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Message-ID: <199804290747.DAA05137@access4.digex.net>
Date: Wed, 29 Apr 1998 03:47:27 -0400
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From: Alex G Bardsley <bardsley@ACCESS.DIGEX.NET>
Subject: Fwd: On-line dissidents (BKKPost)
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X-URL: http://www.bangkokpost.net/today/290498_News19.html

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

Bangkok - 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 autocratic regimes.

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 justice."

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 [6](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 Irian Jaya.

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 opposition newspapers.

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 [7](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 [8](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 Burma.

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 [9](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 [10](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 [11](http://www.cpp.com.khor via [12]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 school girl.

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 Corp Asia-Pacific.

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

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