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.
By Stephanie Holmes
Protests are visible via pictures posted by bloggers like Ko Htike
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."
On the inside
The use of the internet as a political tool is one of the most marked differences between the latest protests and the 1988 uprising, which was brutally repressed.
Thanks in part to bloggers, this time the outside world is acutely aware of what is happening on the streets of Rangoon, Mandalay and Pakokku and is hungry for more information.
Burmese-born blogger Ko Htike, based in London, has transformed his once-literary blog into a virtual news agency and watched page views rise almost tenfold.
He publishes pictures, video and information sent to him by a network of underground contacts within the country.
"I have about 10 people inside, in different locations. They send me their material from internet cafes, via free hosting pages or sometimes by e-mail," he told the BBC News website.
"All my people are among the Buddhists, they are walking along with the march and as soon as they get any images or news they pop into internet cafes and send it to me," he said.
Ko Htike is one of a number of Burmese online activists, almost all based beyond the country's borders.
Reporters without Borders describe how a guide for cyber-dissidents provided to young Burmese was seized upon, copied and feverishly disseminated among a growing group of the young, politically active and computer-literate.
Bloggers are teaching others to use foreign-hosted proxy sites - such as your-freedom.net and glite.sayni.net - to view blocked sites and tip-toe virtually unseen through cyberspace, swapping tricks and links on their pages.
The internet has also become a virtual space for political groups who could not openly express their shared views in public.
Ko Htike met his network of citizen journalists in an internet forum which was rapidly disbanded after initial contact had been made.
Virtual forums link activists who cannot meet up. Photo: Ko Htike
Such forums are also used as a space to alert bloggers whenever new content - stills or video - arrives.
"We normally use internet chat rooms, like Yahoo Messenger," Ko Htike said. "If they find it difficult, they call me. They don't say anything, they just give links or a code, they don't mention anything about it."
Analysts agree that, although internet access is currently at less than 1% of the population, the current regime underestimated its potential.
CENSORSHIP IN BURMA
Burma ranks 164 of 168 states on press freedom
0.56% of population has internet access
25,000 people have official email addresses (2005)
Two state-controlled internet providers
"Pervasive" filtering of political websites
Sources: Reporters Without Borders, OpenNet Initiative
The regime stopped focusing on policing its virtual borders after a power struggle which resulted in the ousting of former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in October 2004, explains Mr Brussels.
"Khin Nyunt was a military intelligence guy, he had a big network of spies and people were quite wise about all these kind of controls. After he was removed, they no longer have much knowledge in this area," he said.
"There has been the opportunity for people on the inside to use their skills. These are young journalists and geeks, they know how to by-pass the blocking and the censorship."
Despite retaining total control of the country's only two internet providers and severely limiting internet usage - anyone who fails to register a computer with a state-sanctioned internet provider faces a 15-year prison term - Ko Htike says the current crisis has made the leadership highly aware of the threat posed by bloggers.
He described how he has received personal e-mails - and protesters within Burma have received mobile phone text messages - spreading false information and rumours, for example about military crackdowns on protesters.
15 Aug: Junta doubles fuel prices, sparking protests
5 Sept: Troops injure several monks at a protest in Pakokku
17 Sept: The junta's failure to apologise for the injuries draws fresh protests by monks
18-21 Sept: Daily marches by monks in Burmese cities gradually gather in size
22 Sept: 1,000 monks march to the home of Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon
23 Sept: Up to 20,000 march in Rangoon
24 Sept: New Rangoon march draws at least 50,000 and 24 other towns join in
He is convinced these are spread by the Burmese authorities, trying to both influence protesters and hijack his website to spread government propaganda.
"Many people are reading my blog so if I put through fake news on the site it will affect people. They [the government] can see the hits, they can see that people are looking at my site... that means they are scared so they are trying to manipulate me, to use people power," Ko Htike said.
Compared with China's virtual and physical controls on internet use, however, Burma's systems are pretty unsophisticated, experts say.
"The Burmese government has a very repressive filtering regime... but it can be a bit inconsistent - one of the internet service providers blocks only international sites, the other only regional ones," said Ian Brown, a research fellow in internet privacy and security based at Oxford University's Internet Institute.
Burma's bloggers are adept at exploiting the loopholes.
"It is really important; people want to know what is going on in Burma," said Ko Htike.
Through his cyber-network he also aims to protect those who risk their lives to feed his blog, now banned inside the country.
"I monitor the news on Burma and I can keep updating my site. If something happens then we can warn them. We can do something, we can keep people aware."
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