Internet in Burma
The Internet in Burma (also known as Myanmar) has been available since 2000 when the first Internet connections were established. Beginning in September 2011, the historically pervasive levels of Internet censorship in Burma were significantly reduced. Prior to September 2011 the military government worked aggressively to limit and control Internet access through software-based censorship, infrastructure and technical constraints, and laws and regulations with large fines and lengthy prison sentences for violators.
Access and usage
Service providers, Internet cafés
Myanmar Teleport (formerly Bagan Cybertech), Yatanarpon Teleport, Information Technology Central Services (ITCS), Red Link Communications, and the state-owned Myanmar Post and Telecommunication (MPT) are the Internet service providers in Myanmar. Internet cafés are common in the country and most use different pieces of software to bypass the government's proxy servers.
Myanmar has a very low Internet penetration rate due to both government restrictions on pricing and deliberate lack of facilities and infrastructure. According to World Internet Stats statistics as of June 2012, the country had over 534,930 Internet users (1.0% of the population) with the vast majority of the users hailing from the two largest cities, Yangon and Mandalay. Although 42 cities across the country have access to the Internet, the number of users outside Yangon and Mandalay is just over 10,000. Most of the country's 40,000 Internet connections are ADSL circuits, followed by dial-up, satellite terminal, and WiMax. MPT is also undertaking a trial of fiber-to-the-home in Mandalay, and plans to roll out a similar trial in Yangon.
- Blogs focus on entertainment (14%), technology, computers, and the Internet (17%), books and literature (9%), news (6%), hobbies and travel (6%), politics (5%), and religion (4%), among other topics;
- 52 percent of Burmese bloggers write from Burma and 48 percent write from abroad;
- 72% of bloggers are men and 27% are women;
- 77% of bloggers are single and 14% are married;
- 35 percent of bloggers are 26 to 30 years old and 29 percent are 21 to 25 years old;
- 80 percent blog in Burmese, while 8 percent blog in English, 10 percent write in both languages, and the rest use ethnic minority languages such as Kachin, Karen, and Chin.
- Listed as selective in the political and Internet tools areas, as substantial in social, and as no evidence of filtering in conflict/security by the OpenNet Initiative in August 2012.
- Listed as an Internet enemy by Reporters Without Borders (RWB) in 2011.
Following decades of military rule, Burma has undergone a series of significant political and economic reforms since elections in November 2010. March 2011 saw the end of formal military rule in the country, with reformist Thein Sein becoming the country’s first civilian president in half a century. While by-elections held in April 2012 included numerous reports of fraud, the opposition National League for Democracy, including leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won seats after contesting their first elections since 1991. In 2011-2012 hundreds of political prisoners were released and legislative changes re-establishing labour rights in the country.
Reforms have also extended to the country’s strict information control regime. Beginning in September 2011, the historically pervasive levels of Internet censorship were significantly reduced. International news sites, including Voice of America, BBC, and Radio Free Asia, long blocked by Burmese censors, had become accessible overnight. A number of previously censored independent Burma-focused news sites which had been highly critical of Burma’s ruling regime, such as the Democratic Voice of Burma and Irrawaddy, were suddenly accessible. Following the reduction in online censorship, the head of Burma’s press censorship department described such censorship as “not in harmony with democratic practices” and a practice that “should be abolished in the near future.”
In August 2012, the Burmese Press Scrutiny and Registration Department announced that all pre-publication censorship of the press was to be discontinued, such that articles dealing with religion and politics would no longer require review by the government before publication. Restrictions on content deemed harmful to state security, however, remained in place. Pornography is still widely blocked, as is content relating to alcohol and drugs, gambling websites, online dating sites, sex education, gay and lesbian content, and web censorship circumvention tools. In 2012 almost all of the previously blocked websites of opposition political parties, critical political content, and independent news sites were accessible, with only 5 of 541 tested URLs categorized as political content blocked.
In a September 2012 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Burmese President Thein Sein described the country as having taken “irreversible steps” towards democracy, a speech broadcast on state television for the first time.
As significant as they are, the impact of these reforms may be less might be expected because only 0.3 percent of Burma's population has Web access, outside of Burma's largest city, Yangon, and few can read English.
Laws regulating the Internet include the Computer Science Development Law (1996), the Wide Area Network Order (2002), and the Electronic Transactions Law (2004), while the Printers and Publishers Registration Act (1962) regulates the media. These laws and associated regulations are broadly worded and open to arbitrary or selective interpretation and enforcement. The Electronic Transactions Law covers “any act detrimental to”—and specifically “receiving or sending and distributing any information relating to”—state security, law and order, community peace and tranquility, national solidarity, the national economy, or national culture. Violators face fines and prison terms of 7 to 15 years. The importing and use of a modem without official permission is banned, with penalties for violations of up to 15 years in prison. Harsh prison terms and selective enforcement encourages self-censorship. However, expression in online environments such as comment features where posters can remain anonymous remains relatively free.
While these laws are still in place, authorities have promised to adopt a media law that will put an end to censorship in 2012 and they then expect to revise or repeal the Electronic Act and emergency rule. As of January 2013 the new media law was not in place and there is some concern that the country could backslide and return to the repressive tendencies of the past.
The use of Internet censorship circumvention methods is officially banned in Myanmar; the Myanmar ISPs block many bypass and proxy websites, but are unable to block all circumvention methods. Cybercafes are required by law to keep records on their customers’ activities and provide police access to the records upon request. However, many cafes do not systematically enforce such monitoring, often assisting their users in circumventing censorship instead. In response the government increased surprise inspections of cybercafes, instructed cafes to post signs warning users not to visit certain websites, and instructed cybercafes to install CCTV cameras and assign at least four security staff to monitor users.
Prior to September 2011 the government used a wide range of methods 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 lacked the capacity to pervasively enforce all restrictions, the impact of sporadic implementation and the ensuing chilling effect was profound. While information circulating on the Internet is still closely monitored, reforms by the Burmese regime that began in 2011 resulted in information being more freely circulated.
Internet censorship in Myanmar was classified as pervasive in the political area and as substantial in social, conflict/security, and Internet tools areas by the OpenNet Initiative in December 2010. Myanmar is listed as an Internet enemy by Reporters Without Borders in 2012. Myanmar's status is "Not Free" in Freedom House's Freedom on the Net 2011 report.
Myanmar utilized a network specifically for domestic use that is separate from the rest of the Internet to limit the flow of unwanted information into and out of the country.
The Internet infrastructure was also controlled through total shutdowns and temporary reductions in bandwidth. During the 2007 street protests, the junta completely shut down internet connectivity from September 29 to October 4. And state-controlled ISPs occasionally applied bandwidth caps to prevent the sharing of video and image files, particularly during politically sensitive events, such as the November 2010 elections.
Prior to September 2011 Myanmar banned the websites and blogs of political opposition groups, sites relating to human rights, and organizations promoting democracy. The term "Myanmar Wide Web (MWW)" is a pejorative name for the portion of the World Wide Web that is accessible from Myanmar. Many sites containing keywords or phrases that were considered suspicious, such as “Burma”, “drugs”, “military government”, “democracy”, “student movement”, “8888” (a reference to the protest movement that began on August, 8, 1988), and “human rights” were blocked and a few still are. Access to Yahoo! Mail, MSN Mail, Gmail, the video-sharing site YouTube, the messaging feature of the social-networking site Facebook, Google’s Blogspot, and the microblogging service Twitter were sporadically blocked. However, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) systems including Skype were and are available. Fortinet, a California-based company, provides the government with software that limits the material citizens can access on-line, especially e-mail service providers and pornographic websites.
Many political prisoners in Myanmar were charged under the laws mentioned above. However, in the second half of 2011 as part of a larger series of amnesties the military regime released a number of journalists and bloggers. For example:
- Reporters Without Borders counted at least 15 journalists and three internet activists in detention in 2011;
- Nay Phone Latt, a blogger and owner of three cybercafes, was released in January 2012 after being sentenced to 20 years and six months in prison in November 2008 for posting a cartoon of General Than Shwe, Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council from 1992 to 2011;
- members of the 88 Generation Students Group, Htay Kywe, Min Ko Naing, Ko Jimmy, Nilar Thein, Mie Mie, and nine others, were convicted on 11 November 2008 of four counts of "illegally using electronic media" and one count of "forming an illegal organization" and sentenced to 65 years in prison apiece, while the group's photographer, Zaw Htet Ko Ko, and other members were given sentences ranging from three to eleven years; Min Ko Naing has since been released. Other members of the group were released on 13 January 2012, as part of a mass presidential pardon for political activists.
- freelance reporter Hla Hla Win was released in 2011 after being arrested in September 2009 and given a 27-year prison term, including 20 years for violating the Electronic Transactions Law. Her associate, Myint Naing, arrested at the same time was also released after receiving a 32 year sentence;
- blogger Win Zaw Naing was released in January 2012 after being arrested in November 2009 and facing up to 15 years in prison for posting pictures and reports about the September 2007 protests;
- a former military officer and a foreign affairs official were sentenced to death in 2010, and another foreign affairs official was sentenced to 15 years in prison, for leaking information and photographs about military tunnels and a general’s trip to North Korea, there are conflicting reports that the death sentences were reduced to life or to 32 years in 2012;
- journalist Ngwe Soe Lin was released in late 2011 after being arrested at a cybercafe in Yangon, was sentenced to 13 years in prison in January 2010 for working for an exile media outlet;
- activist Than Myint Aung was released in January 2012 after receiving a 10-year prison sentence in July 2010 for violating the Electronic Transactions Law by using the Internet to disseminate information that was “detrimental to the security of the state”; and
- photographer Sithu Zeya was granted a conditional release after being sentenced to eight years in prison in December 2010 for taking pictures in the aftermath of an April 2010 bomb blast in Yangon and for his affiliation with an exiled media outlet.
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