The Burmese military junta’s cyber-warfare division may be behind an unprecedented hacker attack on Irrawaddy, an online magazine run by Burmese exile journalists, according to the publication’s founder and editor.
The weekend attack against the Thailand-based website’s English news section saw the posting of two fake reports meant to “create confusion” and damage its reputation, said senior editor Aung Zaw in an interview Monday.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Aung Zaw, who founded Irrawaddy, said he believes the hacking operation was carried out by a pro-military junta group or the government’s cyber-warfare department.
The first false article asserted that pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party had led efforts to reduce international funding for The Irrawaddy and fellow exile news website The Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB).
It included quotes attributed to Aung Zaw detailing the alleged feud, from which the editor was quick to disassociate himself.
"The first article item is meant to create a misunderstanding between the NLD, the DVB, and The Irrawaddy—which is false news,” Aung Zaw said.
“It describes how funds have been cut for The Irrawaddy, and that there is a problem between The Irrawaddy and the NLD’s Aung San Suu Kyi.”
The second false news item was written under the byline of a former reporter for the news website who had left the group in 2009. It purportedly claimed that popular Burmese actress and singer May Sweet had died.
“This is the first time an intruder was able to hack into our system and post news," Aung Zaw said, adding that he does not believe the perpetrator was based inside of Burma.
Aung Zaw said in an article published by The Irrawaddy on Monday that the publication’s exposure of election fraud, corruption, nepotism, and secret military activities by the Burmese junta had made it a target of the military government.
“This is most likely why the junta has assigned technicians to attack our website,” he said.
The Irrawaddy also quoted office manager Win Thu as saying that the agency’s website suffers from security weaknesses which may have been exploited by the hackers.
“We are investigating who the culprits could be. According to the style of the writing, the culprits may be regular readers who know well the style and layout of The Irrawaddy,” he said.
Aye Chan Naing, who co-founded DVB in 1992, called the attacks “clever” in that they mirrored the website’s style and presentation, saying they were intentionally divisive.
But the articles contained language which also commonly appears in official Burmese media, such as The New Light of Myanmar, which accused the management of both exile news agencies of living lavish lifestyles with the funding they receive from international donors.
The attack marked the first time a hacker had posted unauthorized content on the publication’s website, though The Irrawaddy had been shut down by Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks last September and in September 2008.
A DDoS attack is often used to saturate the server that hosts a website with requests, rendering it unable to respond to legitimate traffic or making it respond so slowly that it is effectively inaccessible.
The attack comes as Burma’s government increasingly steps up the censorship of unofficial news information even as it claims it wants to build a more democratic and open society following the country’s first elections in 20 years held last November.
Australian national Ross Dunkley, who until recently had worked as the editor of the only foreign-funded newspaper to be based in Burma, The Myanmar Times, is currently being tried on a number of charges, including breaking the country’s immigration law and assaulting a sex worker.
Sources close to the case said Dunkley, who had frequently spoken out against Burma’s military junta and who had clashed with his politically-connected Burmese partner over the direction of the paper, had been targeted by authorities for removal.
The Overseas Press Club of Cambodia, an organization monitoring the rights of journalists, said Dunkley’s arrest is “in line with a trend of increasing authoritarianism in some countries in the region and efforts to circumscribe hard-won press freedoms.”
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.