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Message-ID: <199901051941.LAA17307@shell3.ba.best.com>
Date: Tue, 5 Jan 1999 11:41:22 -0800
Reply-To: Southeast Asia Discussion List <SEASIA-L@LIST.MSU.EDU>
Sender: Southeast Asia Discussion List <SEASIA-L@LIST.MSU.EDU>
From: Vietnam Insight <vinsight@BEST.COM>
Organization: Vietnam Insight
Subject: VI: Cyber-dissidents, Hacktivists
Comments: To: seasia-l@msu.edu

A new kind of cyberwar in Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam: Bloodless conflict

By Peter Eng, Columbia Journalism Review,
Sept/Oct 1998

In fighting Burma's brutal military government, Lwin Moe used to wear combat fatigues, wield an AK-47 riffle and roam the jungles with Regiment 201 of the All Burma Students Democratic Front. Today, in business jackets and from an office in neighboring Thailand, he still fights the same enemy but a very different type of war. His weapons now are two 233 MHz desktop computers. His battle ground is Cyberspace.

I like the computer more, says Moe, 25. We can fight without bloodshed. We can send statements to the entire world and we can sen a virus to the SLORC machine, he says, using the acronym for the government.

Across Southeast Asia, the Internet has given a potent liberation weapon to dissidents whom autocrats once simply forgot about after shunting them to dark prisons, malarial jungles, and foreign exile. Many of the dissident Internet campaigns are based abroad, so they are safe from clampdowns, yet they penetrate borders to spread news and views that the domestic media cannot touch. Internet activists, many working like journalists in a transnational newsroom, have transformed scattered voices into global dissident movements.

Many dissidents have been inspired by the successes of the campaign against Burma, where the unauthorized possession of a computer with networking capacity is punishable by up to fifteen years in prison.

Moe is designing Web pages for a dozen Burmese opposition groups scattered along the Thai frontier. The pages will go on the home page of the Free Burma Coalition (http://www.freeburma.org), with chapters at well over 100 U.S. colleges and in more than two dozen other countries.

The coalition organizes letter-writing campaigns, demonstrations, and consumer boycotts outside Burma to support pro-democracy efforts inside Burma of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. It heightened pressures that led Washington to impose economic sanctions on Burma last year; multinationals including PepsiCo and Apple Computer to pull out of Burma; universities to divest from companies dealing with Burma; and twenty-two U.S. cities and the state of Massachusetts to pass legislation barring contracts with such companies.

The coalition was founded in 1995 by Zarni, a Burmese student at the University of Wisconsin. Before, Burmese expatriates remained isolated from one another, he says. The Internet allows us to share information, advise one another and coordinate action.

The Internet had the same emboldening effect on Indonesian protesters who ended President Suharto's rule. The government clamped down on newspapers and television station during the unrest, but News, analysis, and commentary flowed abundantly on literally hundreds of e-mail lists, says Gerry van Klinken, editor of the magazine Inside Indonesia. Some anonymous Internet news services provided top-quality journalism.

Says John MacDougall, who maintains the most influential list, INDONESIA-L (http://www.indopubs.com/archives), from Lanham, Maryland: Suharto's fall was due to a fortuitous combination of events, one of which was the information explosion over the Internet.

The Internet allowed Indonesians to discuss taboo subjects, such as corruption in the military and the business empires of Suharto's children, and to link up with other dissidents. It introduced new dissident groups to a national audience. Political figures hiding from security forces spoke up on the Internet, as did journalists whose magazines had been closed by the government.

Events in Indonesia may have the government in Vietnam regretting its decision to allow Internet service providers to start up there last December. The government had worried that the many Vietnamese who fled abroad after the communist takeover in 1975 would step up attempts to forment instability back home. That is exactly what happened.

The world might not have known of several major protests if not for Internet postings by groups like the Free Vietnam Alliance (http://www.fva.org), based in Paris, and Vietnam Insight (http://www.vinsight.org) in San Jose, California.

When peasants in Thai Binh province marched to protest corruption by officials, the government and its media stayed silent for five months, but then had to speak up as detailed eyewitness accounts mounted on the Internet. When retired Gen. Tran Do became one of the highest figures to urge the party to pursue reforms, the texts of his letters appeared first on the Internet.

The sources inside Vietnam who furtively provide information for the Internet include resistance sympathizers in the government and the party, says Vietnam Insight's editor, Chan Tran. She says her group's campaign (VI:and others') recently prompted Hanoi to allow the family of dissident Nguyen Dan Que to visit him in prison (VI:Dr. Que since has been released in September 1998 under international pressure).

It was also only last year that commercial Internet service started in Cambodia. But it came just in time for opponents of strongman Hun Sen, who led a bloody coup. Pro-democracy leader Sam Rainsy has a small party organization but a big voice. He used the Internet to pressure for free and fair conditions for the election held in July, and to expose abuses since then. The Sam Rainsy party's home page (http://www.kreative.net/knp) contains graphic photographs of anti-government demonstrators and other people killed in attacks blamed on Hun Sen.

The autocrats are fighting back in Cyberspace. Vietnam's Communist Party daily Nhan Dan (or The People, http://www.nhandan.org.vn) came online in June. It is aimed at overseas Vietnamese. And hiding behind pen names like OKKAR66129, supporters of the Burmese government - possibly including diplomats at its embassy in Washington - use the BurmaNet News mailing list to respond to criticisms and distribute government Information Sheets, glorifying the military. In four languages, the official Myanmar Home Page (http://www.myanmar.com) paints the country as a Goldenland of tourist attraction and business opportunities.