Backpacker turns Myanmar activist via Internet phenomenon

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BANGKOK, Sep 29 (Reuters) A chance encounter in a Myanmar coffee shop turned teenage backpacker Alex Bookbinder into a political activist at the forefront of an Internet campaign that has attracted tens of thousands of supporters.

Bookbinder, 19, is the creator of the ''Support the monks protest in Burma'' campaign on the Internet social networking phenomenon ''Facebook''.

The campaign seeks to draw attention to the violent crackdown by Myanmar's military rulers against pro-democracy protests led by the country's revered Buddhist monks.

It has attracted nearly 140,000 members since being launched on September. 19, and thousands more are joining each day.

''I'm overwhelmed by the response,'' Bookbinder told Reuters in an interview conducted, appropriately, over the Internet.

''I really just started this to tell my friends about what was going on over there. It's just grown and grown. It's unbelievable.'' The Internet has become a vital tool for activists rallying opposition to Myanmar's rulers and also one of the few sources of information for news on the country.

So powerful is its reach, the junta shut down the country's Internet connection with the rest of the world on Friday, although it resumed briefly on Saturday before being shut off again.

Bookbinder's fascination with Myanmar started during a backpacking tour of Southeast Asia earlier this year, when he spent a month ''roughing it'' in the country formerly known as Burma.

Speaking from Vancouver, where he is now a first-year arts student at the University of British Columbia, Bookbinder said he was chatting to a local at a coffee shop in Yangon when it was pointed out to him that they were being ''watched''.

''I couldn't believe it,'' he said. ''It was like 'what the hell can these guys think we are doing that makes them follow us'? ''As a Canadian, it was a real eye-opener.'' ''OUT OF CONTROL'' Facebook is the biggest of dozens of Internet social networks, its snappy applications and ease of use attracting millions of users around the world.

One of its features is that members can start a campaign -- as Bookbinder did -- and by inviting friends to join, and then their friends, it swiftly gains momentum.

''When the protests started, I thought I'd just let my friends know about it,'' Bookbinder said. ''The next thing I knew, it was out of control.'' In a matter of days, the campaign has gathered more than 136,000 members -- in the time it took to write this story, 3,000 more signed up -- and has earned the sort of publicity that traditional advocacy groups can only dream of.

It is also a bulletin board for news and views about the country, with thousands of entries.

''I just got out of Burma two hours ago,'' wrote Charlie Carstens in one of the latest. ''They need you. Please do what you can to express yourself or take action in any way that you can.'' Bookbinder says he will not let the campaign interfere with his studies, but is helping publicise a global day of protest for October. 6.

Dozens of members have already pledged to organise events around the world -- from Finland to Hong Kong -- with meeting points and contact details listed.

''I am really glad that what I started has grown like this,'' he said. ''It is nice to think that you are doing something that helped''.

REUTERS SW RK1255

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