(News Analysis) – Burma’s xenophobic military-dominated government enforces a strictly Orwellian regime of politicized censorship in order to control and restrict the Burmese people’s freedom of expression and access to information via the Internet.
Freedom House, the Washington-based independent watchdog organization, ranks Burma the second worst country in the world for oppression of Internet freedom, with Iran as the most oppressive. Estonia came in as the country with the Internet most free followed by the USA, Germany, Australia and the UK.
In a recent study on Internet freedom, ‘Freedom on the Net 2011’, Freedom House said the Burmese government ‘makes aggressive attempts to regulate access to the Internet and digital media, control content, and punish citizens for any online activity that is seen as detrimental to regime security’.
It placed Burma on the list of countries that had ‘substantial censorship of political or social issues in 2009-10’ and where Websites or blogs of government opponents faced cyber attacks.
In Burma, the mere act of accessing the Internet is difficult due to a lack of infrastructure and the general widespread poverty in the country. Aside from numerous international and domestic sites being blocked, users are also subjected to surveillance in cybercafes. Cybercafe owners are also subject to strictly enforced licensing rules that require them to monitor users’ screens, keep users’ records and to cooperate with criminal investigations.
Although access to the Internet has slowly improved in recent years, Freedom House estimates that only 1 percent of the total population in Burma has access to the Internet. The study noted that of the 520 registered cybercafes, most are located in country’s main cities.
Emma Larkin, the author of Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop, a nonfiction book that explored the suppressed life inside Burma, told Mizzima that although the Internet is restricted, ‘It has opened up a huge source of information and it’s a really amazing tool for getting information out quickly'.
‘I remember when people were sending out cassette tapes, you know by hand’, she recalled. ‘So the progress from that era is amazing really. It has opened up a lot of pathways, but I’m not trying to paint a rosy picture of the Internet by any means at all’.
Two big problems, she said, are that it is largely limited to urban areas and it's strickly controlled by the authorities.
Routine Internet Manipulation
During potentially volatile and politically sensitive times, the regime controls Internet freedom in two ways: it enacts total shutdowns or it strategically caps the bandwidth of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to limit the flow of information that can go out or come into the counry, Freedom House says.
The government restructured the country’s ISP system in October 2010, creating a new Ministry of Defence ISP that separated military and civilian access to the Internet. Freedom House’s recent study claims the restructuring of Internet infrastructure could enable the government to sever civilian access to the web, whilst maintaining access for military users.
Last month, the government banned use of the Internet for ‘voice over Internet protocol’ (VOIP) overseas calls. Banning the easily accessible and relatively cheap Internet call services such as Skype and Pfingo means contacting people overseas through the Internet is made much more difficult for Burmese people inside the country, with alternatives being far too expensive.
There are more than 10, 000 blogs in Burma’s ‘blogosphere’, with blogging becoming the ‘fastest growing aspect of Burmese Internet use in 2010, registering a 25 per cent increase from 2009’, according to the Freedom House study.
Reportedly, approximately half of the number of Burmese bloggers live outside the country.’ To combat the increase in blogging power,, the junta set up a ‘Blog Supervising Committee’ in every government ministry in 2007 to counter outside bloggers and foreign or exiled media, the study claims.
Popular Burmese Internet blogger Shwe Zin U told Mizzima: “The Internet is really important, but everyone in Burma can’t use the Internet. Even though some use it, they can’t use it well because of the slow connection. It’s necessary to communicate worldwide, but that’s not as important as Burmese communicating with each other inside Burma.” Shwe Zin U said she often posts to her blog at midnight when the connection seems to be faster.
In the wake of the ‘Spring revolution’ toppling governments in Tunisia and Egypt and provoking armed conflict and political turmoil in the Middle East, the Burmese government is clearly aware of the potency and infectious power of the burgeoning popularity of online social networking. The Chinese authorities’ paranoia of a civic uprising following those in the Middle East was evident as the authorities lined central streets with police and blocked words such as ‘jasmin’and ‘revolution’ on the Internet.
The regime in Burma has introduced three laws regarding Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) to try to further control Internet use: the Myanmar Computer Science Development Law, the Wide Area Network Order and the Electronic Transactions Law.
Under Section 33 of the 2004 Electronic Transactions Law, Internet users can face up to 15 years in prison and/or heavy fines for ‘receiving or sending and distributing any information’ that is considered damaging to state security, law and order, community peace and tranquility, national solidarity, the national economy or national culture.
By establishing harsh punishment for even simple acts of freedom of expression or for accessing information via the Internet, the government in Burma creates a culture of fear regarding ‘subversive’ thought and material, and perhaps most dangerously, it fosters a culture of self-censorship.
During the mass popular protests in 2007 led by Buddhist monks, the regime completely shut down connection to the Internet via the state-run ISP from September 27 to October 4.
Similarly, in 2008, during the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, bloggers and Internet users were arrested and thrown in jail for posting video and photo material that was deemed critical of the government’s response.
Burmese web-users also complained of slowed and sporadic access to the Internet in the run up to and during the general elections in November 2010. The regime also restricted access and slowed the bandwidth of ISPs during the politically charged atmosphere of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s release a week after the elections.
‘According to ICT (Information Communication Technologies) experts in Burma, the state-controlled ISPs occassionally apply bandwidth caps to prevent the sharing of video and image files, particularly during politically sensitive events', said Freedom House.
The study also said that the junta sometimes disables mobile phone networks in areas where protestors mobilized or where explosions have occurred in the past.
Exiled media groups also suffered distributed denial of service (DDoS) cyber-attacks, most probably sponsored by the junta, temporarily shutting down their websites during last year’s election period.
With the regime's intelligence agencies and Information Ministry implementing sometimes arbitrary, but often timely (for the regime) blocks on e-mail and social networking, the Burmese people daily experience an infringement on their freedom of access to the Internet. While the regime exploits the benefits of ICTs for business and propaganda uses, its prohibitive measures towards public use are evident.
Judging from recent events, Big Brother’s grip on the Internet will not be relaxed anytime soon.