the plight of Burma. Thanks to the courage and determination of countless Burmese students and young people armed with their mobile phones, blogs and conviction, the truth about what is happening in their country is being told.

The international community must now react and not stand idly by as a government wages a brutal campaign of suppression and violence against its own people.

Mischa Foxell

Mischa Foxell is the chair of Cambridge University Amnesty International