Myanmar's searing smartphone images flood a watching world

The world is watching violent events in Myanmar for many reasons, but maybe for one reason most of all: because it is possible.

It is a dynamic that is completely different from the uprising that spread across the Southeast Asian nation in the summer of 1988 before the internet and the smartphone. Then, when student-led demonstrations by the government were forcibly suppressed, Myanmar’s worldwide notoriety cemented itself as Isolation It took the outside world months, even years, to understand the full story of what had happened.

This time is the imagery plentiful and unsettling. Filmed by on-site attendees and sometimes uploaded instantly, the protests and raids reach millions of handheld devices around the world, including almost instantly.

It’s a vivid example of a technological truism at a time when taking pictures has become totally democratized: if you can get a close look at it, the more likely you are to pay attention.

“You know the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. You feel, “This is happening, this is true,” he says Kareem El Damanhoury, A media scholar at the University of Denver writing a book on conflict-time visuals.

In Myanmar he says today: “The pictures not only complement what is happening. Over time, they define the conflict itself.”

As of Wednesday, more than 60 people had died in government crackdown on mass protests in Myanmar following a coup earlier last month. It is estimated that nearly 2,000 are incarcerated, and Media are targeted. Among those arrested: Thein Zaw, an Associated Press journalist who was detained 10 days ago while working in a stranglehold – also an arrest recorded on video and widely used.

“The video is extremely worrying,” United States spokesman Stephane Dujarric said last week of recordings by journalists, which in some cases were taken from non-professional, non-media sources.

The ability of amateurs to define images in the field through still images, and especially video, has accelerated for more than a decade.

An anti-coup protester unloads a fire extinguisher to counter the effects of tear gas fired by police during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar. The numerous and disturbing images of protests filmed and uploaded by attendees in the field almost instantly bring protests and raids to millions of handheld devices.AP file

Many media scholars quote the year 2009 Election protests in Iran and the chronicle of government violence there, particularly the death of a young musician named Neda Agha-Soltan, as a turning point.

It did so four years after YouTube started and two years after Apple launched the iPhone, which ushered in three turning points: amateur videos were easy to share, smartphones with decent quality videos and instant uploads became affordable, and many people suddenly became more affordable had cameras in his pocket.

The following decade offered many opportunities for democratized pictures over the phone – starting in 2011 Arabic spring on the 2014 Hong Kong protests and the government’s increasing crackdown on them in following years.

Last year in the United States that Assassination of George Floyd The hands of a Minneapolis police officer were captured in nearly nine minutes of terrifying video – just the latest footage of police violence against black Americans to attract worldwide attention.

Floyd’s death sparked a summer of anti-racism protests and law enforcement responses, both of which turned violent at times – captured by millions of minutes of on-site video shared, central to Americans’ understanding of the events. Same story with Amateur video of participants in the siege of the US Capitol in January, which was used to understand and propagate the events and to pursue alleged insurgents.

In this image from a video dated February 27, 2021, Associated Press journalist Thein Zaw is arrested by police in Yangon, Myanmar. AP

In the case of Myanmar, the amount and quality of the amateur video is particularly noteworthy when contrasted with “8/8/88” – the August 1988 pro-democracy uprising against dictator Ne Win that sparked a military coup in the nation known as Burma the following month .

The following decade offered many opportunities for democratized pictures over the phone – starting in 2011 Arabic spring on the 2014 Hong Kong protests and the government’s increasing crackdown on them in following years.

Last year in the United States that Assassination of George Floyd The hands of a Minneapolis police officer were captured in nearly nine minutes of terrifying video – just the latest footage of police violence against black Americans to attract worldwide attention.

Floyd’s death sparked a summer of anti-racism protests and law enforcement responses, both of which turned violent at times – captured by millions of minutes of on-site video shared, central to Americans’ understanding of the events. Same story with Amateur video of participants in the siege of the US Capitol in January, which was used to understand and propagate the events and to pursue alleged insurgents.

In the case of Myanmar, the amount and quality of the amateur video is particularly noteworthy when contrasted with “8/8/88” – the August 1988 pro-democracy uprising against dictator Ne Win that sparked a military coup in the nation known as Burma the following month .

The pictures of those days were relatively sparse, and communication within the country – visual and otherwise – was violently silenced. All of the iconic images came from or were augmented by established news outlets. There was no internet, shared videos, or social platforms to host it yet. And then much of the world forgot Myanmar for almost a generation.

This time it’s different. Although YouTube has shut down some military channels in Myanmar There are numerous citizen videos for violations of the terms of use. And government officials from the United States at the United Nations have cited the video as a muscular reminder of the power of the image to influence perception and possibly politics.

“I was impressed with the vibrancy of the images I saw – the color, the kinetic energy in them, which seemed quite characteristic,” says Mitchell Stephens, professor and writer at New York University “The rise of the image, the fall of the word.”

The pictures from Myanmar, he says, “bring back bad memories of all the failed democracy protests that we have had around the world in recent decades. I have to think of the Arab Spring, which was such a great disappointment and tragedy, or of Tiananmen Square. “

The difference, of course, is that pictures of the 1989 Action by the Chinese government About democracy In times of fax machines, demonstrators were almost exclusively spread by professional media until they were restricted or expelled. The most famous picture of the time, the photo of a lonely man facing a tank column right next to the square, was taken by four news photographers with professional cameras from high balconies.

The same story with many images that captured the global unrest over the past 50 years. The most famous images of the Vietnam War – those that helped change the US government’s engagement, such as the AP photographer Nick Ut’s Photo of Kim Phuc running down a street, naked and burned by a South Vietnamese napalm attack – came from professional journalists. After all, they were the ones who had the infrastructure and support to get their pictures out into the big wide world.

Pretty much everyone now has this infrastructure in their pockets. But does that mean global attention will continue? When precedents are indicative, global news consumers may experience brief attention spans in a landscape beset by a deluge of imagery – even if the scenes from Myanmar tell them to do something else.

“I am very hesitant about whether and how the democratization of images can put pressure on external forces,” he says Wei-Ting Yen, He teaches Asian Politics at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.

“It offers a realistic understanding,” she says. But beyond that? Maybe not so much.

“In Myanmar it was amazing the first few days and then you saw the crackdown, which was horrible,” says Yen. “But over time, people have short memories. They forget and the next time they see the picture – people who don’t understand what’s going on – they say, “Oh, this is what happens” and move on. “

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