Friday, September 28, 2007

Story of the Week -- Sept. 24-28

Choke Hold

Before this week, this is what I knew about Myanmar:

It used to be called Burma

It's near Thailand and Cambodia

On Seinfeld, Mr. Peterman went there.

I was idly talking about my job with some people over bagels and coffee last Saturday night, and one of our break fast guests said

"Do you know if they're looking for freelancers to cover the protests in Myanmar?"

--"there are protests in Myanmar?"

"For like a month now."

--"wow. Well, I'm sure we have someone there."

Silly me. I've learned a lot this week. First of all, we don't have someone in Myanmar. Nobody has anybody in Myanmar.

Here's what I know about Myanmar now: it's home to one of the most, if not the most, secretive, oppressive and brutal regimes in the world. There is no such thing as free speech, or free anything for that matter. There are no western journalists allowed. In 1988, a protest was crushed by the Military government, which has very little problem with killing its own citizens and at the same time calling itself the "people's army." The government is holding a Nobel Peace the daughter of a pro-democracy leader, and a leader and Nobel Peace Laureate in her own right under house arrest. It's rich in natural gas and other resources. It has a lot of Buddhist monks.

This week, those revered, nonviolent monks took to the streets to bolster an ongoing movement that began as a protest over rising fuel costs. The protest ballooned to an estimated 100,000 people and finally caught the attention of the global media, which of course can't get anyone into the country.

So they improvised, and in one of the most fascinating displays of journalistic determination I've ever seen, the media has pieced together diplomatic correspondence, undercover reports, and hidden forays across the Thai border to try to show the world just what's happening on the ground in Myanmar.

What the world is seeing isn't good. At least nine people are dead, but that's what the government of Myanmar is saying, and some reports say there could be many more. Essentially, the army has the guns, the protesters don't. And yet, the government is clearly operating in fear of the protesters. While the government has quieted rebellions before, it never has had to do so in the Internet age.

The government of Myanmar is terrified of the Internet, and somehow people inside Myanmar are getting photos and videos on to the Internet at an increasingly faster pace. One blogger is living in England and stays up all night receiving information and photos from friends and friends of friends in Myanmar and posts the latest on his blog. And even though the government shut down Internet access on Friday across the country, the news is still getting out, and the blogger is still posting.

The hands of governments around the world are tied. This week was U.N week in New York, and country after country issued proclamations of contempt and statements of concern. But that's as if you're getting beat up at school, and the principal yells at your assailant from across the room "Hey! You shouldn't do that!" The only way these protesters will win is if they can somehow find a way to keep going, knowing full well that their government has all the guns and all the power.

They've kept going, though, because what choice do they have? And their support isn't coming from foreign governments or international peacekeeping forces - it's coming from ordinary people who can't possibly fathom what it's like to live there. And they're all working to shine a light on one of the darkest corners of the world.

Thanks to them, I know a lot more about Myanmar. And they need our help.


No comments: