Date: Wed, 29 Apr 1998 03:47:27 -0400
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On-line activists step up fight: Dissidence is no longer a rag-tag endeavour
Today's opponents of autocratic regimes are making good use of Cyberspace
By Peter Eng, Bangkok Post
29 April 1998
Once cornered in malarial jungles, dark prisons and lonely exile,
Southeast Asian dissidents armed with computers and modems are winning
skirmishes as they marshal the border-breaching Internet against
Government clampdowns on the mainstream media can no longer silence
critics: news and vitriol zipping in via Cyberspace are adding fuel to
the social unrest that has buffeted the region in recent months.
After having rattled Burma's military government, activists are using
the World Wide Web and electronic mail against Indonesia's President
Suharto, Cambodia's Hun Sen, and the rulers of Vietnam, one of the
world's last communist regimes.
They have raised the issues higher on the international agenda and
forced countries to give greater weight to human rights and democracy
concerns when dealing with these governments. It no longer makes any
difference that the activists are scattered worldwide.
"Before, Burmese expatriates remained isolated from one another," said
Zarni, a leading Burmese activist. "The Internet has not only enabled
us to share information, advise one another and coordinate action, but
also has been a shot in the arm psychologically. No feeling is more
powerful than to know that you are not alone in your fight for
With anti-government street protests rocking Indonesia, opposition
parties, students, journalists, and non-government groups have been
busy posting news and spreading their views on the most important
Indonesia-related list, INDONESIA-L
(http://www.indopubs.com/archives).They include the People's
Democratic Party, which fled underground after the government blamed
it for riots last year and arrested its main leaders.
Up through the formation of Mr Suharto's new cabinet in mid-March, an
average of 130,000 people a day were reading INDONESIA-L, compared
with a previous high of 100,000, said John MacDougall, who maintains
the list from the United States. The number of Indonesian readers
inside Indonesia has been growing vastly, he said.
"Posters [to the list] often compare Indonesia to the Titanic: Suharto
is taking Indonesia down with him," said Mr MacDougall.
"Posters are more fearful than ever," he said. "That's understandable,
given some of the new themes of the posters, such as very explicit,
thorough criticism of Suharto and his family, the rejection of the
legitimacy of Suharto's re-election as president, and the open mockery
of Vice-President Habibie and the new cabinet. There are very few
pro-government posters anymore. Emotions and worries for country,
families and selves are running very high.
"Many INDONESIA-L postings get printed out, reproduced and distributed
in large quantities, bringing the reach of the Net far beyond the
middle class elite which can afford computers. Postings get read by
Indonesian ministers, military officers and diplomats. Some rely on it
for 'inside' information."
Internet lists maintained inside Indonesia have proliferated, along
with new on-line magazines with names like X-Pos. Dissident voices
travel nationwide since Internet service providers now exist in every
province in Indonesia, including insurgency-plagued East Timor and
In Cambodia, the first provider started up only last year, a welcome
development for dissidents since Hun Sen's formerly communist party
now controls all broadcast media, and has threatened the few
Activists rushed on-line after Hun Sen ousted his co-prime minister,
Prince Norodom Ranariddh, in a bloody coup last July. While Hun Sen's
army overpowers the resistance's few troops, many resistance
supporters are western-educated and versed in the new technology.
After fleeing abroad, the opposition politicians kept their voices
heard, on-line. Activists organised worldwide demonstrations against
Hun Sen. Now, with most of the politicians back in Phnom Penh, the
activists are maintaining pressure on Hun Sen to hold a free and fair
election in July.
Much of the campaign rallies around top dissident Sam Rainsy. The home
page of a US branch of his party
(http://www.kreative.net/knp)reports on the struggle of the
"Cambodian People Vs Saddam HunSen".
It casts fire-and-brimstone vitriol at Hun Sen, also termed "Pol Pot
Number Two", and contains graphic photographs of people murdered by
his security forces. On-line Cambodians in France, Australia and
Thailand also spread Sam Rainsy's message, and now people inside
Cambodia have joined in.
Through the Internet, Sam Rainsy supporters also have publicised the
demonstrations in Phnom Penh by thousands of unionised garment workers
who say they are being abused by factory owners with the tacit support
of Hun Sen's party.
In Vietnam, the government wavered for many months before finally
allowing the first Internet service providers to start up last
December. It worried about Vietnamese exiles fomenting political
instability, especially as people inside the country have stepped up
the challenge to the Communist Party over the past year.
Just as other Internet activists have turned Burma into "the South
Africa of the 1990s", the exiles are trying to turn Vietnam into
another Eastern Europe.
When prominent figures in Vietnam including retired Gen Tran Do and
mathematician Phan Dinh Dieu wrote recently to the party urging it to
pursue democratic reforms, the exile groups triumphantly put the full
texts on-line. When thousands of villagers in Thai Binh province
demonstrated against corruption by officials, Vietnamese
state-controlled media stayed silent for months. But on-line activists
quickly broadcast detailed accounts that were spiced with mockery of
the media's silence.
Many of these accounts were posted by Vietnam Insight
(http://www.vinsight.org/),a US-based group sponsored by the
National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, which in turn was
founded by a former admiral of the South Vietnam government that the
communists defeated in 1975.
"Our service reaches and is sought by Hanoi's officials and offices
both at home and abroad," said Vietnam Insight's editor, Mrs Chan
Tran. "Among many of them, we believe, are dissident members who want
to reach out. People in Vietnam download en masse the information on
our web pages. People in Vietnam e-mail and ask us questions. We also
reach Vietnamese students sent abroad by the Hanoi regime."
In moments of doubt, activists can draw reassurance from the campaign
against the generals of Burma, who have been blamed for widespread
human rights abuses. In just a couple of years, Internet activists
have turned an obscure, backwater conflict into an international issue
and helped make Rangoon one of the world's most vilified regimes.
By using the Internet to rally around pro-democracy leader Aung San
Suu Kyi and to organise worldwide protests and consumer boycotts, the
activists have twisted the arms of many institutions dealing with
Last year, the United States and Canada imposed economic sanctions on
Burma. Many US local governments have restricted business with
companies that invest in Burma. Leading US companies including PepsiCo
and Apple Computer have pulled out of the country, as have European
giants including Heineken and Carlsberg.
The spearhead is the Free Burma Coalition
(http://www.freeburma.org); now one of the world's largest on-line
human rights campaigns, it groups activists at over 100 educational
institutions in North America and people in 26 other countries. The
coalition was founded in 1995 by Zarni, a Burmese activist who is
studying at an American university, and it grew quickly.
"People downloaded campaign posters and ready-made flyers from the
site," said Zarni. "The site also served as a 24-hour recruiting
centre. During the past three years, there has not been a single day
when no one subscribed to the Free Burma Coalition listserve or
offered to help with the campaign."
In Burma, the unauthorised possession of a computer with networking
capability is a crime punishable by seven to 15 years imprisonment.
But the government itself is starting to use the Internet to fight
back at its critics on the Internet.
Rangoon frequently dials up the Burmanet news mailing list that was
created by anti-Rangoon activists. Hiding behind pen names and using
cryptic, formalistic language, officials including diplomats at
Burma's embassy in Washington post attacks on their critics along with
articles from the Burmese state media glorifying the military. Then
there's the official Myanmar Home Page
(http://www.myanmar.com),which describes a "Goldenland" of tourist
attractions and business opportunities.
Last December, Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party launched a home page
(http://www.cpp.com.khor via http://www.cppusa.net)which aims,
as it says, "to refute liberalism and its allies in the media using
the facts of the issues rather than deception".
The site contains lengthy attempts to justify the coup, and in an
attempt to soften Hun Sen's image, offers photographs of him sitting
on a mat with elderly villagers, and happily clutching a giggling
The Cyberspace struggle is set to expand. Governments battered by the
regional economic turmoil feel they have little choice but to count on
information technology to drive economic growth in the next century.
The number of Internet users in Asia will rise by 63 percent during
the 1995 to 2001 period, says a research firm, the International Data
Malaysia has deferred other mega-projects to save money, but says it
still will invest US$10 billion (400 billion baht) into the Multimedia
Super Corridor for high-technology industries.
To lure the multinationals, the government has guaranteed uncensored
Internet access. In a country where the authorities have emasculated
the traditional media, the Internet may give a new weapon to those
opposed to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
* Peter Eng has covered Southeast Asia since the mid-1980s
The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. All rights reserved 1998