The following originally appeared in the South China Morning Post.
Today, the anniversary of Burma’s independence from British colonial rule in 1948, reminds Burmese—wherever they live—of what might have been. In post–World War II Southeast Asia, Burma was the “It” country and the top contender for the region’s first “tiger” economy. Rich in natural and people resources, Burma had one of the highest literacy rates in the world and a prestigious university system. Burma also enjoyed one of the freest presses in Asia, with more than 30 daily newspapers in many languages. Can it ever be so again?
Yes, there is hope for Burma: in the age of Twitter it is impossible to run an efficient police state; even after almost half a century of military rule, too many Burmese still carry the torch for freedom. There is also hope because the world is watching the struggle in Burma with renewed interest.
Aung San Suu Kyi may be the famously stubborn icon of freedom, but she is the best known of many other stubborn Burmese prisoners of conscience, more than 2,000 of whom are languishing in jails, serving draconian sentences, some for the second or third time. In a recent show of defiance, even insurgent ethnic forces who had signed ceasefires with the regime refused to be manipulated during November’s stage-managed elections.
The Burmese generals are discovering the futility of trying to micromanage what 50 million citizens see, hear or read, and to rein in information that can come in—and out—in less than a blink. There is little evidence that the Burmese authorities even bother to play Big Brother 24-7, partly due to the lack of capacity to staunch the enormous bytes of data that today besiege even purportedly “isolated” nations. The authorities filter specific buzzwords and watch certain e-mail addresses, but apparently do not block other obvious sites that provide users with secure email communications.
The penetration of the Internet in Burma is a mere 0.2 percent of the population, but user growth between 2000 and 2009 was around 10,000 percent, one of the fastest in Asia. The regime controls all three official Internet service providers, but cannot block access to electronic information as efficiently as other repressive countries in the region. Monitoring the Internet is very labor-intensive and most users know how to get around site blocks.
Blogging has taken off in a big way inside Burma and among Burmese living abroad, who rely on inside informants to provide items for sites based outside Burma, such as the promising new www.myanmarwikileaks.org.
Since her recent release from house arrest, Suu Kyi has wasted no time learning about and exploiting the new (to her) methods of instant communication with the outside world. She has conducted many telephone conferences with students abroad and sent countless video addresses to conferences and meetings. She is finally able to “speak” in Burmese to her main constituents inside the country via interviews with exile Burmese language radio and television stations. She may be, as some observers think, overexposing herself in a fickle world of 24-hour news cycles, but she is also increasing her already formidable army of supporters around the globe, who will notice if she is locked up again any time soon.
The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen is the latest of prominent personalities to champion the cause of freedom for Burma. He has been highly critical of Burma’s closest neighbors—India, China and Thailand—which are “making a lot of money out of the Burmese people by keeping it under dictatorial hands.”
Hopefully in 2011, some of the more enlightened generals will come to the same conclusion.