Internet in Burma: Using a New Tool to Change Old Laws

By Ayee Maccaraig 6 September 2013

RANGOON — Five years ago, Nay Phone Latt’s daily routine consisted of killing time by reading, doing yoga, and writing letters, short stories, and poems in his cell. But on a recent overcast morning in Rangoon, the blogger hardly had time to answer a phone call as he rushed about, before taking a bus to Burma’s capital Naypyidaw in order to help change the law that sent him to prison.

“I only have 20 minutes,” he said with an apologetic smile to a visitor at his office, located in the crumbling city center of Rangoon. While some making final travel arrangements by phone, he paced up and down his office, where the walls bore photos of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and other technology gurus who Nay Phone Latt adores.

Judging from another photo on the wall, taken right after his release from prison in January 2012, Burma’s most well-known blogger has visibly gained weight since. Once he finally settled on a couch, he began explaining why he is now working with the former military junta that sentenced him to 20 years and six months in jail—he was released after spending serving about 4 years.

“We got some extent of freedom, but the thing is the Electronic Transactions Law introduced by the military government is still valid and everybody can use the Internet freely but we are not free because the law is still there,” he said. “If they want to, they can charge everybody under this law. You can say we are free, but we are not safe.”

Nay Phone Latt was only 28 when he was jailed for his ties to the opposition and pro-democracy movement in 2008. During the 2007 Saffron Revolution, the monk-led pro-democracy protests, bloggers like him were a key source of information as the junta cracked down on dissidents and eventually shut down the Internet in Burma.

Despite his days in the notorious Insein prison and the Hpa-an Prison, Nay Phone Latt is now hopeful about the sea change in his country. He said much has changed since he witnessed the 1988 uprising as an eight-year-old boy, when the government brutally went after students and activists, killing 3,000 people.

An Online Crusade

In 2011, after almost 50 years of repression under the military regime, the former pariah state began opening up. Political and economic reforms have since earned President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government unprecedented praise from the international community. The release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners like Nay Phone Latt was one of the key changes introduced by Thein Sein.

Yet, Nay Phone Latt and many activists, bloggers, and journalists in Burma are worried about the transition. With draconian laws still in place and new media laws in the making, they fear that the government will backslide on its commitment to democracy, human rights and media freedom.
Formerly in exile, under censorship or behind bars, Burma’s wired citizens are now using the country’s improving Internet infrastructure to ensure that the generals-turned-politicians will not roll back their newfound freedoms. They are wielding the digital media as weapon not only to engage a growing smartphone-savvy audience, but also to liberate an outdated legal framework that threatens, among other things, freedom of expression.
Nay Phone Latt and his Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO) say many of Burma’s netizens do not know about laws and the risks they face because of the outdated laws governing freedom of expression. They say they plan to use Facebook, among different platforms, to get them to support their campaign to change the laws.

Burma is expected to see a massive increase in the number of Internet and smartphone users, as telecom giants Telenor, from Norway, and Ooredoo, from Qatar, prepare to quickly expand mobile Internet networks, after the firms recently received 15-year mobile operating licenses. The government has announced plans to increase mobile penetration rate from less than 10 percent at present to 80 percent in 2016.

Currently, Burma has a low Internet penetration rate estimated at one to three percent of the population (there are no official government figures). Many of those who are online have taken to that most popular of social networking sites, Facebook.

MIDO says that government official regularly make announcements on their Facebook pages, and so do lawmakers. When Deputy Minister for Information Ye Htut announced the winners of the telecom licenses in June, he did so on Facebook, showing just how much the social network has become a communication medium for policymakers.

In addition to social networking, Burma’s netizens have turned Facebook into a news portal and content aggregator. In a country of 55 million where Internet connection is notoriously slow and power outages are a normal occurrence, Facebook has managed to overtake blogs in popularity.

IT experts say the social network dominates the Burmese cyberspace so much so that for its 600,000 to 800,000 users, Facebook is synonymous with the Internet.

The Journalist’s Story

In another apartment-type office in Rangoon, freelance journalist Myint Kyaw is also often on Facebook. While typing on a MacBook (covered with the sticker “Give Freedom to Media Law, For the People to Get Truth”), he talked about the whirlwind of meetings of the interim Myanmar Press Council (MPC) composed mostly of journalists and media owners that the government tasked with drafting a media bill last year.

Myint Kyaw and his Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN) — a media group with young members, mostly aged between 20 and 30 — has recently launched a signature campaign to urge Parliament to revise the new Printing and Publishing Enterprise bill that the Lower House approved in July.

Local and international human rights and media freedom groups have denounced the bill, drafted by Information Ministry, as containing measures that constitute a form of prior restraint and censorship.

Gathering over 10,000 signatures in Rangoon, Mandalay and other cities, MJN called on Parliament to revise the bill and to consider an alternative bill drafted and presented by the Myanmar Press Council to the Upper House in mid-August. The MPC’s bill is a code of conduct covering all forms of media.

MJN took its campaign to cyberspace, discussing the bill in its closed Facebook group and public Facebook fan page. It also uploaded minutes of its meetings and shared the campaign logo on the social networking site.

In late August, the Upper House approved the printing bill with most of the MPC’s recommendations. Press Council secretary and spokesperson Kyaw Min Swe said the parliament deleted the clause on the MOI’s registration officer, authorized to issue and revoke licenses of print publications for violations as vague as “aggrieving races and religions, portraying obscenity, and abetting and instigating crime.”

The bill will be discussed again in the Lower House before parliament makes the final decision.

A Net Effect?

For now, it remains unclear how much of the journalists’ initial success can be attributed to online efforts, which were done simultaneously with lobbying offline through MPC press conferences, meetings with the MOI and members of Parliament, and critical news reports on the issue.

Days before the sudden passage of the bill, however, Myint Kyaw had explained why MJN chose to bring the media bill debate to Facebook.

“To some extent, because the Internet users, the government officials and some NGOs are there, the online network here is also effective in terms of our needs and our views,” said the chief editor of the now-defunct Yangon Press International, a news organization that only posted news on Facebook.

Myint Kyaw added, “They are doing their own business. They are also aware of what is happening in the media, what are the issues. Facebook, social media, is one of the best media to get in touch with the other sectors.”

In the case of the publishing and printing bill, though, Myint Kyaw admitted that the discussion on MJN’s public Facebook page was not vibrant, gathering only a few general statements of support. Other journalists and IT experts themselves say many Burmese netizens prefer talking about entertainment, lifestyle, and the raging ethnic and religious conflicts.

“They think the law is boring,” said Myint Kyaw. “Some journalists, they don’t read about the law. Even the journalists don’t read.”

Nay Phone Latt made the same observation based on MIDO’s efforts to crowd-source online reactions to the technology bills it is helping draft.

“Most of the people in our country and most of the netizens, they don’t know about the law and they think the lawmaking process is not their duty,” Nay Phone Latt said. “Actually it’s not like that. The Parliament members are not skillful in the lawmaking process. They don’t know everything so if they do something, we need to participate and if they do the law concerning the ICT, the people from the ICT sector should participate.”

As he takes part in the lawmaking process, the 33-year-old civil engineering graduate has noticed that members of Parliament are still stuck in the old paradigm.

“Most of the people in the government are from the military and their thinking is based only on security,” he said. “Whenever they think of something, what they are thinking is security and actually to think only of security is not enough. We should think also of the freedom of expression and freedom of the people.”

Continuing Concerns

But the old bad habits may die hard. Under the military junta, the Internet in Burma was in tight control. The government blocked the websites of exiled and international media, and opposition and human rights groups.

It also banned social networking sites and Skype. Owners of Internet cafes were even required to take screenshots and get personal information of users.

During politically sensitive times like anniversaries of the 1988 uprising and the Saffron Revolution, the junta slowed down Internet access. A 2010 report of Reporters Without Borders (RWB) and the Burma Media Association also showed that Burma’s ISP system was configured in such a way that different servers catered to the government ministries while another was for civilian users.  The report said this gave the military “an exclusive ability to control the country’s Internet system”.

Burma earned the distinction of being an “Enemy of the Internet” in the RWB 2012 list while the US-based Freedom House categorized it as “Not Free” in the same year. This year, the country retained the Freedom House label, but it made headlines for moving up in the organization’s annual media freedom ranking and jumping ahead of China.

Indeed, despite the reforms, the laws of the past remain in place and Nay Phone Latt is now busy working to help repeal them. Concerning the controversial Electronic Transactions Law, he asks why the government requires users to register every electronic device like radios and phones. “For the telecom company, they will register, but for the end-user, they shouldn’t need to do that kind of thing,” he said.

The blogger and former cybercafé owner is also lobbying for lower penalties and clear definitions. The law imposes a prison sentence of seven to 15 years for the use of the Internet and digital technology to receive or send information relating to state secrets or security.

“What is the meaning of receive?” he asked. “The mail in your inbox is not ‘receive’. Everybody can send to your inbox if they know your e-mail address but it’s not your responsibility. So we need to define what is the meaning of receive, what is the meaning of send, what is the meaning of distribute.”

Besides being wielded against Nay Phone Latt, the Orwellian law made prisoners out of his friend, actor and comedian Zarganar, and 88 Generation activists like Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi.

Nay Phone Latt was reportedly convicted partly for storing a cartoon of General Than Shwe in his e-mail account, and possessing a banned video.

While in prison, he earned the RWB press freedom prize in the Cyber Dissidents category, the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and was part of the 2010 Time Magazine 100 list in the Heroes category.

A Web of Laws

Thaung Su Nyein, managing director of IT and media company Information Matrix, shares the concerns of Nay Phone Latt and many journalists. After all, he is a member of the Myanmar Press Council, the Myanmar Computer Professionals Association, and the Myanmar Computer Federation, which along with MIDO helps draft ICT bills.

The son of former Foreign Minister Win Aung is the publisher and editor of 7Day News, the Internet Journal, and other publications housed in a new and sprawling office in a city where the influx of foreign investors are jacking up real estate prices.

The different hats Thaung Su Nyein wears allow him to see the connections and implications of the various bills.

“When you give an authority the power to license something, it basically means he also has the power to remove the license,” he remarked. “Even with the best intentions of the current government, who is to say these intentions won’t change in the next few months especially leading up to the elections, so we’re going to make sure those freedoms of expression are kept in place.”

In ensuring free speech, journalists had looked to political parties like Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to champion their cause. Yet contrary to expectations, the repressive version of the printing bill passed the Lower House without any opposition from the democracy icon and her party members.

The Press Council’s Kyaw Min Swe said the group’s meeting with Suu Kyi and the NLD in Naypyidaw in mid-August was surprising.

“She looked very much like a politician,” he said. “She didn’t say definitely she will support us. She said every issue has a win or lose but ‘I want to see the people win.’ If the people win, she will support.”

Asked about the journalists’ criticism of Suu Kyi, NLD co-founder and longtime journalist Win Tin, chuckled in his Rangoon home, a small shack on his friend’s property. He was the lone NLD voice rejecting the printing bill.

The 84-year-old, who still wears blue prison-style shirts five years after his release in an act of support for Burma’s remaining political prisoners, defended his colleagues, saying that MPs value press freedom but are not able to read all bills.

But Win Tin admitted that Burma’s main opposition party is trying to address of its key shortcomings that affects its attitude towards media and technology: an aging leadership. He said the NLD was training its old leaders in using technology and recruiting more tech-savvy young leaders.

“We have youth group leaders, some of them over 50 years old, grandfathers. So we are trying at the end of the year to have a youth conference,” said Win Tin.

“Another thing is now they are limited but very soon. They will use the Internet so it will be helpful to enlighten our party members. We are giving party members media classes, training, and how important it is to give news out.”

(Ex-)Soldiers in Parliament

It is not just the NLD that is in need of training and young blood, however. At a bustling newsroom of the DVB Multimedia Group in Rangoon, Toe Zaw Latt wonders if his news organization can afford to move all its operations to Burma.

“We pay very serious attention on what the new Broadcasting Law will look like,” said the DVB’s Rangoon bureau chief. “Look at the parliament. I doubt many of the parliamentarians know about specific media law, to be frank. They are former soldiers.”

Burma’s Constitution reserves a quarter of seats in Parliament for the military, while the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) comprises many former junta leader and retains close ties with the country’s powerful military.

In exile, DVB was known as the Democratic Voice of Burma. It had to change its name when it returned home last year. But Toe Zaw Latt said DVB is keeping its Chiang Mai office partly because of legal uncertainty.

He said the lawmakers’ lack of knowledge of technology and media freedom is a key concern when the drafting of a new Broadcasting Law.

“If there’s a law exerting some control over [a TV/radio station’s] content, we have to think about it. Because for example in your content, how many percentage do you have to cover this and that [issue]?” he said.

Toe Zaw Latt said moving DVB operations to Burma could also expose the broadcaster to technological errors and controls. “What if something goes wrong and the pictures on television do not come out? People don’t know the reason behind it,” he added.

Nay Phone Latt’s MIDO tries to address the concerns about a lack of knowledge and initiative on ICT and media freedoms among lawmakers and officials by lobbying and holding training workshops in Naypyidaw.

And MIDO’s activities don’t end there. “We try to make the connection between the government sector and ICT-related NGOs,” Nay Phone Latt said, adding, “Before 2015, we will try to push some of the IT guys to run for Parliament. … [MPs] want to make the laws and regulations for the ICT sector, but if they do not have enough knowledge, they can’t do that.”

Cybercrime Law Still Needed

Yet while he promotes free speech and the rights of Internet users, Nay Phone Latt believes in the need to regulate the Web. He is pushing for the passage of a cybercrime law to address hacking, phishing, and online theft.

“Cybercrimes will increase in the near future and if somebody committed the cybercrime, there will be victims,” he said. “There are so many people who are online but when they go to the police station, the police will say they don’t know about ICT and they cannot take responsibility. We need a cyber law and cyber police who are very skillful in ICT.”

Zaw Ye Naung, broadcast and online media editor of Eleven Media Group, supports the move. He said the Eleven Media website, one of the most popular news sites in Burma, has been hacked at least four times in the past two years.

In the past, cyber-attacks were blamed on the state. But now Zaw Ye Naung said he has no idea who has been targeting Eleven Media’s site and Facebook page, with the IPs traced to places as diverse as Hong Kong, the United States, China, and Russia.

In late August, The Irrawaddy magazine reported that the so-called Blink Hacker Group attacked Burma’s official Southeast Asian (SEA) Games website, as well as that of Eleven Media, the Iron Cross rock band, Myanmar Gamers, Yatanarpon Teleport, Red Link, and the web store of the Irrawaddy news agency.

“What if they hack a payment system?” asked Zaw Ye Naung. “We’re not a payment website, just a news website, but if we were, what do you have to show to your customers? How can we sue the person? Who is he?”

On to Self-Regulation

But he and other journalists are against government proposals to regulate Facebook to prevent the spread of hate speech amid violence pitting Buddhists against Muslims, and clashes between the military and ethnic groups.

Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut said in July, “Our department is willing to develop regulations and public service media training for that. The government has no intention of blocking people, but we are ready to stop people who are diverting from the law.”

Nay Phone Latt said he does not like government regulation either. “I want to have the regulation by the people,” he said. “We regulate ourselves. We will check and balance our own society. We will make our own regulation, like a self-regulation system. That is the solution. If we can regulate ourselves, the government need not regulate us.”

He paused, then continued: “Actually, the long-term solution is in the education system. If we can put the ICT sector in the curriculum, every student will know about the nature of the ICT and they will know how they can use ICT effectively and for their own development and for society’s development.”

Nay Phone Latt knows he has his work cut out for him.  As it is, the poor infrastructure and various sectors’ lack of awareness and capacity have limited the Internet into being just a supplement to direct lobbying for now.

He and other free speech activists are also aware that like the changes in Burmese cyberspace, the country’s democratic transition is still premature. So even now that he was already running late, he said he would still be taking that bus ride to Naypyidaw.

“I worry for the future,” said Nay Phone Latt. “But at the same time, we try to cooperate with the government and the military and the solution is how we can persuade everybody: the hardliners, the military, everybody. The destiny of our country is how we can persuade them to go forward in the democratic society.”

This article first appeared on www.rappler.com in September 2013. It was produced for the 2013 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) fellowship program. Ayee Macaraig, a multimedia reporter for the Manila-based Rappler.com, is one of the 2013 fellows. This year’s theme is Freedom of Expression Challenges to Internet Government in Southeast Asia.