Monday, 22 September 2008

The Generals Go Cyber?


(WSJ)- Burma's military junta has so successfully suppressed the media that Internet sites based outside the country are one of the few remaining sources of reliable news for Burmese people. Now it appears not even those sites are safe. Shortly before yesterday's anniversary of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and last year's Buddhist-monk-led Saffron Revolution, the Web sites of my newspaper, The Irrawaddy, and other Burmese news portals came under cyber attack. I am not alone in believing that the junta is behind the attack, just as it was behind the shutdown of Internet access in Burma during last year's uprising.

On Tuesday, we received reports from our stringers and regular readers that Internet connections in Burma were running slowly. The number of these reports suggested a concerted effort to prevent information from going in or out of the country in the run-up to yesterday's important anniversary. The next day, our colleagues and subscribers in the United States, Japan and Malaysia notified our Thailand-based office that they were unable to access our Web site,

A few hours later, inet, the largest Internet host server in Thailand and the primary host of our site, confirmed our site had been under a "distributed denial of service" attack since 5 p.m. that day. Someone had managed to freeze our site by bombarding us with so much traffic that our server couldn't cope. Inet finally decided to shut down our server.

The attackers also targeted our "mirror site," which handles overflow traffic whenever our primary host is unavailable. Singlehop, the server for our mirror site, told us the attack was forcing it to shut down our site, too. The company told us the attack had been "very sophisticated." The attacks on both our primary and our mirror sites are continuing.

Nor are we alone. Fellow exile news agencies Democratic Voice of Burma and New Era were also disabled in similar attacks. We have been forced to publish our daily news via a temporary blog we've created,

The attack on our Web sites is persistent and believed to be manually launched from various locations, which according to our Web hosts means it's the work of a large group of hackers. Cyber criminals, widely dispersed around the globe, can be bought for as little as $500 a day. We've been able to trace one source of the current attack to a computer connecting to the Internet in the Netherlands. Burma may have local cyber criminals too. In recent years the regime has sent students -- mostly from the army -- to Russia for study that many believe includes training in cyber warfare.

As for the motive, that's not a mystery either. Exiled media groups like the journalists at The Irrawaddy, bloggers, reporters inside Burma and citizen journalists played major roles last September in highlighting the brutal suppression of the monks and their supporters in the streets of Rangoon. Live images, eyewitness reports, updates and photographs landed on our desks every few seconds.

Through us and others like us, the outside world was able to witness the terror of the Burmese regime on television and on the Internet. And so the military regime struck back. On Sept. 27 last year, all connections to the Internet inside Burma were closed down for four days as the authorities tried to conceal their crimes.

This latest act of apparent sabotage comes in a broader climate of Internet and media repression. In Burma, some Internet cafes require users to provide identification before logging on so the government can track Internet usage. In other cafes, informers observe students playing video games and Buddhist monks complain they are treated like criminals if they ask to use the Internet.

Meantime, reporters, editors and publishers based in Rangoon are under increasing pressure. Earlier this month, police apprehended a group of reporters and charged them with working for The Irrawaddy, though they were not. Our stringers say they are nervous, though fortunately they remain undetected. My friend, a foreign journalist who recently left Burma, said that the mood was very tense. "It is hard for our Burmese colleagues to report," she said. "But they are very brave."

In this increasing climate of fear where Internet users are frequently suspected of working for exiled media, people in Burma are naturally afraid to communicate. The Internet is one of the few remaining opportunities they have to do so, especially with the outside world.

Over the past 20 years, the battle between Burma's regime and pro-democratic forces has shifted from the streets to the jungle and now to the computer. The generals will not give in; rather, they will equip themselves and become more sophisticated. The attack on our site appears to be a sign of this trend.

However, the junta is mistaken if it thinks we will give up. We at The Irrawaddy have to build stronger firewalls and more effective systems to prevent future attacks. Ultimately, the flow of information is unstoppable. The Burmese regime's cyber criminals cannot penetrate the strongest firewall of all -- the spirit of desire for change.

Mr. Aung Zaw is founder and editor of The Irrawaddy magazine.

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