Suemedha Sood

October 9, 2007

Protests in Burma began late August when the government sharply increased fuel prices, doubling the cost of petrol and diesel, and raising the cost of compressed gas for public buses by 500 percent. This would inhibit access to public transportation and even food staples such as cooking oil for the people of Burma, one of Asia’s poorest countries.

The Burmese people did the only thing they could. They took to the streets. Tens of thousands of people, including thousands of monks, filled the streets of Rangoon, Burma’s main city to protest the government’s antidemocratic actions and human rights abuses.

Then, on September 27th, the military government began its violent crackdown. The junta confirms that ten people have been killed, including Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai, although the death toll is believed to be much higher. Reports from medical sources in Rangoon say the death toll may be between 200 and 300. According to the BBC, as many as 10,000 people, including many monks, were rounded up for interrogation Although around 2,100 people have been released, thousands are still detained. The junta shut down the country’s Internet access with the rest of the world and cut mobile phone lines, preventing any photographs or accounts of the crackdown from getting out.

UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari has not been successful in bringing the repression to an end. A glimmer of hope comes as the Burmese junta appoints military leader Gen Than Shwe as a liaison to speak with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has under house arrest for 18 years and detained without trial for 12 of those years.

The loudest voices calling for action are coming from young people all over the world. On Saturday, demonstrators all over the world came together for an International Day of Action to protest the Burmese repression. Marches and rallies were held in 27 countries. And it all started because of Facebook.

19-year-old Alex Bookbinder started a Facebook group called “Support the monks’ protest in Burma” after spending time in Burma as part of a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. He started the group mainly to let his friends know about the protests. “The next thing I knew, it was out of control,” Bookbinder told Reuters.

What started as a Facebook group has turned into a huge international grassroots campaign with more than 375,000 members.

As a result, Burma Watch has been launched with this website:

This BBC News segment covering Saturday’s protests importantly points out that “in Burma, age doesn’t protect you from bullets.” In Burma, many of the detained include young monks, students, and other demonstrators.

The Internet has proven an incredibly powerful tool in the fight against government repression. This is why the junta so greatly fears online press and communication over the Internet. The crackdown on the press is one of the most frightening aspects of the junta repression. Already at least one journalist, Kenji Nagai, was shot dead at close range, as captured on camera. The video, which has circulated throughout the Internet, was one of the first signs to the rest of the world that the junta was holding back no longer. The horrifying footage can be seen here:

According to Reporters Sans Frontiers (or Reporters Without Borders), six journalists and writers have been detained, including Maung Yan Paing, a writer living in North Okkalapa, Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, a writer and radio and TV producer, Ye Lwin, a poet, writer and singer with the Mizzima Wave Band, Kyaw Zeya Tun, a reporter with The Voice Journal, Win Ko Ko Lat, a reporter with Weekly Eleven Journal, and photo-journalist Win Saing.

Most reporters are unable to enter Burma and are being forced to report from the Thai border.

Suemedha Sood is a 2007 fellow in the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. The former assistant editor at the Center for American Progress, she is a frequent contributor to WireTap and