Internet played roll in Suharto overthrow The Boston Globe WASHINGTON -- As rebellions broke out across Indonesia this month, protesters did not have tanks or guns. But they had a powerful tool that wasn't available during the country's previous uprisings: the Internet. Bypassing the government-controlled television and radio stations, dissidents shared information about protests by e-mail, inundated news groups with stories of President Suharto's corruption, and used chat groups to exchange tips about resisting troops. In a country made up of thousands of islands, where phone calls are expensive, the electronic messages reached key organizers. ``This was the first revolution using the Internet,'' said W. Scott Thompson, an associate professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Thompson, like many academics who follow Indonesia, kept track of the dissidents' communications with one another from thousands of miles away. New technologies have changed the ways the world learns about a fast-changing political crisis. As Chinese troops quashed a democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the dissidents communicated with the outside world by fax, and TV networks used satellites to send out chilling footage. The same year, thanks to West German television, many East Germans learned that the Berlin Wall was being toppled. Details of a Russian coup in 1991 spread by fax and a primitive version of the Internet, and a year later CNN sent images of a military uprising in Thailand around the world. Thanks to the Internet, Thompson said, Indonesian activists circumvented press censorship. In one chat group, he said, participants circulated inspiring accounts of the 1986 ``peoples' power'' rebellion in the Philippines. Some of the messages simply gave encouragement. Last week, in an America Online chat group about Asia, a correspondent nicknamed ``Asia Son'' urged Indonesians to keep denouncing President Suharto's corruption and cronyism. ``One or two people saying that (are) easily dragged away and silenced,'' Asia Son wrote. ``One or two million doing it is not so easy.'' The same day, in broken English, another correspondent urged looters not to pick on Indonesia's ethnic Chinese minority: ``Why are they always the victim when there is a riot? ... All they do is make a honest living. They work hard and when you worked hard you deserve success.'' As Indonesia heated up this week, Abigail Abrash, an Asia expert at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights in Washington, stayed in constant touch with friends in Jakarta and other Indonesian cities. She sent them summaries of the American news coverage of the uprisings. Abrash received front-line reports from students occuping Indonesia's Parliament building. From what she read, it seemed that someone brought a laptop into the building and went on line while surrounded by armed troops. ``In a country that's as far-flung as Indonesia, the Net has meant that people have been able to communicate at a time like this,'' she said. In Indonesia, with more than 17,000 islands, calling from one place to another costs as much as $1.50 a minute, a considerable amount in a country reeling from a recession. The Internet often costs much less. On a trip by boat two years ago, Abrash was amazed to find even remote towns in Indonesian Borneo were ``wired.'' In the past few years, dissidents in Burma, Nigeria, Cuba, China, and other countries have relied on the Internet, but access in those countries is restricted to relatively few professors, researchers, high-level government workers, and employees of multinational businesses. In Indonesia, the Internet is especially popular among students -- the group that took to the streets and were instrumental to forcing Suharto to resign Thursday. ``With the Internet, people in the country can get information out for support, and they can also use the network to communicate with each other in the country and build a body of knowledge about activities in the country,'' said Stephen Hansen, a human-rights specialist for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington. Diana Lady Dougan, chairwoman of International Communications Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said some of the Internet's advocates tend to overemphasize its significance in Indonesia. ``The Net was an escalating factor there, but I don't think it changed the outcome,'' she said. ``It fast-forwarded things.'' Indonesian activists suspect that their phones are tapped, and some worry that their e-mail is monitored, too. Several have developed systems of encryption with their American colleagues, but they refused to describe their methods. On Thursday, the Internet enabled human-rights groups in Indonesia to warn colleagues in Europe and the United States that military troops threatened to imprison Muchtar Pakpahan, a hospitalized dissident. The US human-rights groups contacted Capitol Hill, where Representative Bernard Sanders, a Vermont Independent; Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat; Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican; and seven others wrote a letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asking for help. Soon after, the US embassy in Jakarta sent a representative to Pakpahan's hospital room as a signal of support. ``The responsiveness is unbelievable -- we have people on the ground who e-mail information, then we can react right away,'' said Brendan Smith, a legislative aide to Sanders. Friday, troops took away Pakpahan, but at least the US embassy was a witness, Smith said. The members of Congress are continuing to protest. Radio Free Asia, which the US government has used to broadcast pro-democracy messages, can be heard in China, Laos, Vietnam, and Burma, but not in Indonesia, long regarded as pro-American. Catharin Dalpino, who served as the State Department's top officer for democracy, said the US government needs to be more aggressive about trying interactive technologies such as the Internet while relying less on traditional media such as radio. ``Nowadays, a so-called democracy program should lead to something instead of people just sitting in their living rooms saying, `Oh, that's interesting,''' said Dalpino.
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