Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 December 2014, 12:47 GMT

Internet Enemies 2010 - Burma

Publisher Reporters Without Borders
Publication Date 18 March 2010
Cite as Reporters Without Borders, Internet Enemies 2010 - Burma, 18 March 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4c21f67228.html [accessed 25 December 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: 48,137,000
Internet-users: 250,000
Average charge for one hour's connection at a cybercafé: about 0.55 US$
Average monthly salary: about 27.32 US$
Number of imprisoned netizens: 2

Two high-ranking government officials sentenced to death for having e-mailed documents abroad: Net censorship is a serious matter in Burma. Massive filtering of websites and extensive slowdowns during times of unrest are daily occurrences for the country's Internet users. The Military Junta considers netizens to be enemies of the State. The legislation governing Internet use – the Electronic Act – is one of the most liberticidal laws in the world.

A rigid firewall

The Burmese firewall applies strict censorship, which limits users to an Intranet purged of any criticisms of the regime. Only the use of proxies or other censorship circumvention tools permits access to the World Wide Web. Blocked sites include those of exiled Burmese media groups and certain global media outlets, proxies and other censorship circumvention tools, blogs and study-abroad scholarship sites. Government authorities block both websites and URLs. Censorship is not consistent: for example, the site www.peoplemediavoice.com is filtered, but its identical counterpart, www.peoplemediavoice.net is not.

Consultation of private electronic mail is also curtailed. Officially, Internet users are prohibited from using e-mail services other than those provided by the government. Webmail services such as Yahoo and Hotmail are blocked in the country, but can be consulted via proxies.

Connection speed: A barometer of Burma's internal situation

The ordinary connection speed is 512kb per line, which is the equivalent of a basic ADSL individual connection, but one line is shared by several users, thus slowing down online activities. It takes about ten seconds to open an email or load one page. Using a proxy speeds up things. However, cybercafés – the main connection points in a country where individual Internet subscriptions are very expensive and subject to government authorization – must share this 512 kb line with 10 to 15 computers, thereby reducing the connection speed. Gtalk cannot function on a 256 kb line. A 512 kb line is needed to use Gtalk and Skype in real time.

When the country is in the throes of political tension, connection speed drops sharply, since the Junta deems it necessary to prevent "information leaks abroad." In May and June 2009, when opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was on trial for having violated the terms of her house arrest by allowing an uninvited American citizen to stay two days in her home, the regime did not hesitate to cut the telephone and Internet lines of the city in which she was detained. Moreover, Burmese Internet users noticed there was a drastic slowdown in nation-wide connection speeds that made it impossible to send videos. At the time, it took nearly an hour to send a simple email with no attachment. According to local sources, the government may be planning to once again cut off Internet access during the October 2010 elections, just as it did in 2007, so as to assert total control over the dissemination of news

Independent news sources: The regime's pet peeve

Journalists who collaborate with exiled media and bloggers are being closely watched by the authorities, particularly since the 2007 Safran Revolution and international sentencing that followed the widespread distribution of photos of the crackdown. They are brazenly taking advantage of a highly repressive piece of legislation, the Electronic Act of 1996, which pertains to the Internet, television and radio. This law prohibits the importation, possession and use of a modem without official permission, subject to a fifteen-year jail penalty for "endangering the security of the state, national unity, culture, the national economy, and law and order." Nay Phone Latt (http://www.nayphonelatt.net/), arrested in 2008, got a 15-year prison sentence for possessing a "subversive" film. The blogger has developed eyesight problems while incarcerated.

The well-known comedian, Zarganar, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for disseminating on the Web articles critical of the way the government handled humanitarian aid in the wake of Cyclone Nargis. His blog was one of the most visited Burmese websites inside the country. On December 31, 2009, Hla Hla Win, a video journalist working with the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) TV network, was given a 20-year jail sentence. In January 2010, journalist Ngwe Soe Lin also got a 13-year term for having worked for the DVB. He had been arrested in a cybercafé in the Rangoon's Kyaukmyaung district on June 26, 2009.

By arresting these Internet users and journalists, the Junta is trying to intimidate potential critics and impose self-censorship on its citizens. Like the state-owned media, online publications are subject to advance censorship, which ruthlessly eliminates any topic that is even slightly controversial.

Exiled Burmese media such as Mizzima and Irrawaddy were once again the target of cyberattacks in 2009.

Under surveillance

Cyber-café owners are under increasing pressure from Burmese authorities. They were already required to take screenshots every five minutes on every computer station and be prepared to provide every user's ID card number, telephone number, and address if the police requested them. They are now strictly forbidden to help a customer create an email account, particularly on Gmail, or to use a proxy, under penalty of being closed down. Many cyber-cafés have been shut down in the last few months, partly for economic reasons, but also because of more practical problems such as power outages, high maintenance fees, slow connection speeds, and lack of customers.

Despite these actions, blogs are multiplying. A survey conducted by the Burma Media Association in August 2009 showed that there were over 800 active blogs, most of them hosted by Blogspot and Wordpress. Eighty percent are in Burmese, 8% in English and 10% are bilingual. Three-fourths of the bloggers are between the ages of 21 and 35 and have a college education. Over half of them are living in Burma and began blogging less than one year ago. The majority of them focus on entertainment-related topics. Only 8% of them discuss news-related subjects.

Is a Chinese-like economic opening likely?

Although Burma has one of the world's lowest Internet penetration rates, the regime is about to build its own "Silicon Valley" dubbed "Yadanabon Cyber City." Its objective is not to facilitate free Internet access for its citizens but to centralize control prior to the autumn 2010 elections, within the framework of "Road Map to Democracy," a political reform plan launched by the Junta in early 2003. According to the State media, this "business complex" may be called upon to become the national communications' clearing house. For now, priority is being given to setting up land and mobile telephone lines for businesses that will be opening offices in this center. Internet will be next. Some Junta generals' reservations about communications will not easily be laid to rest.

For the moment, the Junta is using a Thai satellite station for Burma's Internet connection, but plans to launch its own communications satellite via a Chinese or Indian rocket. With its "Silicon Valley" and its own satellite, the military regime seems to be making a commitment to develop Internet infrastructure for economic reasons. At the same time, however, it stands ready to cut off all connections and totally isolate the country once again at the least suspicion of "domestic unrest."

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