The Thein Sein era is off to a troubling start for Internet freedoms
In March 2011, President Thein Sein stated in his inaugural address that the media’s role must be respected. However, the already severe restrictions imposed on cybercafés (see the Burma chapter of the 2011 “Enemies of the Internet” report) were tightened in May 2011. The use of external hard drives, USB flash drives and CDs were banned, as was the use of Internet telephony services (VoIP) to make international calls – a measure apparently meant to further isolate dissidents.
Journalists and bloggers released, websites unblocked
In the last few months, a series of amnesties has allowed thousands of detainees, including hundreds of prisoners of conscience, to be released. Among them were journalists and bloggers. All journalists working for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), including Hla Hla Win, Ngwe Soe Lin, Win Maw, Sithu Zeya and his father U Zeya, as well as freelance journalists Thant Zin Aung and Zaw Thet Htwe and blogger Nay Phone Latt, were released, the last of them in January 2012. Blogger and comedian Zarganar had been released in October 2011.
Several Internet news websites, including YouTube, BBC, Reuters, The Bangkok Post, Straits Times, Radio Free Asia, Irrawaddy, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), and the Burmese version of Voice of America were unblocked right after the visit of the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, which coincided with the International Day of Democracy.
Between optimism and vigilance
In November 2011, Reporters without Borders interviewed renowned dissident Aung San Suu Kyi during a video conference held in the United States by the Council on Foreign Relations on the status of media freedom in Burma. She stated, “The situation has gradually improved,” and said that the authorities are starting to “make concessions,” adding “I think that this détente applies to everyone in general.” Since September 2011, her name can be published in the media.
Nay Phone Latt, who – along with Zarganar – won Reporters Without Borders’ Blogger Award, said in an interview granted to Reporters Without Borders after his release in January 2012, that the new media and bloggers had helped bring political change in Burma, but also cautioned, “We are not yet free. (..) The repression is still going on.” During his talk on the France 24 TV station, he had confided: “I cannot help but find the swiftness of these changes troubling.” He also recalled: “It is now possible to use Gmail, read blogs, go on Facebook, and visit news sites, but the laws governing restrictions and authorized websites still exist and must be repealed. (...) We will not be completely safe as long as there is no law to protect freedom of expression.”
In fact, in order for reforms to take hold and to avoid any setback, the entire legal framework needs to be revised. One positive sign is that the authorities have promised to adopt in 2012 a media law that will put an end to censorship. They are then expected to revise or repeal the Electronic Act and emergency rule. Some individuals are still being arrested under the Unlawful Association Act, or treason charges.
Although certain key opposition figures such as Min Ko Naing and Ashin Gambira have been released, blogger Kaung Myat Hlaing (Nat Soe), imprisoned since April 2010, and four other journalists remain behind bars, as do more than 450 political prisoners, according to National League for Democracy’s estimates. Others, like DVB journalist Sithu Zeya, have been granted a conditional release but may be returned to prison at any time if, for example, they send a photo to the DVB. Some feel that these amnesties were inadequate and that the government is using the remaining prisoners as hostages in their negotiations with the international community.
The very structure of the new Burmese Internet as modified in 2010 gives the authorities more surveillance options, while reserving the fastest and best-quality access for the government and military, according to an exclusive report issued by Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association. Undetectable sniffers may be placed on the public’s ISP to retrieve various confidential user information. The authorities need to show proof of transparency and authorize an independent audit of the infrastructure that would outline the needed changes in order to reassure users and rid the platform of abusive surveillance tools. They also need to explain their plans for ISPs Myanmar Post and Telecommunication (MPT) and Yatanarpon, what control the State will continue to exert on these two structures and the possibilities and conditions for privatization. Burma’s use of Blue Coat technologies, observed on the Yatanarpon Teleport ISP, is raising questions about the company’s filtering policy and how it might be used for Internet surveillance.
Several reports attest to a very slow bandwidth speed – so slow that the Eleven Media group recently launched a news via SMS system to better meet its readers’ needs.
The regime also needs to extend Internet access to the whole population. Currently, just 1% of the latter enjoys Internet access, and the country only has about 500 cybercafés, mainly in large cities.
The streamlining of Burma’s (primarily trade) relations with the West remains a key factor in accounting for the recent changes made by the Burmese regime, which is anxious to climb out of its economic slump and offset the hegemonic Chinese influence.
For many years, Burma has coveted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) presidency. The reforms undertaken guarantee that it will win it for the year 2014. An easing of U.S. sanctions could take place shortly, but Congress is still highly critical of the regime and pushing for more reforms and a democratic transition. The eyes of the world are on Burma in the run-up to its April 2012 by-elections.