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Myanmar’s ‘Dictator’s Dilemma’?

In 1993, Christopher Kedzie wrote that an increase in the relevance of digital/networked technologies will force repressive regimes to face a ‘Dictator’s Dilemma’, where they will have to choose between open communications (encouraging economic development) and closed communications (controlling ‘dangerous’ ideas). Based on last week’s events in Myanmar, where the Junta simply shut off the Internet in response to the worldwide transmission of words, pictures, and film of their repressive actions, it is easy to say that one of the worlds most repressive regimes has no qualms about shirking economic development in favor of complete control.

However, the events of the past few weeks have shown that a little online openness can go a long way. Activists used mobile phones and proxy servers to ensure that the world continued to get information about the country until the regime shut the entire network down (see Open Net Initiative’s detailed account of the tools used by online citizen journalists). Also, the news that leaked out of the country for the first few weeks sparked an international movement in support of the monks, rapidly organized via social networking tools like Facebook. As of the end of last week, over 100,000 people joined the Facebook group and have organized marches all over the world.

While it is difficult to be optimistic, important questions have been raised about the regime’s, and the nation’s, reliance on the Internet for economic development. This round of protests was sparked by the elimination of oil subsidies, leading to huge consumer price increases. It is clear that the Junta cannot simply ignore the economy. Further, it is well known that the country’s tourism is largely based on the Internet, and that fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have pushed measures to bring Myanmar into the regional economy. Finally, Myanmar may look to China as a model of using the Internet as a tool for economic growth while maintaining political control.

The prospects for open communications in Myanmar look bleak. Yet the Internet will surely be turned back on. When it does, how will the brutally repressed democratic opposition respond? And how can the outside world help?

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One Response to “Myanmar’s ‘Dictator’s Dilemma’?”

  1. The battle they’ll never win at Antony Loewenstein Says:

    […] “Dictator’s Dilemma” over the […]