Burma Increases Repression

Despite the fact that a putatively civilian government was installed in Burma after elections to replace the military junta, press freedom has deteriorated even more, according to a report by the press watchdog Reporters Without Borders, with even more stringent controls on the press and the Internet.

Although Thein Sein, the elected civilian president, promised to respect the role of the media "heavy jail sentences for journalists, suspension of newspapers and police raids on Internet cafés show that there has been no let-up in controls and intimidation. And now a string of new measures have just tightened control over Internet use.”

The general election, held last Nov. 7, was almost universally condemned by the United Nations and many countries in the west as fraudulent. The National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, boycotted the election, which was won by the Union Solidarity and Development Party, an army surrogate.

At the same time the government was cracking down on freedom of expression, it granted a one-year sentence reduction for all prisoners and commuting death sentences to life imprisonment.

"The government's gesture will be welcomed by a great many prisoners in Burma, but for the 2,100 political prisoners unjustly serving sentences of up to 65 years, the one-year reduction is a sick joke,” Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a prepared statement. "This is a pathetic response to international calls for the immediate release of all political prisoners.”

The amnesty announcement was made after by the UN secretary-general's Burma envoy, Vijay Nambiar, visited Burma earlier this month to call for the release of political prisoners. Human Rights Watch called the one-year sentence reduction a slap in the face for the United Nations. Despite long-standing calls by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and many governments around the world, there have been no significant political prisoner releases in Burma since the November 2010 elections apart from the release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, when her house arrest order expired.

The authorities appear to fear that the Arab Spring that has capsized governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen and caused bloody crackdowns in Libya and Syria could spread, the Reporters Without Borders report says. As a result, the Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraphs has delivered new rules to Internet cafés to record the personal data of all their clients along with a record of all the websites they visit, and to make the information available to the authorities.

The government's censorship bureau, called the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, recently suspended the Rangoon-based weekly True News for two weeks, supposedly for misreporting a mobile phone offer by the Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraphs but actually for other articles published by the weekly.

The new set of directives also includes a ban on the use of portable hard disks, USB flash drives and CDs in Internet cafés, and a ban on the use of Internet telephony (VoIP) services to call abroad, the report said. "The grounds given by the ministry is the need to protect the state's income from international phone calls but it will isolate dissidents more and discourage Internet users from expressing themselves freely. Above all, it will affect users of services such as Skype, Gtalk, Pfingo and VZO, which are hard to monitor for the authorities.”

Rules for Owners of Public Access Centers

1. Personal information of PAC users such as name, National Registration Card number, passport number (if the user is a foreigner), contact address, telephone number etc. must be registered.

2. Service Records of all PAC users (date, time, screen shot, URLs) must be submitted once a month to the Directorate of Communication.

3. Utilizing Internet for international phone calls is prohibited as it is illegal and not permitted by the Department of Communication.

4. PACs are not allowed to use software, programs and technologies banned by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication, Directorate of Communication and Department of Communication. PACs must also make sure that such software, programs and technologies are not utilized by their customers.

5. PAC users must be informed by means of written notice that cyber crimes (hacking, virus distribution, port scanning etc.) and viewing, copying and distributing of media that is not in line with Myanmar culture are prohibited.

6. Computers at the PACs are not allowed to have floppy drive, CD drive, USB port and other external drives.

7. PAC license holders are obliged to permit inspections by PAC service providers, and officials from the ministry and the directorate, and local authorities.

8. Leasing or transferring of PAC license is prohibited. Owners can apply permission from the directorate if they wish to change the location of PAC or technologies used.

9. Owners may submit application to renew PAC license 30 days prior to the expiry date. Renewal fee / annual fee has to be prepaid. Owners who failed to pay in time will be fined 30,000 kyats per every delayed month. License will be revoked if required payment is not made within 90 days.

10. In case of lost or damage of the original document (license), a copy of it may be issued against payment.

11. Computer Development Law must be observed and restrictions stipulated by Ministry of Post and Telecommunication's WAN-order no. 3/2002 must be followed. Orders and instructions made by the government, ministries, Department of Communication and Directorate of Communication must be observed. Perpetrators will not only have their PAC license revoked but also be punished according to the existing laws.

12. Information that could harm State's security and interest must not be leaked. Perpetrators who leak such information will be punished with State Secret Act.

Burma is on the Reporters Without Borders list of “Enemies of the Internet.” Amnesty International puts the number of Burmese political prisoners at more than 2,200. They include 17 video journalists (VJ) employed by the exile TV and radio station Democratic Voice of Burma.

Leading political prisoners serving long sentences identified by Human Rights Watch include Zargana, Burma's most famous comedian, who is serving a 35-year sentence for criticizing the military government's slow response to Cyclone Nargis; U Gambira, a 30-year-old monk who was one of the leaders of the peaceful protests of August and September 2007 and is now serving a 63-year sentence; Min Ko Naing, a former student leader serving a 65-year sentence; Nay Phone Latt, a 30-year-old blogger who used his blog to spread news about the 2007 protests and was subsequently sentenced to 12 years in prison; and Su Su Nway, a female labor rights activist serving an eight-and-a-half-year sentence after raising a banner criticizing Burma's government at the hotel of a visiting UN special envoy.