Would Anyone Notice a Burmese News Blackout?


There has been a lot of talk about how this month's protests are distinct from those of 1988 because "the world is watching," the Internet changed everything, and the junta can no longer contain information. That's true to some extent, and it's breathtaking to see video of Yangon on CNN.

But while the world may be watching, I doubt most Burmese are. The country's communications infrastructure is incredibly limited. Seven people out of 1,000 own televisions, and they're not getting BBC. They're watching MRTV-3: all government propaganda, all the time. It's difficult to get a license for a satellite or an internet connection. Cell phones cost thousands of dollars; even most expats don't carry them. I worked in relatively cosmopolitan Yangon, but a friend who worked in upper Burma once told me the villagers he worked with had never heard of Aung San Suu Kyi. The land lines rarely work, and when they do, sane people do not discuss political matters over them. It's probably safe to assume you know more about what's going down on Sule Pagoda Road than much of Burma does.

The flip side of this is a system of informal information networks that will be incredibly hard for the junta to shut down. It's getting more difficult for outside news agencies to obtain information as the regime cuts phone lines, but most Burmese people don't rely on those lines anyway.