From: William F. Stevens <stevens@LOXINFO.CO.TH>
Subject: Fwd, TH, Burma Blocks Internet
Date: Wednesday, April 26, 2000 5:12 AM

Burma blocks internet for fear of free speech

By Matthew Pennington, AP, Bangkok Post, 26 April 2000

Dozens of key-tapping students stare intently at computer screens in a cramped classroom three floors up a crumbling colonial terrace in down-town Rangoon.

At the private Knowledge, Management and Dedication Co computer study center, these eager teens learn everything from operating systems like Microsoft Windows to programming.

But there's one glaring gap in the curriculum: the Internet.

While the rest of developing Asia is rushing headlong into the information technology revolution, Burma's un elected military rulers forbid cyber-space, fearing it could open up a Pandora's box of dissent.

Sales of computers are growing rapidly in Burma's otherwise sluggish economy. The 100-member Myanmar (Burma) Computer Federation estimates there are more than 50,000 computers in this land of 48 million people, one of the world's poorest.

But networking between those computers and the outside world is still forbidden. A 1996 law imposes a seven to 15-year jail term for the unauthorized ownership of a modem.

“If we go online, I expect we won’t be able to see politics,” said Maung Thwin, 17, one of more than 3,000 youths competing for 300 to 400 places this year at Rangoon's Computer Science University.

Pro-democracy campaigners abroad have set up dozens of Internet sites and Web discussion groups critical of the Burmese regime, which is widely accused of abusing its citizens' human rights and suppressing democracy.

Most of those sites are brimming with words and images of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader of the party that captured 1990 general elections but was never allowed to take power. Burma has been ruled by the military for nearly 40 years.

“Why would we want to collect garbage, as it were, in our own homes?” a government spokesman, Lt-Col Hla Min, said when asked about banning Burmese from seeing foreign-produced pro-democracy Web sites such as <>.

“We want to use the Internet for constructive purposes to improve the knowledge of our people, not as a platform for troublemakers to create problems.”

But while the regime produces its own colorful Web site, <>, and has the capacity to provide the public with Internet access, it chooses to keep the international information spigot closed.

Even e-mail has struggled for official acceptance. Three years after it was first introduced, e-mail remains restricted to a few hundred foreigners and to privileged Burmese officials and businessmen with close ties to the government.

In January, the government's own Internet server, which cost $1.5 million to install, went into general service after 1-1/2 years of delays.

The server, owned by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, is set to provide e-mail for about 600 users in Rangoon and Mandalay. Access to the World Wide Web, however, will remain restricted to a few select government insiders.

The new server will restore service to the hundreds of frustrated e-mail users cut off by the government in December when it abruptly pulled the plug on five private e-mail providers.

Those services had been set up without the government's explicit authorization and the episode underlined state paranoia about cyberspace.

“We were operating in the grey,” said Pat James, the Texan boss of the Eagle Group, one of those shut down. “Ministers were well aware of what we were doing but we were treated like common criminals.”

Technicians and managers were hauled in for questioning.

Despite self-censorship in its operations, including a refusal to pass burmanet's daily news round-ups in e-mail form to a client—the British Embassy in Rangoon—Eagle had thousands of dollars of equipment confiscated.

The ministry declared that only it was authorized to provide e-mail and began taking applications for its new service.

What about the Internet, which senior officials have been promising since 1998?

If the experience of more prosperous China is anything to go by, Burma will struggle to censor any Net service it does provide with filtering software.

In China, the government has set up a special Internet police unit and has even jailed a few users for posting information purported to pose a national security threat.

But opinions critical of China's government still appear in local chat rooms. And while Chinese authorities do intermittently block access to foreign Web sites they deem unacceptable, savvy users often set up alternate “proxy” servers to get around this.

Burma's government is still trying to figure out how to control the information flow.

And it's being cage about exactly when it will make the World Wide Web available to the select audience, though it did issue rules in January governing Internet use.

No prizes for guessing what is expressly forbidden: politics.