The ability of citizens in Myanmar to keep connected to the world via the Internet could make a substantial difference to the outcome of the current protests taking place in the South East Asian country, dissidents living in Japan said on Friday.
"You are seeing the biggest demonstrations in 19 years," said Tin Win, president of the Federation of Workers' Union of the Burmese Citizen in Japan, said at a Tokyo news conference. "But what is different this time is that because of IT the world is very aware of what is happening. On this point these protests are much more significant."
An estimated 3,000 citizens were killed in 1988 when the military government cracked down on protests taking place in Myanmar, formerly called Burma.
The latest protests have been going on for more than a week and turned deadly on Thursday when at least nine people, including on Japanese journalist, were shot by troops on the streets of Yangon.
Video of the protests has flashed around the world and first-hand accounts from citizens have appeared on blogs and independent media sites. News agencies have sometimes struggled to verify the accuracy of the information coming from the country, but in general the Internet has served to shed light on a crisis that may otherwise have gone under reported.
The government in Myanmar keeps a tight fist on the media but an even tighter first on the Internet. Opposition Web sites are blocked and screen captures on computers in Internet cafes are automatically taken every 5 minutes, according to Reporters Without Borders. IP telephony services and chat services are also blocked, the group said.
Some of the most graphic and gripping commentary has appeared on personal blogs like that of Ko htike. The site includes pictures from the protests and information from contributors including one from a Singaporean citizen who was shot by rubber bullets.
Quite how long the Internet link remains open to the world is unknown but the latest entry on the Ko htike blog indicates it may already be shutting down.
"I sadly announce that the Burmese military junta has cut off the Internet connection throughout the country," it said. "I therefore would not be able to feed in pictures of the brutality by the brutal Burmese military junta."