Burma Steps Warily into the Digital Age

This was originally posted at FreedomHouse.org.

A Burmese human rights activist told me a story about the last time his office was raided, two years ago. Government security forces kicked down his door and stormed the office, with a mandate to seize the organization’s electronic data. Not exactly savvy in computer hardware, the raiders grabbed only the monitors and marched out. A few days later, the activist was hauled before a judge and accused of deleting all his data. He was convicted and imprisoned.

I recently spent 10 days in Rangoon, Burma’s largest city, working with human rights activists, student organizers, independent journalists, and former political prisoners to help them protect their electronic data and communications. For most, I was starting with the basics, though even they had more technical knowledge than the security forces storming my friend’s office. In Burma, digital literacy is low, internet connections are slow, and fewer people are plugged in than in almost any country on earth. The latest figures on internet and mobile telephone use from the International Telecommunication Union are over two years old, but the grim picture they paint is not yet obsolete: in 2010, 0.2 percent of the Burmese population were internet users, and only one in a hundred owned a mobile phone. Those numbers have improved, but for nearly everyone in this very poor country, such technologies are still inaccessible.

The major obstacles to broader, speedier connectivity in Burma have been—and continue to be—poverty and government policy. The handful of internet service providers operating in Burma are controlled by a cabal of political cronies, and the government has set high prices to prevent its citizens from accessing the global information network. Until recently, installing a home or office broadband connection cost a ludicrous $1,500—this in a country where the gross domestic product per capita is about $1,300, and a third of the population lives below the poverty line. In the past year, connection fees have dropped to a still outlandish $700. For those who can afford a connection, prices for ongoing access remain high: unlimited web access costs about $155 per month. These connections are agonizingly slow, reminiscent of the days of the 56k modem. Outside Rangoon and Mandalay, Burma’s second-largest city, high-speed internet access is rare, if not altogether unavailable.

The government has even tighter control of the mobile phone market. Myanmar Post and Telecommunication (MPT), a state-owned entity, is the sole mobile network operator. As with the internet, prices are set to prevent access for all but the most affluent. While a SIM card in neighboring Thailand costs less than $1.50, acquiring a GSM SIM in Burma costs at least $250—a very high bar for most Burmese, though a dramatic drop from the $500 it cost until recently.

The recent price cuts for internet access and mobile connectivity indicate a shift in policy at the highest levels. As President Thein Sein seeks to build a wealthier, stronger state that is prepared to prosper in the 21st century through a series of gradual reforms, it is safe to assume that the latest pricing changes are just the initial steps toward a telecommunications industry that will be no more heavily regulated than elsewhere in Southeast Asia. International telecom firms have been among the many foreign companies anticipating a “gold rush” opportunity in Burma, and impending investment in communications infrastructure is sure to increase the speed of internet access, as policy shifts bring prices down to global levels.

Also in the past year, the government has stopped blocking access to most online media, including many international and regional outlets, and ended direct censorship of domestic media. Some Burmese outlets, including the online news site Mizzima, have recently returned from exile and opened offices in Rangoon. A small community of Burmese bloggers has been active since the middle of the last decade. Several were arrested following the uprising in 2007 for posting political content, but most were released in the general amnesty in January. This group includes the well-known blogger and activist Nay Phone Latt, who was notoriously arrested on charges of being a “blocker”—the government was unfamiliar with the term “blogger,” and presumed that he was somehow blocking economic activity. Today Nay Phone Latt is among the leaders of a younger generation of activists seeking to use the web to advocate for political progress.

The stories of Nay Phone Latt and the monitor-seizing government agents depict a technically incompetent government that is incapable of effective monitoring and surveillance. This is a fairly accurate picture. Most past cases of the government monitoring electronic communications have involved security forces compelling activists to hand over the passwords to their e-mail accounts, effectively at gunpoint.

But it would be imprudent to expect this incompetence to continue. In the past, the Burmese generals had little need to surreptitiously monitor dissidents. If they wanted to arrest, interrogate, or imprison a suspected activist, they would simply give the order. As the government pursues a degree of internal and international legitimacy, however, it will almost certainly seek more subtle ways to gather intelligence about the activities of citizens. Control of information and communication technologies offers an outstanding opportunity for covert surveillance, and the government is sure to master the art in the coming years.

The government already has mechanisms in place to facilitate monitoring of online behavior. For those Burmese who sign up for internet access, buy time at an internet café, or purchase a SIM card for a mobile phone, the government imposes strict registration requirements, collecting the name and other identifying information of the customer. Between government control of the networks and these registration rules, internet and especially mobile communications are largely exposed to the authorities, and must be considered a serious security risk for political activists.

A cynical—though probably realistic—interpretation of the new moves toward broader, lower-cost access might posit that the Burmese government foresees such a bounty of online and mobile surveillance (as already practiced in countries like China and Iran) that the expected political cost of expanding access has dropped to nil. But for those activists with the skills to ensure a degree of digital security, the falling cost and rising speed of internet access will be a boon to their efforts at protest, organizing, and advocacy. In a country so long cut off from the world, the greater opportunity to access information and express opinions is an immense and positive change.

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