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A Whisper from Burma .....
Democracy of Internet threatens
In Burma, Net access can be a path to
prison. But some take the risk.
By Matthew McAllester
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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."