Will the cyclone bring political change to Burma, where just last year the Internet failed?

There has been a great deal of speculation lately, including in the British Telegraph and Boston Globe, that the military junta’s horrific response to the humanitarian crisis in Burma may lead to their downfall. As the New York Times reported, the junta went forward with a constitutional referendum to further entrench their rule everywhere in the country except in cyclone effected areas (and even there, the vote was only delayed until May 24th). Amazingly, those seeking shelter in schools or other public buildings because their homes were destroyed were kicked out by the government to make way for polling stations.

As highlighted in the OpenNet Initiative’s technical analysis of the shut down of the Internet after last year’s political demonstrations, the junta clearly wants tight control over all information that comes in and goes out the country. Their reaction to offers of humanitarian assistance from abroad is not surprising–they want to control all of it, just like everything else in the country. Most offers of assistance were initially turned down, the government has been slow to process visas for aid workers, aid that has made it through has been taken by the regime for its own use, and those that tried to distribute aid on their own have been stopped. There are now government road blocks to prevent foreign aid workers from reaching cyclone survivors.

But how realistic is it that the regime could lose power? In any political revolution, there is a flash point that raises already simmering discontent over to a boil. This often includes economic factors such as relative deprivation, food crises, and other factors that lead to demands for political change. There is something that must get the masses into the streets, and emboldened enough to stand up to the existing regime. The most recent Burmese protests were driven by plans to end government fuel subsidies, and photos and information were shared virally through the Web to increase knowledge globally about the protests and no doubt to generate international support, and possibly a level of protection for protesters.

Obviously, the situation was dire in Burma even before the cyclone. The regime appears to be bungling the relief effort and has further tarnished their already poor reputation. With such tight control of information within the country, one has to wonder if the stories of denied humanitarian aid, interference in aid distribution by the government and other examples of a severely mismanaged response are circulating within Burma as much as they are on the Internet and global press. These lead to international pressure, but the regime has been able to ignore those calls for change from outside for years. Sadly, it seems that without greater access to information internally about the regimes response to the crisis, that the average Burmese citizen will likely not be able to do much but continue to focus on survival in the short term.

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2 Responses to “Will the cyclone bring political change to Burma, where just last year the Internet failed?”

  1. sy Says:

    There is a weird combo at work here: a resistance to outside intervention connected to a desire to stay in power (this is what the western media wish to underscore), which is not, though, precisely the same thing as wishing the people ill — combined with, well, sheer incompetence, corruption, and incapacity. One gets the sense that even if the gov’t were to say that, yes, we’ll process all of the visas, for example, the procesing would still happen at too slow a rate. The flash point, if there is to be one, will involve the military rank and file. The corruption is, more and more, only lucrative for the top brass.

  2. idteam Says:

    Another vein of thought that seems to be emerging is that military intervention is now justified to relieve the human suffering (yikes!). This seems to have started with calls by France and others for the UN to intervene to get humanitarian aid into Burma. This morning, however, Robert Kaplan writes in the NY Times that the US Navy could quite easily intervene, so the issue is not whether the US can do it–they can, he argues, and with a ‘light footprint’– but whether its a politically smart move to do so.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/14/opinion/14kaplan.html?_r=1&ref=opinion&oref=slogin