NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A “window of information” is closing in Myanmar as the military junta battles networks of disaffected citizens by restricting mobile phones and Internet access, a leading dissident journalist said on Thursday.
The biggest anti-junta protests in two decades in one of the world’s most closed states has been broadcast around the world thanks to exiled journalists in countries such as Thailand and India and their clandestine contacts on the inside.
So far, citizen reporters have managed to send information and photos across the Internet, even using the social networking site Facebook or hiding news within e-greetings cards to outwit the military government.
Pictures of marches of monks and civilians and the response by security forces are on TV screens around the world in hours.
It all contrasts with Myanmar’s last major uprising, in 1988, when as many as 3,000 people were killed by soldiers firing on crowds but it took days for the news to emerge.
It could soon change.
“The window of information is closing,” said Soe Myint, Editor-In-Chief of the Internet-based Mizzima News Agency and a former hijacker of a Thai International Airways plane in 1990.
“It’s getting more and more difficult,” Myint added in an interview with Reuters. “Many blogging sites are now blocked and opposition activists have had their mobile phones cut.”
Mizzima is one of several outlets, like the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), that have become major source of information on the country.
Founded nine years ago, it is based in a run down office in New Delhi, collecting clandestine reports from hundreds of Myanmar citizens before trying to confirm the news with a network of secret reporters.
Myint and a friend hit the headlines in 1990 when he hijacked a Thai International Airways plane to protest the junta’s rejection of elections won by pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.
He used fake bombs made out of soap cases to hijack the plane flying from Bangkok to Yangon with 220 passengers on board. The two friends were released in 1991 after a three-month jail term and were recognised as refugees in India.
“Now the military have made the Internet slower and made it nearly impossible for photos to be downloaded,” Myint said.
“We find that we are getting lots of video filmed there but it is increasingly hard to get those videos out. It’s also more and more risky for ordinary people there to film.”
Myint said two days ago he received about 300 emails a day from people within Myanmar. That is now down to about 50.
“I haven’t yet received one photo today yet,” he added.
“The regime is very clever. They are not closing the whole system — their own supporters need access to the outside — but they are selectively cutting phones and Internet access.”
The United States helps fund Mizzima through its National Endowment for Democracy, one source of the generals’ assertions that the protests are the result of outside agitation.
“We get information from ordinary people,” Myint added.
“We don’t even know who they are,” he said, pointing to an anonymous e-mail on his computer screen from someone saying a foreigner had been shot during the protests.
Myanmar told Japan’s embassy in Yangon a Japanese national had been killed on Thursday. Witnesses saw a photographer they believed to be Japanese unconscious after a police charge in which shots were fired.
Myint said many Internet cafes were closed and people found it difficult to report as the crackdown intensified.
Myint said he would not be surprised if all Internet communications were closed if the situation got worse.
“But we are prepared for that. We’ll still have our ways of getting information out,” he said — for the first time showing a sly smile on his face.