When a Country Goes Dark


Ministers’ homes at the new capital, Pyinmana

Burma has shown us that we’re not as clever, or free, as we thought we are.

It’s a sign of how the Burmese generals don’t really understand things that it took them so long to cut off the Internet:

Reporters without Borders and the Burma Media Association reported that the government cut off all Internet access in the country on Friday morning and they said that all Internet cafes in the country also have been closed. The Web site of the Myanmar Post & Telecommunications, the government-run telecommunications provider, appears to be down.

The Internet was something we didn’t have to help us back in 1988 in covering the uprising. Actually we didn’t have very much: a total of about eight international telephone lines into the country, the official radio which would broadcast once or twice a day, and which we’d monitor courtesy of a weird contraption in a special room that also spewed out garbled copies of the official news agency reports.

We’d spend most of the day in the Bangkok office trying to get a line in, cajoling and sweet-talking the female or male (we knew no shame) operators into trying again, and again, to get a line. When we got a connection we’d ask the person who picked up as many questions as we could, whether it was Aung San Suu Kyi or just some guy who happened to have a telephone. Once a day we’d pick up the monitoring by the U.S. embassy of other official radio broadcasts and pore over them as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls. Occasionally we’d interview someone who managed to get out; my first ever wire service story was the Dutch ambassador going on the record at Don Muang airport about some of the horrors he’d seen. When we did get into Burma all we had in the office was an ancient telex machine.

Nowadays, 19 years on, there’s more technology out there than we could dream of back then. Not just the Internet: camera phones, mobile phones, satellites, GPS. But I’m also surprised at how little these really help. Burmese have bravely organized demonstrations via cellphone, and sent out information by Internet, but those channels are largely closed now, leaving us to join a Facebook group, wear red, or turn to satellite to try to glean information.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has analyzed satellite photos which it says “pinpoints evidence consistent with village destruction, forced relocations, and a growing military presence at 25 sites across eastern Burma where eyewitnesses have reported human rights violations.” This is more about the continuing (and long-running) war against insurgents and populations in border areas caught up in those wars. But it’s instructive to see their before and after satellite photos, like these ones:


Before-and-after satellite images show the site of an apparent military encampment in Burma on 11 November 2000, (top), and again on 13 December 2006 (bottom), when new bamboo fencing can be seen. The human rights group, Free Burma Rangers, reported a major expansion of this camp in 2006, corroborated by the AAAS analysis of images. (Lat: 18.42 N Long: 97.23 E.)

Credit: Top image: © GeoEye, Inc. Bottom image: © 2007 DigitalGlobe.

The AAAS has a Google Earth layer here to illustrate the before and after. The full report (PDF, big file) is here.

The AAAS is currently collecting satellite images of urban areas to see what it can glean; it reminds me of 1999 in East Timor when satellite imagery showed up some of the destruction cause by the retreating Indonesian army. But such images can do little more than illustrate something that has happened, and not bring to life the actual suffering and abuses on the ground.

Indeed, I’m surprised and a bit disappointed that technology can do so little to pry open a country if its government decides to close it off. We talk about information wanting to be free, but we tend to forget how that information still requires power and a channel in order to escape. Shut off the power, shut off the channel and the information is as much a prisoner as the Burmese people presently are.

AAAS – AAAS News Release

How Not to Record Interviews

I call it my Aung San Suu Kyi Moment, mainly because I’m a show off and like to drop names of famous people I once interviewed over the phone. It was September 1988 and I was a rookie reporter in Bangkok, one of several of us in a wire service who spent most of the day trying to reach Rangoon, as it then was, via one of less than a dozen phone lines between Thailand (as it still is) and Burma (as it then was). If any one of us got through, it was an important moment, because news was so hard go get out of the growing street rebellion against the military government. One of the leaders was Aung San Suu Kyi (as she still is), and if we managed to get her on the line everyone would crowd around to listen to the interview on the speaker phone. We’d record the interview too, via a cable that plugged into our tape recorder, in case we missed anything. It was a wild life.

On my first week on the job I got her on the line and asked all the right questions, mainly because my boss was writing them down and passing them to me. I hung up, elated. Everyone gave me a slap on the back, right up until I realised I had put the cable in the earphone socket rather than the microphone socket. I had recorded only silence. In my excitement, of course, I hadn’t taken any notes. One of my superiors, an American helicopter pilot, gave his wry smile and said, “better luck next time, kiddo,” or something like that. I was crushed, and learned an important lesson: Never to let people call me kiddo. Sorry, I mean to never let technology outwit me at key moments.

Since then, for example, I’ve tried to tape over the earphone socket so I don’t make the same mistake, but occasionally I do, and the Law of the Aung San Suu Kyi Moment seems to be: The Likelihood that You Will Plug the Wrong Cable into Your Tape Recorder Is in Exact Proportion to the Importance of the Interview and in Inverse Proportion to the Quality of Any Handwritten Notes You Take During the Interview.

My first bugbear is this: Why don’t I take better notes? That of course, is related to my own incompetence at shorthand and the fact that if the person I’m interviewing is important I want to maintain as much eye contact as possible, reducing the time available to take notes to about three seconds, usually long enough to write something trite and meaningless, and then only to show them I’m listening. This important Journalistic Technique is less effective over the phone, of course. Then I don’t take many notes because I’m usually staring out of the window or scratching some body part, often one of my own.

Anyway, my second bugbear is this: Why can’t people who make these recording devices put the sockets further apart, color-code them (some do, admittedly) or at least mark them so they don’t look exactly alike, as per this one from Olympus?


As you can see, in a hurry of an interview situation, scrambling to plug the microphone in to the socket, you’re likely to miss entirely and jab it it into the ear socket next to it, which would result in you recording an interview with yourself, and any other ambient noises that happened to be going on (such as the scratching).

It’s not as if laptops are any better. In fact they’re slightly worse. Many put their sockets at the back of the unit, with no color coding and with icons that make about as much sense as a junta press conference. Take this one from Acer for example:


Not going to win any design awards, that one. I’m in favour of putting them somewhere we can actually reach them, color coding them clearly and intuitively, labelling them, and not putting them next to each other. Us journalists should be allowed to scratch without these kind of worries.