Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Burma's IT Generation Combats Regime Repression

The Irrawaddy News

A truck carrying a squad of police pulls up in front of a Rangoon's Internet café. The police burst into the café and shout to the customers sitting at the computer terminals: "Hands off!" Then they tour the terminals and check every screen, asking users to describe what they are looking at.

If anyone is found using G-talk, the police inquire further—"Who are you chatting with?" "Where do they live?" Customers who come up with wrong or suspicious answers can be arrested.

This scenario is a common one in Rangoon's Internet cafes nowadays—in this era where tech-savvy young Burmese chat away on G-talk, check out the social-networking sites Facebook, Hi5 and Friendster, surf exiled Burmese websites and blogs and even share information about how to slip past regime censors by using proxy servers.

Since the September 2007 uprising, the Internet has shaped the way they think, relax and communicate in their isolated, military-ruled country. The Internet has created a virtual community and a new arena for freedom of expression.

"The uprising in Burma is ultimately an example of a protest where digitally network technologies played a critical role," researcher Mridul Chowdhury reported in his paper "The Role of the Internet in Burma’s Saffron Revolution," a case study for the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

Equipped with cell phones and digital cameras, and with access to the Internet, determined young Burmese are communicating with each other and the outside world as never before.

During last year’s monk-led demonstrations, known as the Saffron Revolution, Internet users also became publishers of text, audio, and video files illustrating what was happening inside the country. Suddenly, Burma was attracting the full attention of such international media as the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera. Condemnation of the regime’s repression of the protests followed from many governments.

Burma’s IT generation had a chance to flex its muscles before the generals pulled the plug on the Internet at the height of their crackdown on the September protests.

The junta has prevented Burmese citizens from using services like Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail and to block Web sites and blogs set up by exiled Burmese critics of the regime. But Internet cafes responded by installing foreign-hosted proxy servers to circumvent the government restrictions.

Risking arrest, imprisonment and torture, young Burmese—notably journalists and bloggers—have continued to play a crucial role in informing the outside world of the true situation in Burma.

They are more likely than ever to see the Internet as a means of achieving freedom of expression with the advent of information technology. In their blogs and chat rooms, they have been demonstrating the active role they play in sharing information and debating important issues in politics and other areas of domestic concern.

This is the reason why, one year after the Saffron Revolution, Internet cafes are becoming subject to severe surveillance by the police. Cafe owners are forced to take screenshots of user activity every five minutes and deliver these images to the authorities on a regular basis.

The owner of one Internet cafe in downtown Rangoon said the local authorities and police intelligence officers had issued orders to provide ID information about customers.

According to Internet cafe owners and users in Rangoon, Internet speeds have slowed down considerably since mid-September, making it impossible to upload large files such as photos or videos.

Meanwhile, the Web sites of the exile-run, Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and New Delhi-based Mizzima News were hit in July by DDoS attacks, shutting them down for several days.

Another DDoS attacks were again in September launched against The Irrawaddy, DVB and the Bangkok-based New Era Journal. The Web site of Mizzima News was hacked on October 1 with a cross-site scripting, making it inaccessible.

According to Chiang Mai-based freelance journalist Brian McCartan, two community forums Mystery Zillion and Planet Myanmar—Web sites providing information and instruction on how to circumvent the regime's control—were also disabled and shut down by similar attacks in August.

This kind of action by the regime, however, may indicate that the Internet has had an influence not only on ordinary users but also on the government’s overall response to the street demonstrations, the experts argue.

"While any number of deaths is unacceptable, it is also possible that the government actually exercised restraint in the use of force against civilian protesters because of the Internet and international media attention," Chowdhury wrote.

He pointed out that at least 3,000 demonstrators were killed in the nationwide uprising in 1988, while the official death toll in the crackdown on the 2007 demonstrations was far lower—31.

"It is plausible that the military felt it was under greater scrutiny because of the Internet, and that it was therefore more restrained in its use of force," Chowdhury said.

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