BRAZIL FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net BURMA 2009 POPULATION: 53.4 million INTERNET FREEDOM n/a Not INTERNET PENETRATION: 1 percent STATUS Free WEB 2.0 APPLICATIONS BLOCKED: Yes Obstacles to Access n/a SUBSTANTIAL POLITICAL CENSORSHIP: Yes Limits on Content n/a BLOGGERS/ONLINE USERS ARRESTED: Yes Violations of User Rights n/a PRESS FREEDOM STATUS: Not Free Total n/a INTRODUCTION While the Burmese military junta is interested in expanding and exploiting information and communication technologies (ICTs) for business and propaganda purposes, it makes aggressive attempts to regulate access to the internet and digital media, control content, and punish citizens for any online activity that is seen as detrimental to regime security. The government uses a wide range of means to restrict internet freedom, including legal and regulatory barriers, infrastructural and technical constraints, and coercive measures such as intimidation and lengthy prison sentences. Although the authorities lack the capacity to pervasively enforce all restrictions, the impact of sporadic implementation and the ensuing chilling effect is profound.
There has been gradual improvement in access to ICTs over the past three years, but the junta has also aggressively targeted users who are involved in antigovernment activities or have contact with foreign news media. Since its crackdown on a wave of September protests led by Buddhist monks, the military regime has more strictly enforced licensing rules that require the owners of cybercafes, where most Burmese users obtain access, to monitor users’ screens and cooperate with criminal investigations. Both online and offline censorship and information controls were increased surrounding the November 7, national elections,1 which secured a sweeping victory for the military-backed party and were Ba Kaung, “Junta Starts New Censorship Rules,” Irrawaddy, June 28, 2010, http://irrawaddy.org/article.phpart_id=18823;
Reporters Without Borders, “No Credible Elections Without Media Freedom,” news release, March 26, 2010, http://en.rsf.org/burma-no-credible-elections-without-26-03-2010,36847.html.
BURMA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net widely condemned as flawed.2 Censorship was further reinforced after the release of prodemocracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest on November 13.
The state-owned Myanmar Post and Telecommunications (MPT) company launched the first official e-mail service in November 1997. The 2002 establishment of the first private internet-service provider (ISP), Bagan Cybertech, helped to increase the number of users in the country, though the company was later taken over by the junta. By 2010, there were over 520 registered cybercafes in Burma, located mainly in a few major cities.3 The government’s first attempt to restrict internet freedom was the 1996 Myanmar Computer Science Development Law,4 which made possession of an unregistered computer modem and connection to unauthorized computer networks punishable by up to 15 years in prison.Other laws and actions since then have furthered the government’s efforts to clamp down on unsupervised internet use.
OBSTACLES TO ACCESS Internet access and usage are extremely limited due to government restrictions, lack of infrastructure, and widespread poverty. The number of internet users is difficult to ascertain, as independent surveys are not available, and the government offers little credible reporting on these statistics.6 According to the International Telecommunication Union, there were 110,000 internet users as of 2009, amounting to 0.2 percent of the population.MPT reports that there are 400,000 internet users in Burma.The price of a private internet connection is prohibitively expensive in a country where an estimated 32 percent of the population lives below the poverty line,9 though there is significant regional variation.10 According to the International Monetary Fund, the gross “UN envoy: Myanmar must address criticism of polls”, November 28, 2010, Associated Press, http://www.salon.com/wires/allwires/2010/11/28/D9JP4BMO0_as_myanmar_un/index.html.
Author’s interview with a weekly journal editor who oversees internet-related reporting and asked to remain anonymous, December 29, 2010.
In June 1989, the military junta changed the English rendering of the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar. Democracy activists and their foreign supporters, including the U.S. government, have continued using Burma.
Computer Science Development Law, September 20, 1996, Chapter X, available at https://www.myanmarisp.com/ICTnews/law10-96.
Bharat Book Bureau, “Myanmar (Burma)—Telecoms, Mobile & Internet,” September 2010, http://www.bharatbook.com/Market-Research-Reports/Myanmar-Burma-Telecoms-Mobile-Internet.html.
International Telecommunication Union (ITU), “ICT Statistics 2009—Internet,” http://www.itu.int/ITUD/icteye/Indicators/Indicators.aspx#.
“Over 400,000 People Using Internet in Burma” [Myanmar Naing Ngan Twin Internet Ah Thone Pyuit Thu Lay Thein Kyaw Shi Nay Pi], Eleven News, July 2010, http://www.news-eleven.com/index.phpoption=com_content&view=article&id=4000:201007-28-06-40-27&catid=42:2009-11-10-07-36-59&Itemid=112.
World Bank, “Data: Myanmar,” http://data.worldbank.org/country/myanmar, accessed September 20, 2010.
For example, Chin State has the highest level of poverty, at more than 70 percent. These figures are likely to be conservative, as they are based on data collected before significant increases in fuel prices in October 2005 and August 2007, and an inflationary public-sector salary hike in April 2006. Charles Petrie, End of Mission Report: UN Resident and Humanitarian BURMA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net domestic product per capita was US$469 for 2010.11 By comparison, the installation cost for household broadband access is approximately US$1,500, while the monthly fee for service ranges from US$45 to US$130. Other high-speed internet services recently introduced cost somewhat less (approximately US$900 for installation), but remain beyond the reach of most Burmese.12 In addition, as part of the process for registering an internet connection, consumers must present their national ID, as well proof of police clearance, and a personal affidavit affirming they are not involved in political activities. Because of such barriers, a majority of users rely on cybercafes, where access typically costs about 300 to 600 kyats (US$0.30 to US$0.60) per hour. The shops usually charge an extra 100 kyats (US$0.10) per hour if a power outage occurs and they must rely on generators, which is very common in Burma due to a general lack of electricity. In some cities, the access price may be 1,000 to 1,500 kyats (US$1 to US$2) per hour. The government pledged to extend ADSL broadband coverage to every township by 2006, but implementation has been limited, with service reaching Pyinmana, adjacent to the new administrative capital of Naypyidaw, only in 2007.In 2008, MPT announced that ADSL service was available in 36 cities across Burma.Despite such expansion, internet access has not grown dramatically in practice because of high price and power shortages.
There were 0.90 mobile-phone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in 2009,15 and 1.fixed telephone lines per 100 inhabitants.16 Phones are concentrated in large cities like Rangoon and Mandalay, whereas the vast majority of the population lives in underserved rural areas.17 In 2010, mobile-phone service using the CDMA standard was introduced in Rangoon, Mandalay, and Naypyidaw at a rate of 500,000 kyats (US$500). Cheaper prepaid GSM mobile SIM cards (US$20) were available beginning in 2009, but the buyer was required to present identification documents, and the seller to retain copies. As many SIM card vendors avoided such regulations, in early November 2010, the authorities ordered an end to the sale of unregistered SIM cards.18 By late November 2010, such sales had generally ceased, though a $50 CDMA pre-paid card remained on the market at year’s end.
Coordinator, UNDP Resident Representative for Myanmar, 2003–2007, April 1, 2008, available at http://www.pyinnya.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/06/end-of-mission-report-by-charles-petrie-april-2008.pdf.
International Monetary Fund, “World Economic Outlook Database,” April 2010, http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2010/01/weodata/index.aspx.
“Fibre-optic net in Yangon ‘soon’: MPT”, Myanmar Times, September 6-12, 2010, http://www.mmtimes.com/2010/info/539/tech002.html.
“Pyinmana Hooked In To ADSL” [Ye Htet and Thein Win Nyo], Myanmar Times, July 1, 2007, http://www.mmtimes.com/no372/n019.htm.
“The Internet in Burma (1998–2009),” Mizzima News, December 24, 2009, http://www.mizzima.com/research/3202-theinternet-in-burma-1998-2009-.html.
ITU, “ICT Statistics 2009—Fixed Telephone Lines,” http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/icteye/Indicators/Indicators.aspx# ITU, “ICT Statistics 2009—Mobile Cellular Subscriptions,” http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/icteye/Indicators/Indicators.aspx#.
Telecommunications Research Project, Burma (Myanmar) (Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong, October 2007), http://www.trp.trpc.com.hk/publications/myanmar.pdf “SIM card sales blocked in Rangoon”, Democratic Voice of Burma, November 6, 2010, http://www.dvb.no/elections/simcard-sales-blocked-in-rangoon/12622.
BURMA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net The government exerts control over the internet infrastructure in two ways: total shutdowns, and temporary reductions in bandwidth to slow the flow of information. During the 2007 street protests, the junta completely shut down internet connectivity from September 29 to October 4. From October 4 to 15, the government introduced a “regulated shutdown,” meaning connectivity was available only on one ISP, or during latenight curfew hours.19 According to ICT experts in Burma, the state-controlled ISPs occasionally apply bandwidth caps to prevent the sharing of video and image files,particularly during politically sensitive events, or whenever the junta perceives a risk of damaging information flowing out of the country. For instance, the junta has disabled the mobile-phone network in areas where protests or bomb blasts have taken place.21 Most recently, internet connections met with interruption between late October and the end of December 2010, surrounding the November elections. Users found networks running at a slow speed and intermittently being completely unavailable. During the week prior to the polls and on election day itself, users reported being completely unable to upload image or video files. In provincial areas, connectivity was worse than in Rangoon.22 The Myanmar teleport attributed some of the interference to external cyber attacks.The junta sporadically blocks access to Yahoo! Mail, MSN Mail, Gmail, the videosharing site YouTube, the messaging feature of the social-networking site Facebook, Google’s Blogspot, and the microblogging service Twitter.24 Several users reported difficulties accessing their Gmail accounts in the run-up to the November elections.
However, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) systems including Skype are available. The catalysts for blocks on such applications are not always clear, as censorship policies are generally erratic and opaque. In October 2010, the regime launched the Yatanarpon Teleport (YTP) web portal, which was set to offer e-mail and messenger services, a socialnetworking platform, a blog-hosting application, discussion forums, and online shopping and banking. By attracting users to this system of domestic services, which in many ways resembles a national intranet, the regime apparently aims to reduce reliance on well-known international services such as Yahoo! Mail, Google’s Gmail, and various free blog-hosting sites and discussion forums. OpenNet Initiative, “Pulling the Plug: A Technical Review of the Internet Shutdown in Burma,” OpenNet Initiative Bulletin, November 2007, http://opennet.net/research/bulletins/013.
Author’s interviews with a weekly journal editor who oversees internet-related reporting and an information-technology engineer working in the private sector, September 23 and 25, 2010.
Author’s interview with a local journalist from Rangoon, September 22, 2010.
Author’s interview with two cybercafe owners, five regular internet users and three journalists in Rangoon, Mandalay, and Bassein who requested to remain anonymous, December 29, 30, 2010, and January 2 and 3, 2011.
“Myanmar Internet link continues to meet with interruption”, Xinhua News, November 3, 2010, http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90001/90781/90877/7187339.html and “Attacks on Junta-related Sites Slowing Burma's Internet”, The Irrawaddy Online, December 24, 2010, http://www.irrawaddy.org/highlight.phpart_id=20406.
Author’s interview with three cybercafe owners and eight regular internet users in Rangoon, Mandalay, Bassein, Taunggyi, Naypyidaw, and Myitkyina who requested to remain anonymous, July 11, 19, 25, and 28, 2010.
Htet Aung, “Regime Unveils Burma’s First National Web Portal,” Irrawaddy, August 26, 2010, http://www.irrawaddy.org/article.phpart_id=19311&page=1.
BURMA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net Internet regulations ban circumvention methods, and Burmese ISPs block many bypass and proxy websites, but they lack the technology to block circumvention software like Your Freedom, UltraSurf, and Tor. In many cybercafes, the staff can view the screens of customers, allowing them to detect any attempts at circumvention, which they are encouraged by the authorities to do. However, most staff members offer proxy addresses as a way to attract and retain customers.
There are two main internet-service providers in Burma: MPT and Yatanarpon.26 In December 2007, the government opened the Yatanarpon Cyber City, where YTP is based.The telecommunications hub is reportedly run by a teenage grandson of Senior General Than Shwe, the regime’s top leader. According to several recent reports, the government restructured the ISP system in October 2010, dividing it into two main networks: the MPT ISP, and a newly-created Ministry of Defense (MoD) ISP.28 Under the new arrangement, the Yatanarpon Teleport ISP (serving civilian users) and a newly-established Naypyitaw ISP (serving most government ministries) connect to the international internet via MPT.
Meanwhile, the MoD ISP solely serves users from the Ministry of Defense. Such architecture enables the junta to cut off access for civilians, including government employees, at times of political turmoil, while keeping the military’s connection intact.