November 10, 2010 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Junta uses Internet upgrade to centralize and reinforce online controls

Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association are worried by last month’s announced launch of the “first national web portal” by Yatanarpon Teleport, a government-controlled information technology company based in Yatanarpon Cyber City, a would-be “silicon valley” 70 km east of Mandalay. Billed by the military government as a huge step forward, this new Internet infrastructure will almost certainly be used to reinforce surveillance and repression of Burmese Internet users while reserving the fastest and best-quality access for the government and military, according to “National Web portal – development or repression,” an exclusive report written by local experts at the request of the two organizations. By using fiber-optic cable, the new Internet infrastructure will increase the available bandwidth from 1.285 Gbps to 3.145 Gbps, which will allow voice communications (VoIP) and television over Internet (TVIP). Burmese Internet users will be allocated to three Internet service providers instead of two under the system that has existed until now. One will be reserved for the defence ministry, one for the government and one for the public. This digital segregation means that the authorities will now be able to partially or totally block the public’s access without affecting access for the government or military. Until now everyone used the same ISPs. As a result, when the authorities disconnected the Internet during the 2007 Saffron Revolution to prevent civilians from sending photos and video of the ensuing crackdown, the government and military were also cut off. The new architecture will also allow the defence ministry to directly control Internet traffic at the point of entry into Burma. The government and military will almost certainly enjoy better Internet speed and performance than the public because the three ISPs will each get an equal share of the total bandwidth and yet the number of users on the “public” ISP will be much higher. The cost of the new service will be reflected in higher charges to the public, which is likely to slow the growth of Internet penetration (currently around 2 per cent) in a county where the average monthly wage is 20 euros and Internet cafés charge 0.40 euros an hour to go online. By offering an email service called Ymail and an instant messaging and VoIP service called Ytalk as alternatives to Gmail and Gtalk, Yatanarpon Teleport is trying to make it even easier for the authorities to monitor online communications. The military government’s control of the public’s ISP will anyway allow it to use sniffers and DNS spoofing to capture data packets and confidential user information without anyone realizing. As a result, its ability to spy on members of the public and dissidents while they are connected to the Internet, and thereby restrict online free expression, will be reinforced. Because of its massive filtering of websites and the frequent drastic Internet slowdowns at times of unrest, Burma is already one of the 12 countries that Reporters Without Borders has branded as “Enemies of the Internet.” Burma’s Internet law, called the Electronic Act, is one of the most repressive in the world. The junta regards netizens as its enemies. Two of them, Nay Phone Latt and Zarganar, are currently serving long jail terms for speaking out online.