Myanmar: The urgent need for communications and collaboration

Everyone’s got their knickers in a twist about Myanmar. No laughing matter this. Tens of thousands already dead, a casualty count that could go up to a mind-boggling 100,000, tens of thousands missing, millions displaced and a brutal junta that governs the country to boot. A disaster within a disaster. 

I’ve been forwarded or CC’d into literally dozens of emails this week by those who want to do something. Anything. INSTEDD sent me intimation of Sahana they’ve now got up and running on one of their servers. They are working hard to localise it in Burmese and though most of the modules are up and running (the SMS / email module is not), I sadly haven’t seen any real data on it as yet. INSTEDD’s also working on deploying some interesting technology that can support and strengthen collaboration. Eric and his team I have no doubt will play a significant role in coordinating and collaborating the disaster response. I’ve been sent some amazing KML files of medical and other logistics locations and hubs. Amazing because they are as comprehensive as one can get in a black-hole of a country where no one really knows anything for sure.

However, all the emails I’ve got have are littered with might, may, possibly, if, by chance, hopefully, could be, not sure, I think, last time I checked. Few are certain about anything other than the monumental challenge of addressing the urgent humanitarian needs of affected communities with a regime that’s not exactly helpful. Fewer have actually any experience of dealing with a repressive regime that’s as bad as the Burmese junta. By coincidence I came across an article today on the World Socialist Web Site that notes:

Since the cyclone engulfed Burma on May 3, there has been an incessant campaign in the international media to push for foreign militaries, along with aid officials, to be allowed into the country. Article after article contrasts the paranoia, incompetence and callousness of the Burmese junta with the supposed willingness of the US and other major powers to generously provide humanitarian assistance.

The Burmese junta has clearly demonstrated once again its repressive methods and callous disregard for human life. But the claim that Washington and its allies are acting purely out of concern for the Burmese people is simply a lie. 

The article goes on to make a simplistic case against US intervention that I don’t agree with, but I was partial to the essential critique of aid dynamics. Restraining myself to the dozens of emails I’ve got from some actors who want to do something in Myanmar and their ideas for information and communications technology support, I recall what I noted during Strong Angel III in 2006:

Given the paucity of bandwidth on the wireless networks and the intermittent connectivity in general, much of the information on-site has migrated from the world of bits to the world of atoms. I Information markers in the form of billboards, butcher paper, ribbons, printed maps, cardboard cutouts and scraps of paper have taken the place of the sophisticated information exchange and social networking built into the SA III website, which is by and large inaccesible on-site. This, in and of itself, is a valuable lesson.

For around a week, we had in the staging grounds of SA III more bandwidth that I could have commercially mustered in Sri Lanka. Theoretically, that is. In reality, we couldn’t even connect to the internet. The conflicts between the myriad of system, each in and of themselves offering the promise of connectivity yet together offering only confusion and conflict, was incredible. Collaboration remained a great idea, simply because models of collaboration based on ICT collapsed. We were reduced to physical meetings and Post-It notes. 

I have noticed that some of the same people involved with SA III (and for the record, they are good people with good intentions) are now agog with ideas on communications provisioning for Myanmar. Everyone wants to go guns blazing – which during SA III was precisely what brought down comms for everyone. Spectrum allocation and technical disputes that could have been easily resolved by advance planning and moderation simply did not occur or post facto, were too complex to manage. 

I am not alone in my frustration that the desire to do something often trumps the need for collaboration and a more robust understanding of just what we want to do, how we want to go about it, with whom, why, where and the context we operate in BEFORE we parachute in with money, equipment, love and fresh air. There are others who have expressed their disquiet with what are essentially marketing strategies in the guise of humanitarian relief. 

It sounds cruel, but perhaps people need to die for change to occur. Perhaps we should have taken the word of the junta that all was hunky-dory with its disaster response. Perhaps we should have left it to manage on its own and concentrated our efforts to maintain the fickle interest of global media over the longer term. 

But if that’s not really an option, what can we do? 

  • From an ICT perspective, we can stop marketing our products and start figuring out how to work together. Everyone brings value to the table – the question is how to build synergies, strengthen complementarity, ease conflicts and augment interoperability and best practices.
  • Business can help humanitarian aid, but the questions I raised at Strong Angel III on commercial enterprise and its engagement with relief work and the guidelines drawn up by UN OCHA need to be taken into consideration. There’s a delicate balance between in-country ad hoc solutions and pre-planned international best practices that can feed into deployments. Often, the best laid plans go awry minutes into deployment.
  • Collaboration helps. A powerful transmitter able to provide blanket coverage to a wide footprint but buggers local communications isn’t all that helpful. Spectrum management, bandwidth allocation with multiple pipes, clients both mobile and fixed, data security and P2P network transports are just some of the headaches deployments will have to plan for as much as possible. Strong Angel III’s communications team may be able to help along with others. 
  • Marketers with little understanding of and no interest in collaboration should shut up and bugger off. 
  • Global media, when more robust ICTs are deployed in-country, must take care to not hog the bandwidth better used to save lives. 
  • Sadly, nobody on the comms side is talking with Burmese socio-political experts to bounce off ideas whether plans for in-country collaboration with government and NGOs will actually work. Surely there must be more than a few in the West who can offer this kind of vital feedback? Western assumptions about aid and relief rarely gel with local cultural, social, political and religious contexts.
  • We also know that multiple wifi / wimax deployments without any kind of technical management and spectrum dispute resolution almost guarantee that no one gets connected at all. So why are we still talking about a hundred and one different ways of getting wireless connectivity into the country with little interest in harmonisation of available bandwidth?

The case is often made with great passion and vigour that we must do something to help Myanmar. That’s good. But the responsibility to protect is not just about going in without host nation support to do good. If it comes to that, the international community and the ICT community in particular need to be certain that they don’t add to the choas, are able to provide vital comms support for relief operations from the get-go. 

I doubt that this confidence exists. Is it a case for doing nothing? Clearly not. But I just wish that those who want to help today remember that the same desire led, ironically, to severe communications breakdowns in the past.

Lessons identified perhaps, but not learnt?

Myanmar’s sad lesson – Internet censorship still rules

The hope, I suppose, is that the military junta restores at least some form of Internet and cell access. The most clever people in Burma will find a way to use it to get information through the blockages. But the future of access to information about Burma, and by people within Burma, looks bleak.

An interview with John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School on Technology Review brings to light the fact that repressive regimes can still almost wholly block the use of the Internet and web by dissidents, severely vitiating their use most recently in Myanmar. I’ve covered the issue of web and Internet censorship by governments extensively in this blog, as well as disturbing trends such as the censorship of the web by Google. Though I remain an optimist, one cannot deny that relying on the Internet and web to support and strengthen local and international attention towards social and political movements against tyranny and authoritarian rule runs the risk of failure unless other more resilient means are also adopted to sustain such processes in the long-term. As Julien Pain avers, Dictatorships catching up with Web 2.0.

It was about as simple and uncomplicated as shooting demonstrators in the streets. Embarrassed by smuggled video and photographs that showed their people rising up against them, the generals who run Myanmar simply switched off the Internet.

Until Friday television screens and newspapers abroad were flooded with scenes of tens of thousands of red-robed monks in the streets and of chaos and violence as the junta stamped out the biggest popular uprising there in two decades.

But then the images, text messages and postings stopped, shut down by generals who belatedly grasped the power of the Internet to jeopardize their crackdown.

In Monks Are Silenced, and for Now, Internet Is Too published on the New York Times, Seth Mydans draws a rather bleak picture for citizen journalism in and out of Myanmar after the junta woke up to the fact that the Internet and web were being used against them. And yet, there’s enough and more content from preceding days that indubitably demonstrate the brutality of the junta in Myanmar.

Insider stories – Myanmar (Burma) and citizen journalism

Amidst the euphoria of citizen journalism content demonstrating to the world the brutality of the military junta in Myanmar and why, just as in 1988, this repressive regime through sheer terror and outright murder hold its grip on power, Dan Gillmor expresses a word of caution:

The questions of reliability and trust will be paramount in what’s coming out of Burma, Net or no Net. We are distinctly inclined to trust what we see from on-the-ground observers in cases such as this, where the regime is so odious that it’s tempting to believe it would commit any atrocity to preserve its power. We need to exercise some caution, and we need to sort out the reliable observers from the ones who will certainly use turmoil to push specific agendas. (Note: I am not pointing at anything in this case, just observing that it’s something to watch for.)

And even though the military seems to have cut off internet access, the stories, images and videos seem to be getting out. Other notable stories in this regard are:

A day to day account of the situation in Myanmar from the BBC including photos submitted by readers.
Burma’s cyber-dissidents, also from BBC
Ko Htike’s blog
Protests in Myanmar and Mobile Phones
Burma Digest
Democratic Voice of Burma

I’ve also written on how the Internet and web can be strategically used to challenge repressive regimes and encourage readers to pick up a copy of Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule, contends that the Internet is not necessarily a threat to authoritarian regimes.

This is a sobering thought and is perhaps one reason why, even though the grotesque suppression of democratic dissent in Myanmar is plastered on websites, the military junta will continue to rule, even though their power will inexorably wane over time, requiring in the meanwhile even more violence to keep dissent in check. An indelible and damning digital record of the military rule is now on the web and will hopefully galvanise sustained international action to overthrow the military and restore civilian rule.

Using the web and Internet for democracy – Burma and others

“Images of saffron-robed monks leading throngs of people along the streets of Rangoon have been seeping out of a country famed for its totalitarian regime and repressive control of information.The pictures are sometimes grainy and the video footage shaky – captured at great personal risk on mobile phones – but each represents a powerful statement of political dissent.”It is amazing how the Burmese are able through underground networks to get things from outside and inside,” says Vincent Brussels, head of the Asian section of press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders.“Before, they were moving things hand-to-hand and now they are using the internet – proxy websites, Google and YouTube and all these things.”

Just as RCTV defied the Venezuelan government’s censorship and my own work on the potential of the web and Internet to support democracy in Nepal suggests, blogs and mobile phones are now being used by Burmese pro-democracy dissidents, as this BBC news report highlights.

“Technology will make it increasingly difficult for the state to control the information its people receive,” said Ronald Reagan soon after stepping down as America’s president: “The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip”.

I’ve written extensively about how the web, Internet and mobile phones can subvert repressive regimes and how simple, practical yet effective and sustainable ideas for ICT in peacebuilding can strengthen democracy. This has also been recognised by Freedom House in How Freedom Is Won: From Civic Struggle to Durable Democracy. And yet, what are the limits of online freedom and activism?However, as I note in Desperate for a Revolution:

The power of the internet and web is such that;

  • you can support these activities through open discussion on the web, which the organisations can then use as a measure of support for their work
  • you can flag initiatives you think are worth supporting financially through donations
  • you can flag projects that people can volunteer in to help build local capacities
  • you can use mobile technologies and Skype to create discussions amongst youth in Sri Lanka and in the diaspora on helping youth affected by the conflict
  • you can flag anecdotal stories from the field that engender hope
  • you can flag story ideas for the media to write on
  • bring to attention the issues of conflict and peace to those in urban areas not usually interested in thempost photos on Flickr that show communities engaged in initiatives that help strengthen democracy, development and human security
  • you can use meeting that bring together young bloggers to talk about ways that collaboratively highlight issues related to democracy and human rights
  • post soundbites and videos from personal interviews with mentors or those working in the field in Sinhala, Tamil and English
  • produce short documentaries that are pod-cast friendly – making content that’s hip and interesting to those in urban areas, but at the same time address issues of peace and conflict

Related posts:Nepal – Technology and DemocracyPublic Service Broadcasting – using technology for democracyBuilding peace through ICT – Ideas for practical ICT4Peace projectsDefeating repressive regimesDefeating repressive regimes – Take 2Related stories from news media:Bloggers silenced as curbs bring internet blackout‘Open-Source Politics’ Taps Facebook for Myanmar Protests