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.

Rising Sun

From the window of my hotel room I can look down on a baseball diamond, glowing under the lights at night. I think I’m the only spectator, and I think they might be 12 years old. Their game just ended, and the two teams lined up at the center of the field– not to shake hands, as it turned out; instead, the two lines faced each other, and, in unison, bowed deeply. Then both sides posed together for a photo on the pitcher’s mound, and now they’re combing the infield with rakes like a sand garden.

I’m in Japan to help a group of civil society leaders from Southeast Asia engage at the Asia Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum (APrIGF, if you happen to have an interest in bad acronyms), and the proceedings, covering such issues as the transition to IPv6 and the recent sale of new gTLDs are likely of as little interest to you, dear reader, as they are to some of my compatriots. (Excepting, of course, my own contribution… flatteringly mislabeled at around 27:30 and 1:25:00.)

The group, however, is an interesting one. Take my new Cambodian friend, Nana, who introduces herself as the accountant and assistant at a foundation in Phnom Penh, only later mentioning that she actually has two other part time jobs. And is a grad student in the evening. And that she writes short books to help poor people learn English, but noticed that shops marked up her prices by 150%, so opened her own shop to sell the books, subsidizing the rent by also selling shoes and handbags. And that at night, she hosts a call-in radio program that reaches… a million people, seeking her advice. Also she’s 25. I’ll eat my hat if she’s not president in 15 years.

I’ve hardly had a moment to see the city, but I have had the distinct pleasure of eating three meals each day, and the gastronomic tourism has been worth the trip in itself: raw fish, broiled fish, pickled vegetables, fried squid… At the conference, they give us lunch tickets, and we’re supposed to check off which of the half-dozen options we’d prefer. Confusion reigns, however, because “Pasta with Meat Sauce” was mistranslated as “Octopus with Meat Sauce,” “Eggplant” was confused with “Beef,” and the vegetarian option was somehow labelled “Stir-Fried Liver and Vegetables.” All pretty tasty, though, for the unpicky eater.

Saturday evening, I hopped off the Tokyo subway at an arbitrary stop, the better to know the Japanese people. Fast walkers. Obedient at crosswalks. Ineffably polite. I grew peckish and sought refreshment: “Bubble Bar, 8th Floor” read the sign outside one building. Everything in Tokyo is stacked at least five high.

I took the elevator and stepped out into a wood-paneled room, whiskey bottles lining the wall, a row of middle-aged Japanese, mostly men, at the bar, and others clustered in counsel around tables. As I emerged, the room, as though drawing on cliché, fell instantly, totally silent, and twenty blank faces turned my direction. Someone coughed, I grinned weakly, and a young woman scurried over from behind the bar. She bowed briskly, and posed a smiling question in Japanese. I continued grinning weakly. “Beer?”

“First time?” She asked, taking the hint, and I nodded. She began chattering with the patrons, pointing directorially, and they shuffled themselves to make a seat for me at the end of the bar. I sat, looked down the line, and ten heads, craning around each other, looked back, expressions now ranging from confusion, to disgust, to flabbergasted pleasure. I gave my toothiest “I’m just a big stupid white guy trying not to offend anyone” smile, and about half of them returned it. Generous, I’d say.

Miwa, my colleague and Japanese interlocutor, later explained that I had wandered into a sort of Japanese speakeasy: a place where the same group likely gathered, night after night, year after year. “First time?” was probably not an honest question. As I sat, the Bubble Bar proprietor sauntered over, dishrag on his shoulder, and explained “his system,” which included an extravagant cover charge. Not wanting to create further disturbance, I meekly handed over 25 bucks for my miserable Suntory Lager.

As I sipped, a stocky, middle aged man, his sunken eyes darkly circled, racoonlike, stood, and began reading from a document. Every few sentences, the crowd would cheer and applaud, and he would place a medal around someone’s neck. And it was a gallery of rogues: One man, his face puffy and droopy, eyes invisible, with a bouffant of thinning dyed red hair on his head. Another with the face of Kim Jong Il and the staccato laugh of Porky the Pig. Ultimately, the sunken-eyed man appeared to award the grand prize to himself. I was mercifully ignored, and made my escape as discreetly as possible, though I was noticed by one woman who, her face beaming with excited delight, waved frantically as I stepped back into the elevator.

Looking down at my ballfield, the outfield lights are off now, and with his shadow long behind second base, a lone ballplayer is still circling the infield, straw broom in hand, meticulously sweeping dirt off the outfield grass, back to where it belongs.

For God and Country: Notes on Filipino Nationalism

Despite my apparent popularity as I walk any street on the isle of Cebu– “hello!” “good morning!” “how are you!”– the white man a has a checkered history in this part of the world. Magellan was the first to arrive in 1521; he was promptly beheaded by Chief Lapu-Lapu, and his crew excused themselves in short order. The next Spaniards arrived some decades later, and had what must have been the surprise of their lives when the native Cebuanos whipped out a figurine of the Santo Niño that Magellan’s crew had left behind in their haste.

Taking it as a sign, apparently, the Spaniards set about their missionary business with diligence, and had a terrific run over the subsequent 300-odd years until William McKinley took the restive Philippines off their hands. Washington was planning to liberate the country until a bevy of Republican Senators intervened and, well, actually maybe we’d better hang on to those islands after all. Following further decades of colonial oppression and attendant rebellion, MacArthur fled before the Japanese, who got their wartime use out of the Philippines most notably as a death-march locale and a favored source for “comfort women.” Then the Americans came back and finally made good on their promise: Filipinos walked free in 1946.

∞  –  ∞  –  ∞  –  ∞  –  ∞

Hanging out the second story window of a professional development center in Cebu City a banner congratulates “our students who will be leaving to work in the UK and Canada!” It’s a commonly felt sentiment here. “Honestly, there’s nobody in this country who doesn’t look at that and feel some envy,” said my friend Steve (a Filipino). In the Philippines, it seems, there is no higher mark of achievement than to leave the Philippines. The government actively promotes it, urging people to move abroad if they can, and don’t forget to write– overseas Filipinos send home billions of dollars annually, making up a full 10% of the national GDP. Even the Pope has chimed in, discouraging birth control in the Philippines because human bodies are the country’s biggest export. (This in an increasingly overpopulated country: one of the only net rice importers in Asia.) Continue reading “For God and Country: Notes on Filipino Nationalism”

Hot : The Sun :: Spicy : _____

The Oxford English Dictionary offers a helpful note differentiating “hot” from “spicy.” Fire is hot, as are bunsen burners, the surfaces of stars and the gates of hell. Spicy on the other hand, says Noah Webster, more aptly refers to “Thai food.” He’s not wrong. The Thais take their spice seriously: no dish is complete without a few peppers chopped, mashed, or minced, and no table is properly set without a dish of pepper flakes for added heat. When Thais go out for Japanese food, wasabi is not stirred into the soy sauce; rather, a dash of soy sauce is stirred into the wasabi.

As painfully conscientious and accommodating hosts, the Thais are acutely aware that the Western palate can’t typically keep up; more than once I’ve been regretfully informed that there’s nothing on the menu weak enough for me. I of course insist, and sometimes have to do battle– all but sign a waiver– just to get my dishes normally spiced. Because, damn, it’s delicious.

Now, I’m not particularly passionate about spicy food.  Hot sauces give me more pain than pleasure, and I was never the kid munching on Hot Fries just to prove he could. Ordering wings? Great, I’ll have the mild, double blue cheese, double ranch. Call it cowardice, call it what you will, it just ain’t my jam.

Thai spice is different. It still hurts– it definitely still hurts, and makes your nose run and your eyes water– but it’s used so artfully, and the spice is so much more flavorful than vinegary Tabasco… it’s kind of worth it. Every bite of a cashew chicken stir fry scorched my face off recently, but I couldn’t stop eating it, and when I came out the other side, I emerged not just stronger but fat and happy, too. Over the past six months, I’ve adjusted to it somewhat, and it was with a degree of satisfaction that I recently watched a visiting American colleague cry into his papaya salad while I munched happily away.

Now and then, though, things get a little intense for even the Thais themselves. At lunch, I watched my friendly coworker Sai frantically wave her hands, trying to get a breeze going in her mouth after a too-aggressive bite of a five-alarm green bean and shrimp paste salad. Another time at dinner, a more stalwart friend swallowed a bite of spiced crab, shot a wide-eyed look of betrayal at the waiter, and then conversation fell silent for a few minutes as he gazed off somewhere in the middle distance, a look on his face as though recalling a cruel memory, tears streaming down his face.

Of course, it’s not all flame and fireworks. If, sometime after next week, you ask me, “So, Sam, gosh, I’m sure a million people have already asked you this, but, shoot, how was Thailand?” I will almost certainly blurt out something weirdly desperate-sounding about craving the 90 cent bowls of chicken soup, or the duck noodles, or the minced pork, fried pork, grilled pork, delicious pork. The Thais take their food seriously, and for that, I am thankful:


The Arkansas of Thailand

On Friday I was invited out for food and drinks by my colleague, who, helpfully, goes by the English name “Sandwich.” Sandwich goes out on Fridays with his buddies, and he invited me along, deep and wide language barrier notwithstanding. Fortunately for me, one of his pals, a guy named Gai, had spent some time in the U.S., and spoke a bit of English. “What did you do in America,” I asked?

Gai lived in Springdale, Arkansas, working as an ice cream truck driver. He’s in the desserts business here in Kamphaeng Phet, running the black grass jelly factory (Made from twigs! Tastes… like twigs!) he inherited from his father, so peddling Chaco Tacos could perhaps be construed as relevant work experience. He and four other drivers covered the whole tri-state area (that would be northwest Arkansas, southwest Missouri and eastern Oklahoma) and Gai learned two great truths about America during his time. The first, and more enduring, is that the jingle of the ice cream truck is effective at luring nubile teenage girls from poolside to sidewalk wearing naught but their bikinis and the glimmering sheen of perspiration. This was something of a revelation for Gai, and a while a great boost to his enthusiasm for the work, caused major interference with his focus on the bottom line, and led to declining sales as he cruised through certain particularly fruitful neighborhoods hour after hour, day after day, his ice cream truck jingle turned up to eleven.

The second revelation he put to me this way:

“Sam, have you ever peed in a bottle?”

“No, Gai, I don’t believe I have.”

“I think all Americans pee in bottles because stopping at the gas station is a waste of time.”

And now we all know something more about what goes on inside ice cream trucks.

He worked at this job for four months. Then he spent three days in New York, two days in Las Vegas, and then he came home to Kamphaeng Phet.

Returning the quizzical look I had given him, Gai asked: “What are YOU doing in Kamphaeng Phet?” Not selling SnoCones, no, but my six month interlude in the one of Thailand’s flyover states is perhaps no more absurd than Gai’s adventure. If you sat down to match up the Thai states with their U.S. analogues– Phuket is the Florida of Thailand, Mae Hong Son is surely the Alaska, maybe Ayutthaya is Massachusetts– Kamphaeng Phet would be lucky to be paired up with Arkansas. More likely, it would be left off the list, among the 26 leftover Thai provinces after the fifty slots were filled.

To the tourist, this town is notable only for its location alongside Highway 1, exactly halfway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. A convenient stopover, says Lonely Planet, which halfheartedly describes Kamphaeng Phet as “one of the more pleasant provincial capitals,” makes brief mention of this city’s ancient ruins, and leaves it, more or less, at that. A hundred kilometers to the east is Sukhothai, also about halfway between Thailand’s two big tourist destinations, and home to the spectacular ruins of Thailand’s ancient capital. That, needless to say, is where the tourists stop over on their north-south journeys. Visit the ancient temples in the Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park any weekday, and you’re liable to have the entire park (“A UNESCO World Heritage Site!,” screams every government billboard in the province.) entirely to yourself.

If you’re Thai, though, those ruins actually mean something. Kamphaeng Phet, which means “Diamond Wall,” was installed on the banks of the River Ping sometime in the 15th century as the northeastern outpost of the Sukhothai Kingdom. This diamond wall was built to keep out the Burmese, and with only a few lapses (e.g. the 1767 sacking of Ayutthaya– oops), Kamphaeng Phet got the job done. So I feel stirrings of pride when I board the bus in Bangkok and tell my fellow travelers that, no, I’m not headed to Chiang Mai, I’ll be getting off in Kamphaeng Phet.  “Ah, Kamphaeng,” they say, with the same steely nostalgia of a Civil War buff recalling Pickett’s Charge. “The wall.”