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Date: Fri, 21 Nov 1997 22:57:54 From: John Walker <email@example.com>
Democracy of Internet threatens some nations. In Burma, Net access can be a path to prison. But some take the risk
By Matthew McAllester, Newsday, 21 November 1997
RANGOON, Burma -- The man leaned across the table and spoke so quietly that no one but the two of us could hear. His eyes moved from side to side, scanning the restaurant and the street outside for possible informers or military intelligence agents. That's the way people communicate in Burma when they're talking to a foreigner about something that could land them in prison for several years.
"You know what?" the man said. "I got e-mail."
"You can't have," I said.
For several reasons I knew he had to be telling me a tall story. For a start, it's illegal to access the Internet in Burma. It's illegal to own an unlicensed fax machine or modem. A few years ago a supporter of the largest pro-democracy party in Burma died in prison, where he'd been sent because he did not have a license for his fax machine.
Besides, no one has e-mail or Internet access in Burma except for a select few business owners who are friendly with the military regime that rules the country. Diplomats at a few foreign embassies also acknowledge that they have Net access and e-mail, despite the Burmese government's restrictions. Even then, they say their e-mail is intercepted and read by the Burmese authorities.
This is a country where reporters have to visit in the guise of tourists, which is how I traveled in September and October. Here, all international calls are listened to by operators and, the Burmese people assume, by military intelligence. When I wanted to make a call to America, the receptionist at my hotel told me it would cost $35 for five minutes if I wanted to dial direct. I opted for the storefront down the road, where I sat for 30 minutes waiting for a connection. When I got through to my friend, I was less than chatty about what I'd been up to.
So how could the man I was talking to across the table possibly have navigated these political and technological barriers to get e-mail?
The man smiled. He's a fixer. A small business owner. People come to him for help. He's thinking of offering people access to his Net account -- for a price. Most of all, he looks out for himself, keeping on the right side of the military authorities but not showing them the fear they are so used to seeing in the faces of the Burmese people.
"I dial out anywhere I can," he said. "My account is in Australia, but I'll use a server from anywhere. Anywhere."
For the sake of communicating with the outside world, the man was prepared to risk prison.
I've written before about how a good number of governments around the world restrict or ban Internet access to their citizens. Free-speech advocates told me about some governments that fear the spread of anti-government information and opinions that dissent from the official line. The advocates told me how democratizing the Internet is by its nature. But being told and seeing it with one's own eyes are very different experiences.
After a couple weeks of seeing how the military government's system of informers and its control of information contributed to its firm grip on power, I could understand why it has banned the Net.
The Net's speed and resistance to control would be an unstoppable force in organizing opposition to the military regime.
"What would happen if you had Net access?" I asked another Burmese man, who spoke in a whisper even when he was alone at home.
"The government, it would be over," he said. "We could share information."
Information and open communication in an oppressive state such as Burma are invaluable tools in fighting the status quo.
I spent some time one evening in Rangoon with U Tin Oo, a former general in the Burmese army and now a senior leader of the National League for Democracy, the largest pro-democracy party. All told, he has spent nine years in prison for his political activities.
As we spoke, the phone often rang. Delegates to the party conference that weekend were en route to Rangoon, and they called Tin Oo to discuss the event. The conversations were superficial.
"They tap my phone always," Tin Oo explained.
When I left I had to take two taxis and walk among crowds to shake the military intelligence officials that a pro-democracy contact had said would follow me.
I worried about my own information, my notes. I longed to be able to turn them into ones and zeroes and e-mail them home. Instead, I hid them at the bottom of my backpack.
A couple of weeks later I was in Thailand, interviewing Burmese dissidents and refugees who have fled the Burmese government. Working with them are several Westerners who work as human-rights campaigners, doctors and advocates for the refugees.
E-mail is an important tool in their work, as it helps them coordinate with people outside Thailand. One woman collects every story she can find about Burma into the BurmaNet News e-mail newsletter. BurmaNet News is delivered to the e-mail boxes of hundreds of journalists, activists and government officials around the world. It's precisely the kind of democratizing spread of information that the Burmese people are denied.
But even in Thailand there are problems. The human-rights advocates and health workers use encryption when communicating online. "They read all our e-mail," said an Australian doctor, referring to the Thai authorities. The Thai government maintains diplomatic relations with the Burmese government, a pariah regime to many other democracies. "The other day I tried to get my e-mail and my password had been changed."
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