Burma: Constructive Engagement in Cyberspace?

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As one of the few countries in the world still lacking direct Internet access, Burma is a place where propaganda and rumors abound and hard facts remain elusive. The ruling military junta which renamed the country `Myanmar,' is bent on silencing democracy activists and subjugating autonomy-minded ethnic minority groups. With non-Burmans comprising almost half the population of Burma, ethnic minority political organizations have demanded a federal state structure or outright independence. Yet they have no chance to express their views publicly in Burma as all forms of media are controlled by the military. Burman and ethnic minority exiles abroad, however, have been able to use the Internet to expose the military's abuses, promote their concerns and demands, and network with other concerned organizations.

Background History of Burma

Some areas of present-day Burma were never under Burman rule and only became a part of Burma when the British drew fixed boundaries around the country a century ago. Since that period, `Burman' has been used to refer to the ethnic group, and `Burmese' to all citizens of Burma. During the democratic period, from 1948 to 1962, ethnic armies formed and fought for greater autonomy. Burmese military leaders then used the excuse of instability in the country to justify a military coup and the imposition of martial law.

After General Ne Win overthrew the elected government in 1962, he instituted a repressive system of control and sought to eliminate the ethnic political organizations and their armies, rather than recognize their demands. Gradually removing most members of ethnic minorities from positions of power within the central government, he also sought to `Burmanize' the population. The military regime indoctrinated the people with the concept that federalism was tantamount to anarchy. Moreover, because of strict censorship laws, ethnic groups were not allowed to publish their political or historical works in Burmese or their own languages. The gap in understanding between the majority Burmans and the ethnic minorities grew, as the Burmans knew little about what the minority groups were really fighting for. While members of ethnic minority groups living in central Burma became absorbed into Burmese culture, in the border areas, nationalist ethnic organizations continued to fight for their territory and the preservation of their cultures.

In 1988, people of all classes, professions, and ethnic groups participated in massive anti-government protests. The military responded by shooting hundreds of protesters, and a new military clique which called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), took power. The SLORC scheduled elections for May 1990 and numerous new political organizations were formed that included ethnic minority parties. However, even before the election was held, the SLORC began arresting the most active and talented political challengers, including Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma's independence hero, General Aung San. When the SLORC's party was overwhelmingly defeated by Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, the SLORC refused to hand over power.

The military junta released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in 1995 and through force or persuasion, the SLORC has managed to achieve cease-fires with 15 armed organizations. Still, the SLORC refuses to step down, asserting that only the military can ensure national unity and solidarity.

The SLORC Says `No' to the Net

The SLORC maintains its power not only through military might, but also by controlling access to information. Although the junta recognizes the importance of communications technology for increasing foreign investment and trade, their fear that the people will rise up again has led them to impose severe restrictions on most forms of communication. Newspapers, TV, and local radio are all controlled by the government. Telephones are tapped, mail is opened, and all fax machines must be registered with the government.

Access to e-mail and the Internet could bring in uncensored information and the chance to network with pro-democracy activists outside the country. To prevent this, in September 1996, the junta decreed that anyone found in possession of an unregistered fax or modem could be imprisoned for up to 15 years. At the time of writing, the SLORC has not permitted direct Internet service in Burma. There are a few e-mail service providers which call to systems outside the country to upload and download mail once a day, however, only foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), international businesses, and selected members of the military regime have access to these servers. The rest of the people of Burma can only read about e-mail and the Internet in local computer magazines.

Use of the Internet by Exile Groups

Although people inside Burma cannot use the Internet, Burmese in exile have been quick to take advantage of e-mail and the Internet, both to distribute information in a timely fashion and to organize resistance activities. The SLORC has realized that while they can largely control what information comes into Burma, they cannot control what is being said outside the country.

Exiles who immigrated to Western countries and Japan in the late 1980s or early 1990s, found themselves immersed in a computer culture. Those who went back to school quickly picked up how to use e-mail from free classes offered at their universities or informal teaching by peers. In Thailand, e-mail access has been available, although quite expensive, since the early 1990s. But because few Thais were using e-mail, particularly in the border areas, members of the exile community were not exposed to the Internet. Even if they had heard of the Internet, they had only vague ideas of what it was all about.

When the staff of the Burma Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing international awareness of conditions in Burma, tried to introduce the idea of e-mail and the Internet to ethnic organizations with offices in Thailand, there was little interest at first. However, after seeing how e-mail worked and being urged by colleagues in Japan and the West to get `on-line,' some young Burmese, Karen, and Mon computer experts asked for help getting e-mail accounts. When other young exiles saw their peers using the Internet, they asked them what they were doing. Soon, everyone wanted an account.

The Burma Project and other foreign NGOs have provided funding for Burmese political organizations to purchase computers, modems, and e-mail accounts. At first, learning how to use e-mail was done informally by members of Western NGOs and foreigners volunteering or doing research along the border. In the past two years, however, teaching about e-mail and the Internet has shifted to members of the exile groups, who not only instruct other members of their own organizations, but also individuals from other organizations.

In particular, members of Green November 32, an indigenous organization which focuses on human rights and environmental issues, have traveled the border holding month-long computer classes that include an introduction to e-mail and the web. They also do private consultations, helping people upgrade their skills and solve computer-related problems. A self-taught Karen, who learned mostly by studying computer books and magazines, has provided similar assistance for Karens and Burmese living in his border town.

Meanwhile, Mon professionals and students who were raised in Thailand have worked with Mon from Burma to show them how to browse the web and access Mon home-pages. One young Mon from Burma, now living in Thailand, has gone on to develop 17 Mon fonts. While it took him two months to perfect the first one, he can now develop a new font in two days. The fonts are used for Mon language publications produced outside Burma and sent into Mon state. In the future, they will also be used on the Internet.

Ethnic minority groups based in the border areas of Burma and abroad use e-mail and the Internet for three primary purposes: first to distribute news about abuses in their areas, to network with others, and to educate outsiders about their histories, cultures, and political demands. Exile offices of armed resistance groups such as the Karen National Union, the Karenni National Progressive Party, and the Shan United Revolutionary Army regularly post news on listservs and the Internet about human rights abuses committed by SLORC soldiers in their territories. Written reports are sent from the border areas to offices outside Burma, where they are translated into English and e-mailed around the world. This news is essential because it is virtually impossible for journalists to travel to sensitive areas in Burma, particularly the ethnic minority homelands in the border regions.

A good example of this flow of information is the mass executions of Shan villagers by SLORC soldiers which took place in Shan state in June and July 1997. The SLORC is attempting to wipe out Shan communities in order to cut off supplies and information to the Shan resistance groups. Few people in Burma or outside the country knew about these atrocities until the Shan Human Rights Foundation was able to post reports based on eyewitness accounts on the `burmanet' listserver and activist Burma web pages.

Established in 1993, the burmanet listserver has become a popular forum for posting news by Burman and ethnic minority groups. With a subscriber list of almost 1,000 that includes foreign embassies, government officials, NGOs, scholars, activists, reporters, and the various political organizations, burmanet provides a place for the often underfinanced and understaffed ethnic organizations to distribute the latest news quickly and cheaply.

Moreover, news from the border areas is often picked up from the Internet, translated into Burmese, and then broadcast back into Burma by radio stations based outside the country such as the Voice of America, British Broadcasting Corporation, Radio Free Asia, and the Democratic Voice of Burma. Thus, the Internet serves as a critical, if indirect link in channeling information from remote areas of Burma back into the rest of the country.

Ethnic minority groups and Burmese pro-democracy groups also use the Internet for networking and international campaigns. Activist groups based in other countries rely on the resistance groups to provide them with documentation and photographs of human rights abuses within Burma to use in their campaigns for sanctions, selective purchasing laws, and tourism boycotts. Some exiled Mon and Karen have set up their own homepages with photographs and information about the SLORC's use of forced labor and forced relocation campaigns in their areas, as well as about the plight of refugees in camps along the Thai border. These homepages also contain links to Free Burma sites with information about how to participate in international campaigns against the SLORC and where to send letters of appeal for the protection of refugees.

The Free Burma Coalition, which includes ethnic Burmans, ethnic minorities, and foreigners from around the world, has also extensively relied on the Internet to develop a network of college and community groups interested in Burma. Because Internet use is comparatively cheap and fast, it has provided the ideal space for mobilizing people who are geographically separated by thousands of miles.

Members of the ethnic minority groups have also used e-mail and websites to distribute information about their histories, cultures, and political demands. For instance, the Mon homepage (see page 33 for their web address) includes photographs from Mon National Day, Mon dancers, a brief history of the Mon, Mon linguistic information, and press releases from the New Mon State Party, the political wing of the Mon resistance army.

One Rohingya exile regularly posts background information about ethnic groups in Arakan State (also known as Rakhine) on an exile Burmese community listserver, `maykha-l' (see above). Communal tensions between two ethnic groups in Arakan state, the Rohingya Muslims and Arakanese Buddhists, have been exacerbated by the SLORC and thousands of Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh. By increasing Burmese peoples' knowledge about the two groups, there is a better chance of being able to peacefully reconcile the tensions in the future.

Conclusion

In the mid 1990s, Burmese activists started two listservers: `free-burma' and `maykha.' Another listserver, `burmanet-l,' features newspaper and magazine articles, as well as updates from exile groups based in the border areas around Burma. The SLORC responded in 1997 by creating its own listserver, `Myanmar-list.' The SLORC posts `information sheets' and news articles from the state-controlled paper, the New Light of Myanmar, on its own listserver, as well as the other listservers which are clearly anti-SLORC. Activists often respond critically to the SLORC postings and SLORC personnel occasionally answer back.

In the past four years, Burmese activists have assembled numerous homepages with news from Burma, information about rallies and boycotts, liberation songs, and speeches by Aung San Suu Kyi. In 1996, the SLORC developed its own webpage, `Myanmar.com,' which features tourist and cultural information, as well as diatribes against Aung San Suu Kyi and the foreigners who have supported the movement.

The Internet has given members of the ethnic minority groups of Burma an opportunity to explain their cultures and their demands for minority rights, both to Burmans and to the international community. Several of the ethnic minority groups from Burma, have realized the potential of the Internet and have been empowered by the new-found opportunity to voice their concerns publicly and freely.

Although the SLORC has still refused to engage either the pro-democracy, or ethnic minority resistance groups in a genuine political dialogue inside the country, a dialogue of sorts is taking place on the Internet. The SLORC feels compelled to respond to news stories and accusations posted on the listservers, and at least some personnel are regularly reading the statements and arguments of the resistance organizations posted on listservers and websites. The openness and freedom which characterizes the Internet is in direct contrast with the political climate in Burma. Hopefully, as the SLORC and the opposition groups continue to interact indirectly through the Internet, a greater willingness to engage in dialogue within the country will develop.

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