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Amid political protests, Net shut off in Burma

Military government is suspected of restricting access and disconnecting cell phone lines, as gun-toting troops seek to suppress ongoing demonstrations by civilians and monks.

As Burma's military government attempts to suppress the largest pro-democracy protests by Buddhist monks and civilians in decades, there are numerous reports on Friday that it has also cut off its citizens' Internet access and cell phone lines.

Burma--officially the Union of Myanmar--is already labeled by watchdog groups as one of the most restrictive locales in the world when it comes to blocking Internet content. But like in China and other censorship-happy countries, dissidents have come up with technological work-arounds such as proxies that connect them directly to computers outside the prohibitive country.

Now there are widespread reports that public Internet cafes have been shut down, most of the country's cell phone lines have been disconnected, and the remaining Internet access has made uploading photos and video of scenes on the ground a snail-like process. Some groups are exploring buying expensive but less easily restricted satellite phones to continue their dispatches, according to a Friday report in The Wall Street Journal.

Some news agencies have reported being told that the Internet connection has been brought down by a damaged undersea cable, but diplomats and citizens said they suspect the government is involved. The shutdown apparently did nothing to keep at least 10,000 protesters from assembling Friday.

Whatever the reason, the technological restrictions are significant because the Internet has emerged as one of the primary channels for sharing images, videos and accounts of the nonviolent demonstrations.

Through blogs, shaky videos shot on cell phone cameras and text messages, witnesses on the ground have been feeding reports of the violence to Burmese journalists working in other countries, according to the Journal. Citizen reporters have even started using the social-networking site Facebook or slipping news into online greeting cards to communicate their message to the outside world, Reuters reported.

The protests have been going on for about a month and have drawn as many as 70,000 demonstrators to the streets at a time, according to the Associated Press. At least 10 people have been killed in the past two days in the largest cities. Thursday marked the most violent day so far, the AP said, with bloody sandals littering the streets and protesters shouting pleas for freedom as gun-wielding troops in riot gear made arrests.