History prof 'conduit' for Myanmar Web shutdown


BANGKOK -- A California-based academic may have been a driving force behind the move by Myanmar's 19-year-old dictatorship to shut down Internet access after bloggers posted images of soldiers killing civilians.

The images included footage of a Japanese photographer for the Agence France Presse shot dead at point-blank range by a soldier chasing demonstrators.

Civilians and Buddhist monks began peaceful protests in August against a steep surprise fuel price hike in Yangon, also known as Rangoon, the capital of the country formerly known as Burma.

The government has since admitted responsibility for the death of the journalist Kenji Nagai.

A video of Nagai's killing on Sept. 27 was sent to Ryan McMillen, a professor of history at Santa Monica College, who then uploaded it to the I-Reporter service on CNN.com.

"The feeling of being just the conduit for a video of this power and importance -- a video which so starkly shows the depravity to which men will sink when compelled by a fascist state to follow orders -- was, truthfully, a feeling of power in itself," said McMillen, who was contacted by a CNN producer seeking permission to use the footage within five minutes of his post.

After the evidence leaked out, the already tightly restricted Internet was shut down to all in Myanmar but those few with a satellite connection by the junta that in 1989 jailed pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi for the first time.

Suu Kyi was elected as a pro-democracy president in a free election in 1990, then rejailed and kept in house arrest almost nonstop ever since.

In September, Irawaddy.com, a Web site concentrating on Myanmar-related news, got 30 million hits, almost three times its normal viewership, as Web surfers flooded to see the 1,000-plus images of the current conflict site editor Aung Zaw had posted.

"It's clear that the government views the Internet as an enemy," said Zaw, a Burmese refugee who has produced a print version of Irawaddy from Thailand since 1993. Last week, the Web site collapsed under a virus he claims was sent by the junta.

The plight of the Burmese people has spread via the Web as far as Hollywood, where in August, before the demonstrations began, comedian Jim Carrey recorded an impassioned video about Suu Kyi on YouTube, the popular video-sharing Web site. Since its Aug. 27 upload, more than 300,000 people have watched Carrey's plea.

Suu Kyi, now imprisoned again, won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.