Maung Yit – Internet Activism in Burma and Challenges

1.    About the country – Burma with 56 million people under most restricted and oppressive regime and one of the poorest state with over 2100 political prisoners. They are imprisoned for having different political opinion from the regime and for having exercised their belief in their speech, expression and practices even in non-violent way. According to the reports, Burma is ranked one of the worst press freedom and worst jailer of journalists and worst place in the world to be a blogger. The “electronics act” of Burma in 2000 & “TV & Video” act of Burma in 1996 restricted the rights of press & expression with heavy jail terms. More than 30 bloggers and media persons are now prison with among political prisoners serving up to 65 years in prison. (Some examples are – Nay Phone Latt ( arrested in 2008), sentenced 12 years, Thet Zaw (2007), 65 years, Zarganar (2008), 35 years, Thargyi Zeya & Son (2010), 13 & 8 years, Nay Myo Zin (2011), pending)

2.    About the cost and the numbers- Burma is comparing with other countries, most costly and most expensive in telecommunication expenses and service charges. A mobile phone cost you 750 US$ to 3000 US$ and 5 cent per minute while average worker in Burma earns 50 to 100 US$ per month. Having an internet account at home cost 800 US$ for application fee and 30 US$ per month after if you are cleared of the security clearance and after signing the liability disclosure that you will not challenge the ruling authority using internet.  At the internet café, it costs 50 cent per hour for the internet use where the speed (like 56 kbps modem) and censorship and threat is so severe to all public.

Even though with such high cost, slow speed and tunneling through the secret proxies to browse the world of internet, the experience to get in touch with the freedom through the window of internet is considered day to day adventure and blessing of an anonymous blogger and citizen journalists. Out of limited 500,000 internet users in Burma, there are only nearly one thousand bloggers and internet activists who dare to post news and articles on their own. Most of them are between 20 to 40 year of age.

3.    About the struggle & moral reward – No matter how hard and how dangerous it is to use the internet and post your thoughts and events around the neighborhood of political and social struggle, Burmese bloggers and citizen journalists have never failed to post hundreds of posts, twits and email messages daily which in turns, are grabbed and referenced by much excited and much awaiting news journalists and reporters from various radio stations and websites run by western  governments (RFA, BBC, VOA) and Burmese in exile (DVB & other websites like MoeMaKa).

With the recognition of such outside media, their news and thoughts travel back into Burma through short wave radio signals, web articles and email newsletter back to the Burmese audience hungry of true news and facts. The reflections of their news and feeling encourage them to live and fight for another day to free Burma from the repressive regime.

4.    Some notable example of events – The news and photos of 2007 saffron revolution and 2008 Cyclone Nargis natural disaster came mostly from such anonymous bloggers and citizen journalists. Some of them were arrested and jailed with heavy sentences with 30 to 60 years in prisons. However it never stopped them from carrying on their volunteer and collective works of citizen journalist reporting.

They have reported of the injustice court hearing on Aung San Suu Kyi for not (stopping / reporting to police) a foreign intruder to her house who mysteriously slipped through the security of regime’s guards in 2009. They have reported of vote rigging and cheating of vote counts on regime’s election held with the absence of international media and monitoring in 2010. And still in year 2011, they are continuously reporting and following the news, events and campaign led by now freed Aung San Suu Kyi and her democratic followers and activists. ( Some recent examples – Reporting on charity works and social support services in natural disaster hit area by Burmese volunteers while news were black-out by Regime, Reporting on fund raising events and Raising awareness for supporting political prisoners and families, Following signature campaign led by Burmese opposition to demand the release of all political prisoners )

5.    About the medium – To outside world, internet is free and cheap. But for us, it is expensive and dangerous. It could cost us torture and prisons sentences. The remote prisons in Burma killed prisoners of conscious due to negligence and extreme living conditions. But we have known and realized the value of freedom of expression through the small tunnel of light from the internet.  We have known that the outside world is waiting and watching and spreading the words and news we have submitted and posted.

The technology is siding with us with all the free tools and free information that we can get, shared and distributed to us from outside. We have google tools, facebook pages and twitters accounts. Even though the regime’s network limits the bandwidth the speed and censored and blocked the websites of exile Media and news websites, we have anonymous links of proxies and secret tunnels to transport our reports and read news.  We are now also testing and using mobile phones and mobile application too.

6.    About the challenge – It is reported that the regime has setup two internets in Burma, one for them (Naypyidaw Teleport) with all good speed and no restriction, and another one (Yadanapon Teleport) with all the heavy handed restrictions and one “KILL” switch standing by for the situation when they need to cut the World from us. (Yatanarpon Gateway is for Public use and controlled ISP, Naypyidaw Gateway is for military and Gov use, fast and free ISP Naypyidaw Gate way connected with Thai, India and China trans border optical fibre line. Yatanarpon also use transborder optical fibre connection and SEAWEME , under water cable come from Malaysia , Singapore.)

Whenever there were political events or incident happening in Burma such as a visit of US or UN officials or a rare street protest, the regime would totally cut the public internet connection. But we are not worried for that day to come. We are eager to find out how can we overcome such challenges with all the help and the support that we can get from the outside and the inside.

7.    About connection with fellow bloggers – We have seen, heard and are inspired the struggle of internet activists and bloggers around the World especially in China, Thailand, and other Asian countries and also from Libya, Egypt, Iran and thier neighbors. We have realized that we are not alone. We have come to the transparent vision that all over the world, the citizens of all colors, races and religions are standing together watching out for each other against the brutality and injustice systems and authorities and cronies of such. We have also realized that struggle for freedom and justice is not bound by languages but they can be related and translated through volunteer and collective actions.

8.    About the need of new news organization – The change will come. The change is coming. That’s why we are sitting here sharing and learning from each other and inspiring each other to work on nonviolent means towards peace and better world.   What we need seriously in our Asia region is independent, regional and community based news organization which would represent the voice and the actions of the public rather than reporting and representing under the influence of financing corporates and authorities.

We also need more of non-profit community based radio stations and TV broadcasters. This is what we have seen and realized when we look at the recent historic struggles in the middle east and African continents, where the Al Jazeera is found embedded with the community inside and reporting the voice and the actual happening of the event on the spot where not only citizen journalists share but also the world audience rely on the messages.

This is what we have listened and watched news of the local voice and events from NPR and PBS in the US. If we can have our own Al Jazeera version of news organization in Asia, and if we have public supported non-profit news and radio stations in Asia, there are no other than the anonymous bloggers and citizen who would welcome with all their heart and soul.

In the meantime, even though we do not have any of them right now at their arm length but still replying on snail-paced internet and short-wave radio programs from the outside western world, we have always welcome and have shared news and resources with all the undercover news reporters visiting Burma in the part and also in the present.

And still we will always be …