RANGOON, Burma – Five years ago, Nay Phone Latt tried to kill time by reading, doing yoga, and writing letters, short stories, and poems. But on a recent gloomy Monday morning, the blogger could hardly answer a phone call as he rushed about before he took a bus to Burma’s administrative capital to help change the law that sent him to prison.
“I only have 20 minutes,” he said with an apologetic smile to a visitor at his office in the ramshackle city of Rangoon before braving the rainy Monday morning for the four-hour bus ride to Naypyidaw. Making final arrangements on his phone, he paced to and fro the room with a wall bearing photos of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and his other technology idols.
Judging from photos taken right after his release from prison in January 2012, Nay Phone Latt had visibly gained weight. Once he finally settled on a couch, he began explaining why he is now working with the former military junta that sentenced him to 20 years and six months in jail.
“We got some extent of freedom but the thing is the Electronic Transactions Law by the military government is still valid and everybody can use the Internet freely but we are not free because the law is still there,” he said. “If they want to, they can sue everybody with this law. You can say we are free, but we are not safe.”
Nay Phone Latt was only 28 when he was jailed for his ties to the opposition and pro-democracy movement in 2008. During the 2007 Saffron Revolution, the monk-led anti-government protests, bloggers like him were a key source of information as the junta cracked down on dissidents and eventually shut down the Internet.
Despite his days in the notorious Insein prison and the Pa-an prison, Nay Phone Latt is now hopeful about the sea change in his country. He said much has changed since he witnessed the 1988 uprising as an eight-year-old boy, when the government brutally went after students and activists, killing 3,000 people.
An online crusade
In 2011, after 50 years of repression under the military regime, the former pariah state began opening up. Political and economic reforms have since earned President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government unprecedented praise from the international community. The release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners like Nay Phone Latt was one such change.
Yet Nay Phone Latt and many activists, bloggers, and journalists in Burma, also known as Myanmar, are worried about the transition. With draconian laws still in place and similar bills in the making, they fear that the government will backslide on its commitment to democracy.
Formerly in exile, under censorship or behind bars, Burma’s wired citizens are now using the latest addiction in the country to ensure that the generals-turned-politicians will not take back their newfound freedoms: the Internet. They are wielding this weapon not only to engage a growing smartphone-savvy audience, but also to liberate an outdated legal framework that threatens, among other things, the freedom of expression.
Saying many netizens do not know about laws and the risks they face because of these, Nay Phone Latt and his Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO) plan to use Facebook among different platforms to get them on board.
Burma is expecting a boom in Internet and smartphone use, with Norway’s Telenor and Qatar’s Ooredoo just recently clinching 15-year mobile operating licenses in one of Asia’s last unconquered frontiers. The government aims to increase the mobile penetration rate from less than 10 percent at present to 80 percent in 2016.
Currently, Burma has a low Internet penetration rate estimated at one to three percent of the population (there are no official government figures). But MIDO has apparently taken note that the government regularly makes announcements and parliament actively updates its Facebook page. Beyond social sharing, Burmese netizens have also turned the social network into a news portal and content aggregator.
In a country of 55 million where Internet connection is notoriously slow and power outages are a normal occurrence, Facebook has managed to overtake blogs in popularity. IT experts say the social network dominates the Burmese cyberspace so much so that for its 600,000 to 800,000 users, Facebook is the Internet.
That Deputy Minister for Information and presidential spokesman Ye Htut announced the winning bidders on his Facebook page in June is a testament to how the social network has become a new space to communicate with policymakers.
The journalists’ story
In another apartment-type office in Rangoon, freelance journalist Myint Kyaw is also often on Facebook. Typing on a MacBook (with the sticker “Give Freedom to Media Law, For the People to get truth”) while trying to entertain visitors, he talked about the whirlwind of meetings of the Interim Myanmar Press Council (MPC) composed mostly of journalists and media owners that the government tasked with drafting a media bill last year.
Myint Kyaw and his Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN), a media group with members mostly aged 20 to 30, had also recently launched a signature campaign to urge parliament to revise the Printing and Publishing Enterprise bill that the Lower House approved in July.
Local and international human-rights and media groups then denounced the Ministry of Information (MOI)-drafted bill as a form of prior restraint and censorship.
Gathering over 10,000 signatures in Rangoon, Mandalay and other cities, MJN called on parliament to revise the ministry’s printing bill and to consider the media bill the press council filed before the Upper House in mid-August. The MPC’s bill is a code of conduct covering all forms of media.
MJN took its campaign to cyberspace, discussing the bill in its closed Facebook group and public Facebook fan page. It also uploaded minutes of its meetings and shared the campaign logo on the social networking site.
In late August, the Upper House approved the printing bill with most of the MPC’s recommendations. Press Council secretary and spokesperson Kyaw Min Swe said the parliament deleted the clause on the MOI’s registration officer, authorised to issue and revoke licenses of print publications for violations as vague as “aggrieving races and religions, portraying obscenity, and abetting and instigating crime.”
The bill will be discussed again in the Lower House before parliament makes the final decision.
A Net effect?
For now, it remains unclear how much of the journalists’ initial success can be attributed to online efforts, which were done simultaneously with lobbying offline through MPC press conferences, meetings with the MOI and members of parliament, and critical news reports on the issue.
Days before the sudden passage of the bill, however, Myint Kyaw had explained why it was natural for MJN to bring the media bill debate to Facebook.
“To some extent, because the Internet users, the government officials and some NGOs are there, the online network here is also effective in terms of our needs and our views,” said the chief editor of the now-defunct Yangon Press International, the first news organisation in Burma that operated purely on Facebook.
Myint Kyaw added, “They are doing their own business. They are also aware of what is happening in the media, what are the issues. Facebook, social media, is one of the best media to get in touch with the other sectors.”
In the case of the printing bill, though, Myint Kyaw admitted that the discussion on MJN’s public Facebook page was not vibrant, gathering only a few general statements of support. Other journalists and IT experts themselves say many Burmese netizens prefer talking about entertainment, lifestyle, and the raging ethnic and religious conflicts.
“They think the law is boring,” said Myint Kyaw. “Some journalists, they don’t read about the law. Even the journalists don’t read.”
Nay Phone Latt made the same observation based on MIDO’s efforts to crowdsource online reactions to the technology bills it is helping draft.
“Most of the people in our country and most of the netizens, they don’t know about the law and they think the lawmaking process is not their duty,” Nay Phone Latt said. “Actually it’s not like that. The parliament members are not skillful in the lawmaking process. They don’t know everything so if they do something, we need to participate and if they do the law concerning the ICT, the people from the ICT sector should participate.”
As he takes part in the lawmaking process, the 33-year-old civil engineering graduate has noticed that members of parliament are still stuck in the old paradigm.
“Most of the people in the government are from the military and their thinking is based only on safety,” he said. “Whenever they think of something, what they are thinking is safety and actually to think only of safety is not enough. We should think also of the freedom of expression and freedom of the people.”
But bad habits may be proving hard to break. Under the military junta, the Internet in Burma was in tight control. The government blocked the websites of exiled and international media, and opposition and human rights groups. It also banned social networking sites and Skype. Owners of Internet cafes were even required to take screenshots and get personal information of users.
During politically sensitive times like anniversaries of the 1988 uprising and the Saffron Revolution, the junta slowed down Internet access. A 2010 report of Reporters Without Borders (RWB) and the Burma Media Association also showed that Burma’s ISP system was configured in such a way that different servers catered to the government ministries while another was for civilian users. The report said this gave the military “an exclusive ability to control the country’s Internet system”.
Burma earned the distinction of being an “Enemy of the Internet” in the RWB 2012 list while the U.S.-based Freedom House categorized it as “Not Free” in the same year. This year, the country retained the Freedom House label but made headlines as it moved up ahead of China.
Indeed, despite the reforms, the laws of the past remain in place and Nay Phone Latt is now busy working to help repeal them. With the controversial Electronic Transactions Law, he asks why the government requires users to register every electronic device like radios and phones. “For the telecom company, they will register, but for the end-user, they don’t need to do that kind of thing,” he said.
The blogger and former cybercafé owner is also lobbying for lower penalties and clear definitions. The law imposes a prison sentence of seven to 15 years for the use of the Internet and digital technology to receive or send information relating to state secrets or security.
“What is the meaning of receive?” he asked. “The mail in your inbox is not ‘receive’. Everybody can send to your inbox if they know your e-mail address but it’s not your responsibility. So we need to define what is the meaning of receive, what is the meaning of send, what is the meaning of distribute.”
Besides being wielded against Nay Phone Latt, the Orwellian law made prisoners out of his friend, actor and comedian Zarganar, and 88 Generation activists like Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi.
Nay Phone Latt was reportedly convicted partly for storing a cartoon of General Than Shwe in his e-mail account, and possessing a banned video.
While in prison, he earned the RWB press freedom prize in the Cyber Dissidents category, the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and was part of the 2010 Time Magazine 100 list in the Heroes category.
A web of laws
Thaung Su Nyein, managing director of IT and media company Information Matrix, shares the concerns of Nay Phone Latt and many journalists. After all, he is a member of the Myanmar Press Council, the Myanmar Computer Professionals Association, and the Myanmar Computer Federation, which along with MIDO helps draft ICT bills.
The son of former Foreign Minister Win Aung is the publisher and editor of 7Day News, the Internet Journal, and other publications housed in a new and sprawling office in a city where the influx of foreign investors are jacking up real estate prices.
The different hats Thaung Su Nyein wears allow him to see the connections and implications of the various bills.
“When you give an authority the power to license something, it basically means he also has the power to remove the license,” he remarked. “Even with the best intentions of the current government, who is to say these intentions won’t change in the next few months especially leading up to the elections, so we’re going to make sure those freedoms of expression are kept in place.”
In ensuring free speech, journalists had looked to political parties like Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to champion their cause. Yet contrary to expectations, the repressive version of the printing bill passed the Lower House without any opposition from the democracy icon and her partymates.
The Press Council’s Kyaw Min Swe said the group’s meeting with Suu Kyi and the NLD in Naypyidaw in mid-August was surprising.
“She looked very much like a politician,” he said. “She didn’t say definitely she will support us. She said every issue has a win or lose but ‘I want to see the people win.’ If the people win, she will support. So that’s very general, very popular opinion. It sounds pleasant to hear.”
Asked about the journalists’ criticism, Suu Kyi’s NLD co-founder and adviser, longtime journalist Win Tin, chuckled in his Rangoon home, a small shack on his friend’s property. Five years after his release, he still wore a blue shirt, the colour of his prison uniform. He has vowed not to wear any other colour until all political prisoners are free.
Win Tin was the lone NLD voice rejecting the printing bill. His criticism though does not extend to Suu Kyi and his party. Sitting on a chair underneath an old RWB poster with the greeting, “Happy 75th Birthday Win Tin, in prison for the past 16 years”, the 84-year-old defended his colleagues. He said that Suu Kyi and other members of parliament value press freedom but are not able to read all bills.
But Win Tin admitted that Burma’s main opposition party is trying to address shortcomings in training young leaders, especially in using technology.
“We have this saying that we cannot cut the umbilical cord,” he said. “We have youth group leaders, some of them over 50 years old, grandfathers. So we are trying at the end of the year to have a youth conference. Another thing is now they are limited but very soon, they will use the Internet so it will be helpful to enlighten our party members. We are giving party members media classes, training, and how important it is to give news out.”
Ex-soldiers in parliament
It is not just the NLD that is in need of training and young blood, however. At a bustling newsroom of the DVB Multimedia Group in Rangoon, Toe Zaw Latt wonders if his news organisation can afford to fully operate in Burma.
“We pay very serious attention on what the new broadcasting law will look like,” said the DVB’s Rangoon bureau chief. “Look at the parliament. I doubt many of the parliamentarians know about specific media law, to be frank. They are former soldiers.”
Burma’s Constitution reserves a quarter of seats in parliament for the military while the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is also the ruling party.
In exile, DVB was known as the Democratic Voice of Burma. It had to change its name when it returned home last year. But Toe Zaw Latt said DVB is keeping its Chiang Mai office partly because of legal uncertainty.
[See sidebar story: Back in Burma, exiled media face own transition]
He said technology and lawmakers’ knowledge of it are a key concern. Toe Zaw Latt also said, “If there’s a law saying about some control over content, we have to think about it. Because for example in your content, how many percentage do you have to cover this and that? That is very likely. On top of that, you have to uplink from a particular place. What if something goes wrong and the pictures on television do not come out? People don’t know the reason behind it.”
This is why besides lobbying, training members of parliament and ministry officials in ICT is part of Nay Phone Latt’s advocacy. He and MIDO conduct workshops for government leaders.
But is he taking it to the next level. “We try to make the connection between the government sector and ICT-related NGOs,” he said “For 2015, we will try to push some of the IT guys to run for parliament. It should be like that because they want to make the law and the regulation for the ICT sector but if they do not have enough knowledge, they can’t do that.”
Cybercrime law still needed
Yet while he promotes free speech and the rights of Internet users, Nay Phone Latt believes in the need to regulate the Web. He is pushing for the passage of a cybercrime law to address hacking, phishing, and online theft.
“Cybercrimes will increase in the near future and if somebody committed the cybercrime, there will be victims,” he said. “There are so many people who are online but when they go to the police station, the police will say they don’t know about ICT and they cannot take responsibility. We need a cyber law and cyber police who are very skillful in ICT.”
Zaw Ye Naung, broadcast and online media editor of Eleven Media Group, supports the move. He said the Eleven Media website, one of the most popular news sites in Burma, has been hacked at least four times in the past two years.
In the past, cyberattacks were blamed on the state. But now Zaw Ye Naung said he has no idea who has been targeting Eleven Media’s site and Facebook page, with the IPs traced to places as diverse as Hong Kong, the United States, China, and Russia.
In late August, the Irrawaddy reported that the so-called Blink Hacker Group attacked Burma’s official Southeast Asian (SEA) Games website, as well as that of Eleven Media, the Iron Cross rock band, Myanmar Gamers, Yatanarpon Teleport, Red Link, and the web store of the Irrawaddy news agency.
“What if they hack a payment system?” asked Zaw Ye Naung. “We’re not a payment website, just a news website, but if we were, what do you have to show to your customers? How can we sue the person? Who is he?”
On to self-regulation
But he and other journalists are against government proposals to regulate Facebook to prevent the spread of hate speech amid violence pitting Buddhists against Muslims, and clashes between the military and ethnic groups.
Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut said in July, “Our department is willing to develop regulations and public service media training for that. The government has no intention of blocking people, but we are ready to stop people who are diverting from the law.”
Nay Phone Latt said he does not like government regulation either. “I want to have the regulation by the people, “ he said. “We regulate ourselves. We will check and balance our own society. We will make our own regulation, like a self-regulation system. That is the solution. If we can regulate ourselves, the government need not regulate us.”
He paused, then continued: “Actually, the long-term solution is in the education system. If we can put the ICT sector in the curriculum, every student will know about the nature of the ICT and they will know how they can use ICT effectively and for their own development and for society’s development.”
Nay Phone Latt knows he has his work cut out for him. As it is, the poor infrastructure and various sectors’ lack of awareness and capacity have limited the Internet into being just a supplement to direct lobbying for now.
He and other free speech activists are also aware that like the changes in Burmese cyberspace, the country’s democratic transition is still premature. So even now that he was already running late, he said he would still be taking that bus ride to Naypyidaw.
“I worry for the future,” said Nay Phone Latt. “But at the same time, we try to cooperate with the government and the military and the solution is how we can persuade everybody: the hardliners, the military, everybody. The destiny of our country is how we can persuade them to go forward in the democratic society.”
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[This article was produced for the 2013 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) fellowship program. Ayee Macaraig, a multimedia reporter for the Manila-based Rappler.com, is one of the 2013 fellows. This year’s theme is Freedom of Expression Challenges to Internet Government in Southeast Asia. The article was originally published on www.rappler.com in September 2013.]