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Commentary: I-Reports show how truth in Myanmar has high-tech ally

  • Story Highlights
  • Pro-democracy demonstrations met with violence in Myanmar
  • Plate: Junta generals trying to "wire up an electronic iron curtain"
  • I-Reporters have sent CNN.com pictures, video of situation
  • Plate: We are witnessing the beginning of an end
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By Tom Plate
Special to CNN
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SINGAPORE (CNN) -- For most of the morning the other day, they locked down one of the two massive runways at busy Changi International Airport here. This was unusual.

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Tom Plate discusses how technological Davids "have the ability to dwarf government Goliaths" in Myanmar.

It was done when the Singapore government wanted to make two loud points.

The first was to lay down a royal carpet for Ibrahim Gambari by giving his plane its own runway on which to land. The U.N. special envoy to violence-torn Myanmar (modern name) was on a crucial stopover during his mission to Burma (historic name), the sad and sordid scene of the ruling junta's public crimes against its own people.

Singapore, oft-labeled in the West as a "soft authoritarian" regime, wanted the junta and the world to know exactly where it stood on the issue of this "hard" brand of authoritarianism, as practiced by the thuggish Burmese generals.

Where it stood, the tiny but successful city-state was saying, was far apart: This, said Singapore, is not for us, and it should not be for anybody else, either.

Back in New York, that message was also being zinged out Burma's way by Singapore's foreign minister. Speaking for the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), George Yeo, who can be as pointedly blunt as he can be diplomatic, let the junta have it.

To be honest, it was fun to observe any ASEAN representative doing or saying anything more forceful than ordering up an economic study or boldly scheduling yet another pointless meeting.

And Yeo, who just happens to be the current ASEAN chair, has few equals on the world diplomatic stage in the department of clear, concise and unmistakable language. Words like "appalled" and we "demand" are rarities in ASEAN-speak. Yeo used them -- and a few other choice ones as well.

The tiny city-state of Singapore tends to punch above its weight on the Asian diplomatic stage -- and sometimes even at the U.N. Its astonishing economic success (almost an embarrassment of riches in a region often known as a bumptious bacchanal of coups, corruption and incompetence) has something to do with it; another factor is the caliber of its top people.

Also working behind the scenes was Singapore's prime minister -- Lee Hsien Loong. He was lobbying his often-timid counterparts among the ASEAN states not to wimp out at the very moment the eyes of the entire world were glued on messed-up Buddhist Burma in Southeast Asia.

Nobody has ever said Singapore was dumb. The magnitude of the media spotlight now on Myanmar/Burma is absolutely unprecedented.

The junta generals have been trying their best to wire up an electronic iron curtain around the country, but modern technology has the tendency to uproot the best-laid plans of little mice and little men.

Hand-held cell-phone cameras and the tiniest of digital transmitters can sometimes zip through censorial curtains of extensive government filters and jammers.

These are the new technological Davids that have the ability to dwarf government Goliaths. Truth, it seems now, has a high-tech ally. On Saturday alone, for instance, CNN.com, one of the world's premier news sites, received from Burma some two dozen people-power "I-reports," as the flagship cable news service calls them.

"Both still images and video are coming in," reported the site's senior executive producer, Mitch Gelman. "Many that are coming in are anonymous, of course. But the courage of these people shows that it is more challenging than ever for governments to shut down the flow of information. The Web has unleashed a tremendous global force."

There is no assurance that any of the current efforts to bring the Burmese generals to their senses will work. Stupidity can always resist reason for longer than it has any right to do so.

Unless Chinese intelligence can somehow organize an internal coup inside the Burmese army -- or giant India adds its pressure in some way no one can foresee -- the dummies that are running the place will continue to run it, dumbly.

But in the end, the junta's days are surely numbered. No country can any longer be an island. Even the leaders of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea have accepted that. The North Koreans did not come and sit down at the Six-Party Talks and agree to denuclearize because they are nice guys. Insolent insularity in the days of insistent globalization is a loser's game.

Yes, the generals can shoot monk after monk -- but in the competition for the hearts of the world, rifles are little match for the determined pounding of sandals marching for freedom and dignity.

President Bush was right to ask for the help of China, with its heavy investment in Burma. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was right to dispatch Special Envoy Gambari. And Singapore PM Lee was right to work the phones behind the scenes.

All this will not immediately save lives or end the junta tomorrow. But we are witnessing the beginning of the end. Good riddance.

UCLA Professor Tom Plate just completed a reporting trip to Southeast Asia. He is a veteran American journalist and author of the recent book "Confessions of an American Media Man." © Tom Plate, 2007.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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