Internet Notebook

Burma is known for heavy-handed Internet controls, but its children may demand greater access and openness.
2009-07-20
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Most Internet users in Burma must use Internet shops because few have computers at home.
RFA/Tyler Chapman

By TYLER CHAPMAN

RANGOON—The young woman attendant in an Internet shop in northern Burma could only shrug her shoulders. All 10 monitors behind her were dark.

“No Internet,” she told me. “Come back in two days, maybe three.”

Such are the vagaries of the Internet in Burma, that one minute it’s working fine, the next it’s not working at all. It can be down for a few minutes, a few hours, a few days. Who knows? Rarely is there an explanation.

“Internet very bad” is a message I get often from friends in Burma. At home, I can get an e-mail response from someone in a matter of minutes. Getting a response from Burma can take days.

The military junta controls the Internet from a new high-tech complex outside Maymyo, northeast of Mandalay.

It can turn it off with the flip of a switch, slow it down, monitor e-mails, block certain Web sites, and find out what surfers are looking at .

The Committee to Protect Journalists calls Burma “the worst Internet oppressor in the world” and the “worst place to be a blogger.”

Two of the country’s best-known bloggers are in prison for expressing their views online.

It was bloggers and citizen journalists who used the Internet to transmit stories and pictures of the so-called Saffron Revolution to the world in September 2007.

Many were tracked down and arrested. The government is determined to prevent it from happening again.

One per cent of Burma’s 50 million people are estimated to use the Internet, most of them young people or the business community. I know mountain villages where people haven’t a clue what the Internet is—and wouldn’t care if they did.

Cafes and hotels

The two biggest cities, Rangoon and Mandalay, have an abundance of Internet shops, most with several terminals and a high-speed DSL connection.

An hour can cost anywhere from 40 cents to U.S. $1.50. Since very few Burmese have a connection at home, these shops are popular hangouts.

The number of Internet shops in smaller towns seems to be in direct proportion to the number of tourists: more tourists, more Internet shops. And some of them have Skype, which provides online telephone connections almost anywhere in the world.

The more upscale hotels in Rangoon even have wi-fi now. I saw people, almost all foreigners, sitting around the lobby in my hotel, laptops out, surfing the Internet.

This is seen as a government concession to the international relief workers who came for Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, and who remain in hotels here.

Even so, foreigners with laptops arouse suspicion because some laptops can be used to transmit information and photos by satellite, free of government scrutiny. The only time I was aware of being checked out on my recent trip was when an intelligence agent asked my guide whether I had a laptop. I didn’t.

So tight are government controls that Internet shop owners are required to keep tabs on their customers: names, time logged in, time logged out.

All monitors are supposed to be in view of the owner. Screen snapshots are to be taken every five minutes. Access to anti-government exile sites is prohibited.

Seldom did I see these rules followed. It was never clear, however, what that person was doing pacing up and down behind the customers.

Internet shop owners have invested thousands of dollars—a DSL connection alone costs U.S. $1,800—and would be risking it all to take foolhardy chances.

Burmese Internet users suspect that China has helped the regime create an Internet firewall to try to block sites considered unfriendly, such as www.Irrawaddy.com, www.Mizzima.com, or www.rfa.org.

Children will bring change

Yet when I found my own e-mail provider blocked, a friendly attendant, fingers flying, broke through using the program Ultrasurf, designed by dissidents in China to crack the firewall there. Where there’s a will, there seems to be a way.

Sending e-mails into Burma is another question. I recently sent an e-mail to a Burmese friend containing the word “photography.”

The e-mail was returned as undeliverable because it contained “a banned word.” When I deleted “photography” and resent the e-mail, it went through.

Traveling around the country on this trip, I saw something I had not seen in Burma before: children playing video games—everything from jigsaw puzzles to space warfare games. (Their parents don’t like it, either.)

The console of choice is Playstation. The games are knockoffs produced in China.

These children are the vanguard of a generation growing up with computers. I saw computers in storefront shops, monasteries, and orphanages. Kids were eager to use them. Most had no Internet connection. Yet.

“The more these kids use computers, the more information they’re going to want,” a Westerner who lives in Burma told me. “And the more they find out about the outside world, the more they will wonder why Burma is so far behind.

“They’re going to want better.”

Tyler Chapman is a pseudonym to protect the author's sources. This is his second visit to Burma for Radio Free Asia.