An Internet group backing the monk-led protests in Myanmar has attracted more than 100,000 members in less than 10 days as Internet users around the world try to harness the power of the Web to support the protest movement.
The Internet has been a key battleground in the wave of protests that erupted a month ago against Myanmar's repressive regime. Authorities have cut off the country's two Internet service providers in a bid to stop accounts and images of the protests, and the military crackdown, reaching the outside world.
Service providers BaganNet and Myanmar Post and Telecom were shut down Friday, although big companies and embassies hooked up to the Web by satellite remained online.
"The government understood that they were losing the communications battle," said Vincent Brossel, who heads the Asia desk at media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders. He said the flow of words and images from inside Myanmar, also known as Burma, had slowed to a trickle.
"Now (Myanmar authorities) are trying to do something like they did in 1988, when the information came out after the massacres."
A similar uprising in 1988 was crushed in a bloodbath, but few journalists were on hand to witness it.
The Myanmar government's tight media restrictions mean "citizen journalist" accounts have been vital for journalists trying to track the events of recent days. Reporters have relied on social networking sites like Facebook and blogs like that of London-based Burmese blogger Ko Htike for firsthand accounts and images.
A shoestring opposition broadcaster called the Democratic Voice of Burma, based in Norway, also has been at the forefront of receiving and broadcasting cyber dispatches by satellite TV and shortwave radio.
Suki Dusanj of Burma Campaign U.K. said new media technologies had been very important.
"The world is watching now, " she said. "The culture of mobile phones allows us easy access within the country to what is going on and the 'Support the Monks' group on Facebook means we can reach out to people easier."
By Friday, more than 110,000 people had joined the Support the Monks' Protest in Burma group, set up on Facebook nine days ago. The group has become a repository of eyewitness accounts, photos and video footage of the protests, and also provides details of demonstrations worldwide.
The group's British organizer, Johnny Chatterton, said that until Internet links to Myanmar were cut, the group had been receiving images, video and reports from sources with contacts in Myanmar. He said much of it — including the report of a monk killed by soldiers — had turned out to be accurate.
"I'm passing on the details to my contacts at the papers and the BBC," said Chatterton, 23. "Usually the norm is that ordinary people watch the news. Now it's the opposite."
The group on Friday posted an estimate from sources inside Myanmar that 200 people had been killed in the crackdown. The government says 10 people have died, although Western officials and diplomats have said the toll is likely much higher.
Chatterton said the group's goal was "to show the world's eyes are on Burma" and to coordinate protests, including a global day of action planned for Oct. 6.
Chatterton learned the power of Facebook this summer when he led a successful campaign on the site to force the HSBC bank to drop high interest charges on recent university grads' accounts.
Brossel welcomed the role played by sites like Facebook, which has grown rapidly since it was founded 3 1/2 years ago. But he cautioned that Western Internet companies have cooperated with governments to restrict the flow of information on the 'Net in the past.
"In China, some of the big Internet companies have been very cooperative with the government," he said. "All this control in the past has been possible because of foreign companies."