(Mizzima) – In the modern-day world, the Internet is used daily to search for information and for communication. Many Burmese claim embracing the Internet is crucial for an underdeveloped country like theirs to catch up with the rest of the world.
Despite draconian restrictions, the Internet is moving to centre-stage in Burma.
The political parties in Burma, reborn recently in 2010 election after two decades of interruption, claim that the Internet is critical to them.
Nay Myo Wai of the Peace and Diversity Party (PDP) said, ‘I would not be able to found a political party if there is no Internet’. He sees the Internet as the best vehicle for organizing people to join the smaller parties which lack funding.
‘There are no rich people in our party, nobody can afford funding for the party, especially the party founders, and everybody is poor’, he told Mizzima.
Mya Nyana Soe agrees about the importance of the Internet. As an elected MP representing the National Democratic Force (NDF), he said the Internet is now vital for people around the world including Burmese citizens.
‘The Internet is no more a luxury item. It is applicable not only for politicians and students, but also for the monks who can find Buddhist literature on the web. They can browse Buddhist literature linking to Sri Linkan and Indian institutions. Then the Internet becomes an essential item for daily use’, he told Mizzima.
Internet use is currently limited in Burma. Reporters Without Borders, known by their French acronym RSF, claims there are only 300,000 Internet users in Burma out of a population of 50 million. Other observers claim there could be more. But what is clear is how the Internet is increasingly becoming part of the daily lives of ordinary Burmese people.
Dr Mya Nyana Soe said it was vital to him. ‘In this age, if you don't use the Internet, you could be like a blind person. You must open your eyes and ears, because the more information you get, the better. We should learn what is happening in the world and how things have changed. I take this information. And in Parliament, I raised some questions. I collected the required data from the Internet and applied it when necessary’.
Apart from helping with information for debates in parliament, the Internet is also important to Win Tin, an official with the National League for Democracy (NLD) and a veteran journalist. He said the NLD uses the Internet for networking and communication activities of the party and mobilizing the people. The NLD recently launched an official website to report on its policies and activities.
‘I can say the communication with branches and other organizations in the country is better (because of the Internet), and I can say it is very advantageous connecting with other organizations and ethnic groups’, Win Tin told Mizzima. ‘There are many people who read our site and respond with suggestions to us. Many people are aware about our NLD pages and it is more convenient connecting with people living abroad’.
The Internet is helpful to many people. But there is a downside––the sluggishness of the service and the restrictions imposed by the government. Many feel they lose their freedom.
Dr Mya Nyana Soe said the Internet in Burma is very slow, that it is hard to get a connection, and they have to spend a lot of time getting Internet access.
Private Internet cafe owners are displeased with so many restrictions imposed by authorities, including the demand to install CCTV cameras in the cafe to snoop on customers and the need to register the name and identity of users. Moreover, the authorities frequently check the shops. As a result, the Internet cafes lose customers and income.
Nay Myo Wai said ordinary people cannot use the Internet at home and have to visit Internet cafes. ‘The owners are asked to post a sign that says, “You may not browse politically related Websites”. It makes people reluctant to browse the politically-related Websites. Only a few surfers do it by taking risks, maybe less than 10,000’.
Typically, the Burmese government authorities only allow citizens to browse government-sanctioned sites and if they want to seek out other Websites, they must use a proxy or other means.
Until 2010, the Burmese government controlled the granting of Internet Service Providers (ISP) in Burma, exile Burma Media Association (BMA) reported in an article, ‘Yatanarpon portal: Development or Oppression?’. According to the article, an ISP of the Post & Telecom department provides services to dial-up and ADSL users from government ministries, including the defense ministry and Yatanarpon ISP provides dial-up, ADSL, FTTH, and wireless broadband services to users. These ISPs connect to international links through Hanthawaddy National Gateway.
The experts claim that the Internet connection in Burma is slow because it has to pass many screening systems and servers.
But sources said the ISP system in Burma has changed since October 2010. There are only two ISPs––Yatanarpon teleport ISP will be under the management of the Post and Telecom ISP and another ISP is designated only for the defence ministry. The distinct modification is that Yatanarpon ISP is the only body to provide services to civilian users in Burma and if the government wants to control Internet use, it can manage this easily through the Yatanarpon teleport ISP, according to the article from the BMA that criticized the change.
Moreover, draconian laws pose a threat to Internet users. The Burmese government has enacted three laws relating to information technology use, namely the Myanmar Computer Development Law, the Wide Area Network Law and the Electronic Transactions Law.
The Electronic Transactions Law (2004) stipulates imprisonment for up to 15 years or a fine for (a) doing any act detrimental to the security of the State or prevalence of law and order or community peace and tranquility or national solidarity or the national economy or national culture; and (b) receiving or sending and distributing any information relating to secrets of the security of the State or prevalence of law and order or community peace and tranquility or national solidarity, national economy or national culture.
Bloggers including Nay Phone Latt have been incarcerated in Burma’s prisons due to the laws. The RSF claims the Burmese government is an enemy of the Internet and US-based Freedom House rates Burma as the second worst country in the world when it comes to Internet freedom.
NLD member Win Tin believes the Burmese government’s prohibitions concerning Internet use is due to fear.
He points out that the restrictions and controls on Internet cafes comes down to politics and the people’s hatred of the government.
Nay Myo Wai ponders whether the restrictions on the Internet will hinder development.
‘Even my neighbors in Htauk-Kyant ward could not read about what I am doing and about my activities’, he said. ‘I have to print out the news for them to read. Printing by paper is expensive and I can't distribute it to them all. When I distributed information by Internet, it was cheap, fast and reaches a broad audience. If the government wants modernity and development, they must not prohibit the IT development and its activities’.
Win Tin said that despite the problems, tech-savvy youth and many educated people are ready to penetrate or bypass these blockades and environment of fear by using their expertise and wisdom.
‘It is apparent they can access the sites they want even under restrictions. The youth are saying that they use proxies to bypass the government's blockades. Whatever they prohibit, the youth can get round it. Normally, the government prohibits VOA, BBC, RFA and DVB sites. It is hard to access Facebook and Google in Burma. But the younger generation can do what they want even under restrictions’, Win Tin said.
Change is in the air. Now the new government that came to power in the November 2010 elections says it wants to make changes to develop the country.
Dr Mya Nyana Soe believes the Internet will be a major supportive tool to reach this objective.
‘I acknowledge the country has changed really. Now there is a new union government and moving in a new direction. I am not hesitant to assist the authorities whenever necessary. But the government should implement some work and tackle some issues more effectively and efficiently. I think the Internet problem is quite easy’, he said.
Win Tin, who opposed the 2010 election and is pursuing a genuine democratic system, said that now it is clear that the government cannot stop the Internet and the change it will bring.
‘The tech-savvy youth and the smart technicians have tried to free themselves from the government restrictions on the Internet and they are connecting to the world by passing through proxies and other means’, he said.
Whatever effort is put in by the government to limit the use of the Internet, it will lose.
‘I think it is unstoppable’, Win Tin said.
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