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A Whisper from Burma .....

Democracy of Internet threatens
                              some nations

                        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
                    get e-mail?

                    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
                    different experiences.

                    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
                    at home.

                    "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."