Under military rule, even the internet is behind bars

Htet Aung Kyaw

Mar 26, 2009 (DVB), Earlier this month, the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters without Borders published a report entitled "Enemies of the Internet' in which Burma was named.

The isolated Southeast Asian nation was labelled as one of 12 countries guilty of "[transforming] their internet into an intranet in order to prevent their population from accessing 'undesirable' online information," RSF said.

Given that I work for a daily news service, this accusation does not surprise me. Twice last year, the Democratic Voice of Burma's website was hacked, along with exiled news organizations Mizzima and The Irrawaddy, and brought to a standstill for three weeks.

Although no-one can confirm the identity of the hackers, suspicions point to Burmese government-backed technicians based in Moscow, who used Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) which overloads websites with an unmanageable amount of traffic.

"The cyber attack is just the beginning of their plan [to attack the democracy movement]" says Aung Lin Htut, former deputy ambassador to Washington and a former spy of ousted Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt.

According to Aung Lin Htut, thousands of Burmese army officers study Defense Electronic Technology at the Moscow Aviation Institute (MAI). Other degree subjects include computer software programming, nuclear technology, short- and long-range missile technology, and aeronautics and engineering.

Many of these return to the town of Maymyo in Burma, where the Defense Services Academy is based. In June 2006, the junta announced the opening of an area in Maymyo called Yadanabon cyber city. Over one-fifth of the 10,000 acre site will be used for the production of computer hardware and software.

Yet out of a population of nearly 50 million in Burma, there are only 40,000-odd active internet users, giving the country one of the lowest levels of internet penetration in the world. Recent software adaptations don't sit well with the Burmese alphabet, meaning internet surfers generally need knowledge of the English language. Furthermore, the cost of service providers (on average $US35 a month) is beyond the reach of most Burmese citizens. And while there is full-scale electricity and hi-speed internet at Yadanabon cyber city, says Aung Lin Htut, much of Burma regularly suffers from lack of round-the-clock electricity.

Paying the price

The accusation of 'enemy of the internet' is not dished out lightly. Accompanying Burma on the list are North Korea and Turkmenistan, who shared the bottom four spots alongside Burma and Eritrea in last year's Reporters without Borders' annual Press Freedom Index.

"In Burma, run by a xenophobic and inflexible junta, journalists and intellectuals, even foreign ones, have for years been viewed as enemies by the regime, and they pay the price," said the Press Freedom Index report.

Laws relating to electronic communications and the dissemination of news online are among the most dissuasive in the world, meaning that opposition party members and journalists are in a precarious position when publishing material critical of the junta.

"To open an email address for the NLD may lead me to Insein prison," said a spokesman for opposition party National League for Democracy, Nyan Win.

Hundreds of activists, politicians and journalists were imprisoned in the wake of both the September 2007 protest and cyclone Nargis in May last year.

Nay Phone Latt, who recorded footage and tracked the 2007 protests on his blog, was sentenced last November under the Video Act and Electronics Act to 20 years (later reduced to 12) in Insein Prison.

Popular comedian Zarganar, who helped coordinate relief efforts in the wake of the cyclone and gave interviews critical of the regime's response to Nargis to foreign media, was sentenced last November to 59 years (later reduced to 35). Part of the sentencing was also for using a mobile phone and email without permission from the government.

"I’m very interested in IT and so I learn about it on the internet," joked Zarganar as the judge was sentencing him. "This is only my guilt."

Anyone living in Burma needs permission from authorities to own a telephone, fax machine, internet line, computer, camera, satellite television or short wave radio: in short, any means of communication. NLD members and activists are not granted this permission.

"Our office telephone line has been cut for over two years," said Nyan Win. "There is no response from the authorities whenever we complain."

"I think the NLD is the only political party in the world that has no telephone, no internet or website."

The conditions that the 1990 election-wining party are forced to operate under are unacceptable, says Soe Aung, a spokesperson for the Forum for Democracy in Burma.

"Cell phones and internet are basic necessities for a politician and his party," he said.

"The junta allows the [pro-government] Union Solidarity Development Association everything for 2010 election campaigns."

Even in the capital Naypyidaw, which is solely inhabited by government officials, cell phones are banned on security grounds. "The government spies check us every day in office or the net café," a senior journalist in Rangoon said. "They can record every word that I write on the computer screen."

Life for journalists in Burma is very different compared to those who work in an open society, he added.

"It is hard to believe the government slogan in our daily newspaper that claims we are heading to a modernised country.

"How can this be so if even in the 21st century the people can not access a cell phone, email or internet?"

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