Last Updated: Friday, 11 July 2014, 13:14 GMT

Internet Enemies: Burma

Publisher Reporters Without Borders
Publication Date 12 March 2009
Cite as Reporters Without Borders, Internet Enemies: Burma, 12 March 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4a38f98828.html [accessed 12 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Domain name: .mm
Population :47, 758,181
Internet-users: 40,000
Average charge for one hour's connection at a cybercafé: 20 centimes
Average monthly salary: about 40 euros
Number of private Internet service providers: 0
Number of public Internet service providers: 2
Number of imprisoned bloggers: 2

Burma has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in the world. However, its users are among the most threatened. Going online is itself seen as a dissident act.

Only 40,000 people connect to the Internet, mostly in cybercafés in the cities. For most of the country, the bandwidth is barely higher than an individual ADSL connection in Europe. Downloading a single text can take an hour. With fewer than two users for 1,000 residents, Burma is probably one of the least connected countries in the world. In addition, service providers offer prohibitive prices for membership (an average of 25 euros a month).

Despite all this, Internet access has expanded since 2003 with the opening of the first cybercafés in Rangoon. Today, there are more than 200 in the capital. Moreover, the Burmese alphabet sits ill with the most recent software adaptations and it is often necessary to understand English to go online. Added to all this is the fact that laws relating to electronic communications and the dissemination of news online are among the most dissuasive in the world, exposing Internet-users to very harsh prison sentences. In the light of the narrowness of the network and the absence of any private service provider, the military regime has no difficulty in imposing restrictions.

Burma's media landscape is monolithic: it is entirely controlled by the state. The only independent sources of news are exiled media and the Burmese services of the BBC, Radio Free Asia, Voice of America and the Democratic Voice of Burma.

The Internet was introduced in Burma in 1997, but access to the network by individuals was only permitted in 2000. The government feared losing its total control of this space. There are two service providers, MPT and Bagan Cybertech. The first of these belongs to the state and the second is hosted by the services of the Prime Minister.

Internet-users are officially banned from using messaging services apart from those provided by the government. However, computers in cybercafés frequently boast proxies for getting round censorship and to allow use of Yahoo!, Gmail and Hotmail. Currently, 0.1% of Burmese connect to the Internet inside the country. Government authorisation is required to get an Internet connection at home.

Rules that thwart freedom of expression

The Internet is regulated by the law on television and video and the Electronic Act, dating from 1996, that bans the import, possession and use of a modem without official permission, under threat of a 15-year prison sentence for "damaging state security, national unity, culture, the national economy and law and order".

A total of 14 journalists and two bloggers are currently in prison in Burma. The owner of two Rangoon cybercafés, Nay Phone Latt (http://www.nayphonelatt.net/), aged 28, who was arrested on 29 January 2008, is due to leave prison in 2020. He was sentenced under the Electronic Act for possessing a film viewed as "subversive". The comedian Zarganar was sentenced to 35 years in prison under the Electronic Act, after posting articles on the Internet criticising the authorities' management of humanitarian aid donated by the international community following Cyclone Nargis. His blog (http://zarganar-windoor.blogspot.com/) is one of Burma's most popular websites in terms of hits from within the country.

Since 2006, cybercafés have had to be approved as "public Internet access points". This obliges managers of cybercafés to carry out screen captures of each computer every five minutes. They must also be able to provide the identity card number of each user, along with their telephone number and their address each time they connect, if the regime requires it.

Since February 2008, the Censorship Bureau has ordered a score of newspapers to ensure the front page of their printed edition is exactly the same as that on their website. They can only post online what has already appeared in the paper version, under threat of closure of the website. These steps have been taken against the weeklies Weekly Eleven (http://www.weeklyeleven. com/), 7 Days News (http://www.planet.com.mm/news/), Myanmar Times (http://www.myanmar.com/myanmartimes/), Flower News (http://www.myanmarvisa.com/flowernews/index.htm), Yangon Times (http://www.theyangontimes.com/), and the monthlies Popular, Action Times, Snapshot, Yati, Tharapu and Fashion Image.

No news must be sent abroad

The harsh jail sentence against Zarganar was chiefly due to the fact that he had spoken to foreign media, particularly the BBC World Service, about delays on the part of the military authorities in providing assistance to the victims of cyclone Nargis. The regime takes good care to shut down any source of information when Burma is at the centre of the news, as happened in September 2007, for the first since 1988, when Buddhist monks withdrew their support form the regime and demonstrated against the dictatorship of General Than Shwe. The authorities then cracked down, isolating the country from the international scene by making it impossible for information to be sent abroad online. As the first anniversary of the "Saffron Revolution" approached, four news websites based abroad were regularly targeted in denial-of-service attacks. These attacks consist of simultaneously sending thousands of requests to a server in order to block it. The magazine The Irrawaddy (http://www.irrawaddy.org), as well as the online daily The New Era (http://www.khitpyaing.org), whose websites are hosted in Thailand, were targets of cyber-attack in September 2008, preventing them from putting out news.

Despite the creation of a mirror site (http://theirrawaddy.blogspot.com), The Irrawaddy saw its hits reduced by half in three months. The exiled media website the Democratic Voice of Burma, as well as Mizzima, devoted to news on Burma suffered the same type of attacks since August 2008. These were stepped up between 15 and 22 September, during which time both sites were equally inaccessible outside the country.

At the start of October 2008, the capital's cybercafés were inspected by soldiers who questioned clients about the sites they were looking at as well as the people with whom they were in contact online. According to their owners, the connections speeds were considerably reduced, making downloading photos and videos virtually impossible.

Links

http://www.dvb.no/ (Democratic Voice of Burma): Burmese opposition media, in exile in Norway
http://www.bma-online.org/: (Burma media association): independent organisation founded by Burmese journalists and writers in January 2001 to defend free expression in Burma, a member of Reporters Without Borders network of partner organisations.
http://www.burmanet.org: Burmanet News
http://www.irrawaddy.org: website of the exiled opposition magazine he Irrawaddy.
http://jotman.blogspot.com/: news blog about the country and international news.
http://www.blc-burma.org/html/myanmar%20law/lr_e_ml96_08.html: text of the 1996 law regulating the Internet in Burma.

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