This post is ultimately about the role technology plays in Burma-centered human rights action, the bulk of which is carried by a conversation with U.S. Campaign for Burma board member Nickie Sekera. Bear with me, however, as the rambling preamble touches on how relatively small and intimate the nonprofit/activist tech world is.
A couple of weeks back I found myself on the on the phone with Emily Jacobi, co-director of Digital Democracy and N2Y4 Featured Project representative (Handheld Human Rights). After talking for a while and rehashing each other's Twitter exchanges, we realized that we had a mutual connection in U.S. Campaign for Burma Board Member Nickie Sekera. Jacobi (and Featured Project partner / Digital Democracy co-conspirator Mark Belinsky) know Sekera through the work they do "empowering civic engagement with digital technologies and programs that promote education, communication and participation." I knew of Nickie because she, like me, is a Maine-based activist and she was heavily involved with promoting a showing of Burma VJ in Portland, my home town. Further, the documentary was being shown at SPACE Gallery, an alternative arts venue I hold dear to my heart and volunteer my communication consultation to. Upon Jacobi's suggestion, I reached out to Nickie and interviewed her about her efforts as a Burma-concerned activist.
The whole interview is a tie-in with the showing of Burma VJ, a documentary that captures the actions of Burmese Buddhist monks in the during the Saffron Revolution (a massive uprising against the military-led government that took place in September of 2007). The post can be found at SPACE Gallery's blog, which is, by the way, cleverly titled Have Faith in Worthless Knowledge).
I decided, however, to post bits of our conversation here, as said bits touch on the role of interactive and broadcast technologies in activist and movement-based strategies. The content is quite closely related to the expertise and efforts many of our Featured Project presenters touched on, particularly Handheld Human Rights, as well as some of the discussions I had while covering Personal Democracy Forum (with regard to the use of video in pushing forward campaigns and movements). Particularly interesting are the parts about the underground efforts to track political prisoners and reflections on the intersections of closed cultures and open media.
For background on Burma, or related organizations and movements, check out:
I'm connected with it only because I am friends with the monks who had come here and were featured in the movie. I've been working with George Schmalz of Oscilloscope Laboratories helping him to promote the movie.
I remember as the Saffron Revolution was happening I was involved of this information system because of how connected I am with the movement I was seeing a lot of those clips very early on and being impressed by them. I was very excited when I heard about this film maker who was going to create a documentary out of them. As I knew what was being created, I had become excited to think about how this story was going to unfold in the context of a documentary.
How did you get involved with the U.S. Campaign for Burma?
Then one day I Googled " Bo Kyi," the name of a friend we worked with while overseas. He is one of the founders of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma and he tracks all the political prisoners, and which prisons they've been moved to. As a political prisoner, they don't keep you in one prison. When you're in prison, your family is responsible for providing food, so they try to keep political prisoners far away from their families so there is no support and so families can't report on prisoner health conditions. This site offers an underground way to keep track of that type of information. I Googled his name because we'd worked with him on the border and found that he was speaking at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. While seeing him, I connected Simon Billenness from the U.S. Campaign for Burma, and in talking with him he suggested that I should consider joining them.
I recently attended the Personal Democracy Forum where I had sat in on panels - as well as talked with a lot of different professionals - about the importance of using video to convey the importance and intensity of an issue or an organizational mission. Were the reactions you saw at the showing of Burma VJ similarly important?
Definitely. Like I told [Burma VJ Director] Anders Ã˜stergaard, this film is a gift to the Burma movement. To be able to provide that visual and that real experience is a gift. He did an amazing job at doing that, and from what I know about the depiction based on the reports from people active in the movement, it's really accurate. I'm thankful for it. I've always favored reality over something that's contrived.
A lot of people around me have an idea about what I do, but I don't force it on them. That really helped them get a piece of that understanding. After seeing it, the way they talked about the issue afterward and their demeanor had changed. I think the visual aspect of becoming connected to something is critical. There is something about the video that adds another dimension to understanding.
And of course, having the monks here helped to create that personal, physical understanding and connection. That really topped it off. I like to provide that when I can, and it's been difficult to do because of the security issues associated with putting a face to the issue.
What is the larger role of technology in the movement?
I've been observing [Burmese advocates' exchanges] online to see how they're using technology by seeing how and where they post, what they choose to post and their overall level of activity. This is primarily on Facebook because I help build networks on Facebook and I watch over them out of curiosity.
Burmese people are interesting because a lot of them have been taught a sense of mistrust within their culture based on its closed environment and military machine. That's why the government has been able to maintain power. General Than Shwe is a psychological warfare specialist and has used these tactics to stopping all resistance. He has done this by creating mistrust and fracturing the democracy movement by pitting all the ethnic groups against each other. It's been going on for so long that he's been successful so far in destroying movement unity and this has sustained a core power for the military. He's really created these deep chasms of mistrust.
Online, there are a lot of people who haven't been exposed to education outside of that experience, so why would they trust Internet communication? Everything is monitored. It seems like most people have email addresses and they use them, but the idea of Facebook or the idea of Twitter is just off the elders' radar. A few of them kind of have an idea, but I think generally for them it just isn't really in their scope of possibilities yet.
This was even noticeable at the Burmese American Democratic Alliance, which was really the first meeting of it's type. An invitation went out to all democratic forces in the Burma movement and not everybody sent representatives because of the deep chasm of mistrust and the history of not wanting to work on these alliance issues because of ego and various other cultural and historical reasons. But for those who showed up, it was a really interesting conference. There was good dialog and people actually, without fear, challenged each others' ideas. This was the first time we had seen this, and upon leaving it was interesting to see attendees' attitudes because people actually really felt something could come of this.