Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Blackberry to Burma?

Burma's generals are afraid of telephones and the internet
Published on March 24, 2009

LAST WEEKEND, the Paris-based media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published a report entitled "Enemies of the Internet", which named Burma as one of 12 countries that actively practices censorship and restricts freedom of speech on the Internet.

"The 12 enemies of the Internet � have all transformed their internet into an intranet in order to prevent their populations from accessing 'undesirable' online information," the RSF report said.

As I work for a daily news service, this report is nothing surprising for me. But I was surprised when I learned that a group of hackers from the jungle capital of the low-speed intranet country attacked high-speed websites in the world's richest country.

"Yes, this cyber attack was made by Russian technicians. However, they are not in Moscow but in Burma's West Point cyber city", claimed Aung Lin Htut, the former deputy ambassador to Washington and a former spy for ousted Burmese prime minister Gen Khin Nyunt. (Many Burmese observers compare the country's Maymyo Academy of Defence Services to the US Army's West Pont academy).

Last September, which was the anniversary of the "saffron revolution" led by Buddhist monks, the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) website and two others leading websites (of the Chiang Mai-based Irrawaddy magazine and Delhi-based Mizzima) were attacked by unknown hackers.

"We can easily say that the Burmese government is behind this attack," said a DVB statement. They used DdoS, or distributed denial-of-service, which overloads websites with an unmanageable amount of traffic."

But the DVB technicians doubt that the attackers are government-backed hackers who are based in Russia. "Technically, it is of course difficult to say who is behind the attack," the statement said.

According to Aung Lin Htut, thousands of Burmese army officers are studying Defence Electronic Technology at the Moscow Aviation Institute (MAI), and hundreds of them return to Burma each year to work in Maymyo after they receive the four-year Masters Degrees. The subjects for Burmese officers studying there are computer software programs, nuclear technology, short range and long range missiles, and aeronautics and engineering.

"There is full-scale electricity supply and hi-speed Internet connections at Napyidaw (the country's official capital city) and the West Point cyber city. The cyber attack is just the beginning of their plan to attack the democracy movement," the former spy told this correspondent in an electronic conversation from Washington.

I asked how these officers would be able to apply their knowledge in Burma, where the electricity supply is intermittent.

Although the two VIP locations are very advanced in IT, the rest of the country is still in the dark. There is not enough electricity, telephone lines, or hi-speed Internet connections for the general population.

"Our office telephone line has been cut for over two years. There is no response from the authority whenever we ask the reason," said Nyan Win, a spokesman for the opposition National League for Democracy.

"To open an e-mail address for the NLD may lead me to Insein (prison)" he added.

The junta recently arrested dozens of students and activists, including Min Ko Naing's 88 Generation students' group, which took part in the September 2007 uprising and who were involved in distributing relief after Cyclone Nargis ripped through the country last year. A number of the students and activists were sentenced to 65 years in prison for violations of the electronic law, meaning that they had used cellphones, cameras, e-mail and the internet without permission from the authorities.

"I'm very interested in IT and so I learned something about it on the Internet. This is only my guilt that will send me to Insein," said one activist named Zagana as a judge sentenced him to jail.

A recent UN report says that 6 out of every 10 people in the world use a mobile phone.

"But I think the NLD is the only political party in the world that has no telephone, no Internet or website in the 21st century," Nyan Win lamented to me during a cellphone (which he rents from friends) conversation from Rangoon. The NLD members and activists have no permission to buy a cellphone, and are not permitted to own or even use an Internet line or a laptop computer in Burma. If you live in Burma, you need permission from the authorities to buy a cell or land phone, a fax machine, an Internet line, computer, camera, satellite TV, or short-wave radio.

"This is an unacceptable condition for the party that won the 1990 election, while the junta allows everything for the USDA - the pro-government Union Solidarity Development Association - for the 2010 election campaign," said Soe Aung, a spokesman for exiled 88 Generation students and the Forum for Democracy in Burma.

"Cellphones and the Internet are daily basic necessities for politicians and the party," he said to this correspondent in a text message from his Blackberry. "This is very useful and you will see how US President Obama does his daily job using this phone," he added from Bangkok.

But in Burma, the ageing NLD leadership in Rangoon and the army generals in Napyidaw have no Blackberry or cellphone. The generals have banned cellphones in the capital for security reasons, while the NLD leaders have not been able to get either a land phone, a cellphone or an e-mail account.

"This is not just the nature of a generation gap between Obama and Than Shwe. Burma's politics is wrong indeed," Soe Aung added.

Htet Aung Kyaw is a senior journalist for the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma.


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