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MISTICA: Internet and liberties : the case of Burma

From: Pierre Johnson (pwj@free.fr)
Date: Sat Nov 24 2001 - 18:38:54 AST


The Burma case shows how a dictatorship controls closely all access to
communication, and particularly Internet. There is no doubt that an open
access to Internet means a certain degree of freedom within a country. The
following excerpts are from an article of the Free Burma Colation
http://www.freeburmacoalition.org/
which also gives a list of 200 Western companies involved in Burma.

Not even one percent of the 46 million people in the Union of Myanmar can
read this article online.
Unlike neighboring countries India and Thailand, where technology is making
inroads, Myanmar's military dictatorship has actively kept Internet access
out of bounds from its citizens.

The military junta -- the State Peace and Development Council -- has been
so effective in closing down Myanmar (formerly Burma) that it has been
included in the
"top 20 enemies of the Internet" list released by Reporteurs Sans
Frontieres last year.

According to the 2000 Amnesty International report on human rights
violations, there are "at least 19,000 prisoners in Burma, 700 of whom were
being held
for 'national security' reasons. Prison conditions amounting to cruel,
inhuman or
degrading treatment continue to be reported."

To maintain the status quo, the junta keeps a tight reign on all
communication systems in the country. Telephone lines are tapped, and fax
machines, modems,
computers and satellite dishes have to be registered with the government. Any
sort of unauthorized use or possession of "illegal" devices result in severe
penalties and imprisonment.

"There is only one main government-run news agency in Burma, and even there
we don't use computers -- only typewriters," said a Burmese student currently
in San Francisco requesting anonymity. "The three newspapers, and the two
radio and television stations feed off the news agency, and together, act as
mouthpieces for the junta."

"There have been instances of people who get 15 years in jail, just for using
a fax machine or installing a satellite dish without permission," continued
the student.

"The junta tries to subdue the citizens by keeping them in fear. But we still
want news from outside so we try and tune into BBC, VOA and Democratic Voice
of Burma (a Norway-based radio station) -- the broadcast is monitored
by the military intelligence and some portions of the news are scrambled."

Given the fact that the junta's stronghold depends upon their control over
the flow of information, the advent of the Internet posed a serious and
immediate cause for concern.

In 1996, the SPDC passed a "Communication Computer Law" that enforces
seven- to 15-year imprisonment on anyone who tries to use the Internet
without prior sanction from the Ministry of Communication, Posts and Telegraph.
"E-mails have to go through a government-monitored server," said another
Burmese student living in San Francisco. "And it is impossible for ordinary
individuals to get a line."

"First priority is given to government officials and organizations, then to
foreign embassies and foreign businesses and finally to certain local
businesses. When I
want to send an e-mail, I need to take the information on a floppy disk to
an office that has an e-mail server and then pay $1 per page. And all the data
has to be text only."

The nervous regime has squelched the possibility of connecting to an
outside ISP by making international calls too expensive to afford on a
regular basis.

The average income of a government employee in Myanmar is $25 a month;
applying for an international calling facility costs $1,000 and calls to
the United
States are as steep as $50 for five minutes.

While people in the country have a vague idea about the possibilities of
the Internet, activists and pro-democracy groups working from outside say
that the
connectivity a Web address and e-mail provides has been vital in bringing
the diffused
Burmese community together.



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