In 2002 when I was in graduate school, I did research on “hactivism” in Myanmar – the expanding practice of using internet channels to promote political ideology in opposition to the ruling totalitarian regime. You can download this paper if you want to read more.
Back then, the focus was on getting information into Myanmar through peer-to-peer networks – using connections to bases like Napster to transmit controversial and banned information on the state of the country, including international reaction. Burmese expatriates the world over secretly gathered in chat rooms to determine their messaging, and then used creative technology to educate and empower those activists in Myanmar who were quietly and secretly waiting for signs that the regime was growing weaker or for a specific call to action.
When these channels didn’t work, organizations such as Radio Free Europe would collect these messages from blogs and/or the hactivists themselves, and broadcast them into the country via radio networks. The potential looked good, but it was still too early to tell if these small initiatives would make a difference long term.
Flash forward 5 years and the once mostly one-way feed into Myanmar has become a two-way conversation between hidden activists in-country and expatriate bloggers. This article from BBC.com goes into detail on the proliferation of these practices:
By Stephanie Holmes
“Burma’s bloggers are using the internet to beat censorship, and tell the world what is happening under the military junta’s veil of secrecy
Images of saffron-robed monks leading throngs of people along the streets of Rangoon have been seeping out of a country famed for its totalitarian regime and repressive control of information.
The pictures are sometimes grainy and the video footage shaky – captured at great personal risk on mobile phones – but each represents a powerful statement of political dissent.
“It is amazing how the Burmese are able through underground networks to get things from outside and inside,” says Vincent Brussels, head of the Asian section of press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders.
“Before, they were moving things hand-to-hand and now they are using the internet – proxy websites, Google and YouTube and all these things…”
Hactivists are finding new ways to connect with each other through text messaging, blogging, chats, and anonymous email accounts – all under the very regulated eye of various Burmese internet service providers. Pictures and video are being transmitted and posted, there are more expatriate bloggers who regularly collect and post this controversial content – clearly, the network is larger and stronger. Some notable blogs (that aren’t blank yet – something that happens when the author is fleeing persecution) are: Justice and Injustice, Ko Htike’s Prosaic Collection, and Blog of Nyein Chan Yar.
It’s unclear whether the latest uprising is as a result of some of this content sharing and hactivist initiated, but its certain that we have a clearer picture of the reality in Myanmar now than we ever did before.
In true hactivist style, the call to wear a red shirt tomorrow in support of the monks in Myanmar has gone out across the internet wires through blogs and news articles, a Facebook page dedicated to the event, and text messages flying across oceans. The potential for using the internet and electronic messaging to promote causes like these seems unlimited by the inherent viral component these calls to action take on.
The result is clear: everyone’s eyes are on Myanmar.