Burma Bloggers' Dangerous Freedom Fight

With newspapers, radio, and TV controlled by Burma's military regime, blogs are a crucial alternative source of independent news in Rangoon. They gained international attention during the saffron revolution against the government in 2007 and once again they are proving an important source of news about the upcoming election.

To say blogging can be hazardous is an understatement. Although Burma has some of the severest internet controls on the planet, hundreds of bloggers have managed to elude authorities, making quick entries in Internet cafes under the eyes of watching staff and getting out before they are caught. Burmese law prohibits citizens from using the Internet to send critical information, photos or videos to foreign audiences. Getting caught can result in long prison terms.

According to the Independent Press Service, earlier this year Win Naing Kyaw, a former military officer, was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison for sending photos of a ranking junta official's visit to North Korea to an exile news site. Ha Hla Win, a 25 year-old teacher, also received a 20 year sentence for being an "undercover journalist" for the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma. One former official was given 35 years in prison.

Nonetheless, the bloggers have managed to broadcast news even though the junta assiduously seeks to block any website that carries information about the country, even prohibiting access to emails. The blogs have been essential to outside news media, whose reporters are barred from entering the country if their names are known. Connection speed is a big problem, at 512 kilobytes per line, the equivalent of a basic ADSL individual connection. But up to 10 to 15 computers share the same line, slowing down things to the point that it takes 10 seconds to open an email or load a page, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Nonetheless, they are also essential to Rangoon's young. At an Internet shop, young people crowd the booths. Although no date has been set for the election, online forums have already flourished. University student Mi Sike Ka-mar Chan says she has learned a lot about the election online.

"The 2010 election is a heated issue on every blog," Chan said. "In online forums some people say the election is good for the people while others criticize it. Some criticize the National League for Democracy Party for not contesting the election, while others support it for boycotting the poll. There are a lot of blogs about Burma, but we just read the ones that interest us. Blogs suit Burmese people because they have a low bandwidth and can be opened easily."

Another university student, Moe Kyaw says blogs are his only source of information.

"I learned about the 2010 election from blogs, especially from the blogs that focus on politics. They post notes on how to vote as well as the election regulations," Kyaw said. "By reading those posts we can be informed and say why we don't agree with the election."

The blogger behind freeforcountry.tayzartay.com is based in Rangoon and calling for radical changes to the election process.

"We want an election of international standards. The government must change," he said. "We want a government that is truly elected by the people. We have lived under a military dictatorship since birth and because of this we have to struggle to live. Compared to other countries we are behind because of the military leaders. That's why we must follow other countries and lift people's living standards. We are fighting with words and images online."

Freeforcountry.tayzartay was one of the blogs that gained popularity during the saffron revolution of 2007, when the government cracked down brutally on protests led by Buddhist monks. Bloggers played a critical role by uploading images of the events even though the government responded by shutting down the Internet across the entire country.

The Free-for-country blogger, who agreed to be interviewed on terms of anonymity, explains how he avoids government censorship.

"We need software and proxy numbers to pass through banned servers to log in to our blogs. The free proxy can be expired," he said. "We share among our peers when we find new technology and proxy numbers that can pass the servers to upload posts. We upload in different Internet cafés because if we upload a permanent shop and post it using a single IP address, the authorities would know and they would come and arrest us. We type in a house and upload posts at Internet cafes within a minute. As soon as we have uploaded we leave."

Shop owners are required to report customers looking at banned websites or sites that criticize the government. They have been ordered by the government to check users' screens every 15 minutes to monitor their online activities.

"You are not allowed to view political and pornographic websites," reads a sign in a Rangoon Internet café. Youtube, Google mail and Yahoo mail are blocked, but many users are smart enough to surf banned websites through proxy servers.

Even so, bloggers working inside the country do so at great risk. Nay Phone Latt's 20 years in jail were for posting a cartoon of the military leader Than Shwe. Nay Phone Latt was honored in New York by PEN, the international writers' organization, in January, but he remains in jail. The free-for-country blogger says security is very important.

"We can't just look at the screen, we always have look around us and see who is looking at us. When we are uploading, we do not use a full screen. We use the "restore down" half screen. While we are uploading the post we pretend to be surfing other websites so people don't pay attention to us," he said, adding that he takes the risks because it's his responsibility as a citizen of Burma.

"I don't get any financial support for this blog. I use my pocket money to pay for the cost of uploading posts and get technical help from my friends who are better with computers. It's incredible when we go on a field trip and can upload pictures that tell the true story. When people understand the situation and learn from our blog, we are happier than if we got paid for our work," he said.

Back at the Rangoon Internet café, university student Nai Rot Khine says bloggers are a lifeline for her generation.

"As for me, reading blogs is very important. We can read about different kinds of issues. We can read open discussion about the current politics as make ourselves rich in knowledge," said Khine.

An earlier version of this article was first broadcast on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesia's independent radio news agency KBR68H and broadcast in local languages in 10 countries across Asia. You can find more stories from Asia Calling at www.asiacalling.org.