Burmese Activists Launch Facebook Group

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Buddhist monks protest in Rangoon, Burma, in September 2007.

Inspired by anti-government protests across the Middle East, a group of young professionals in Burma has set up a Facebook account called 'Just Do It against the Military Dictatorship' — better known either as "Just Do It" or "JD." The account already has over 1,600 members and continues to grow. According to the organizers of the group, over half the members live in Burma.

That's a dangerous place to be. For over two decades, Burma has been ruled by a repressive military regime known for cracking down hard on any form of dissent. Some 2,200 political prisoners languish behind bars across the country. Yet the JD account is replete with revolutionary messages calling for the overthrow of the junta, plus images of the protests in the Middle East and shots of Burma's own 2007 uprising, which was brutally put down by the army. If the account members are traced, they are likely to be arrested and sentenced to hefty prison sentences under laws that prohibit the formation of "illegal organizations" not sanctioned by the regime.

One the account's founders is a media professional in his mid-20s who spoke from a secret location in the country's biggest city, Rangoon. "We are not a political group or organization," he says. "We are the people of Burma. The idea is that everyone feels included to 'just do it' and topple the regime."

In a bid to mobilize people, the group says they have already distributed "Just Do It" pamphlets in major cities across the country with slogans such as "Get Out Than Shwe" (Than Shwe is the most powerful general in the country). The organizer says the group intends to launch a poster campaign, as well as protests.

But mobilizing Burma online will tough. It's estimated that only 400,000 of Burma's 47 million people citizens are connected to the internet, and those who do have access may fear the repercussions of joining an activist site. The regime has a long history of quickly and brutally crushing protests, which has kept the opposition groups from making any substantial progress. Even democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, released from house arrest last year, has made little headway.

Fearing, perhaps, that the Arab uprising could spread, the ruling junta has been jamming the Internet. When I was there last week, all news sites were cut off and the Internet was down for most of the day. Around town, there was a dramatic increase in the number of police officers and checkpoints on the street. "Whenever they are scared, they just pull out a few plugs and [Rangoon] is left in cyber darkness till they feel safe again," says a Rangoon Internet café owner whose business is often interrupted during times political unrest. While social media is yet to be a major activist platform within Burma, the exiled community has long used sites such as Youtube, Twitter and Facebook to spread awareness. Inside Burma, Youtube and Twitter are banned and inaccessible even when using special software designed to avoid cyber censorship.

Despite the difficulties they face, Burma's activists, like the protesters in the Middle East and North Africa, yearn for dignity and freedom. "This time we don't want to compromise, we don't want dialogue," says the "Just Do It" organizer finishing the interview. "We just want an end to the regime."