Battling Myanmar’s outdated cyberspace laws

Ayee Macaraig
Myanmar's cyberspace is opening up but the former junta's old bad habits are proving hard to break

PERSUADING HARDLINERS. Blogger and former political prisoner Nay Phone Latt says working with hardliners who insist on controlling the web is a challenge he is taking on. He is photographed here during Myanmar's first Internet Freedom Forum his group organized in June. File AFP photo

Second of two parts  

Read part 1: Myanmar: Prison, parliament and the Internet

YANGON, Myanmar – Myanmar’s cyberspace is opening up to the world but bad habits are proving hard to break.

Under the military junta, the Internet in Myanmar was in tight control. The government blocked the websites of exiled and international media, as well as opposition and human rights groups. It also banned social networking sites and Skype. Owners of Internet cafes were even required to take screenshots and get personal information of users.

During politically sensitive times like anniversaries of the 1988 uprising and the Saffron Revolution, the junta slowed down Internet access. A 2010 report of Reporters Without Borders (RWB) and the Burma Media Association also showed that Myanmar’s ISP system was configured in such a way that different servers catered to the government ministries while another was for civilian users. The report said this gave the military “an exclusive ability to control the country’s Internet system.”

Myanmar earned the distinction of being an “Enemy of the Internet” in the RWB 2012 list while the US-based Freedom House categorized it as “Not Free” in the same year. This year, the country retained the Freedom House label but made headlines as it moved up ahead of China.

Despite the reforms, the laws of the past remain in place and former political prisoner Phone Latt is now busy working to help repeal them.

Nay Phone Latt was reportedly convicted partly for storing a cartoon of General Than Shwe in his email account, and possessing a banned video.

Lower penalties lobby

On the infamous Electronic Transactions Law, he asks why the government requires users to register every electronic device like radios and phones. “For the telecom company, they will register, but for the end-user, they don’t need to do that kind of thing,” he said.

The blogger and former cybercafé owner is also lobbying for lower penalties and clear definitions. The law imposes a prison sentence of 7 to 15 years for receiving or sending e-mail relating to state secrets or security and information deemed “detrimental to the prevalence of law and order or community peace and tranquility or national solidarity, economy or culture.” 

“What is the meaning of receive?” he asked. “The mail in your inbox is not ‘receive.’ Everybody can send to your inbox if they know your e-mail address but it’s not your responsibility. So we need to define what is the meaning of receive, what is the meaning of send, what is the meaning of distribute.”

Besides being wielded against Nay Phone Latt, the Orwellian law made prisoners out of his friend, actor and comedian Zarganar, and 88 Generation activists like Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi. 

While in prison, he earned the RWB press freedom prize in the Cyber Dissidents category, the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and was part of the 2010 Time Magazine 100 list in the Heroes category.

INTERNET TRAINING. Veteran journalist, Suu Kyi adviser, and former political prisoner Win Tin says the opposition National League for Democracy aims to train its young members to use the Internet to develop the party's communication strategy. Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig/2013 SEAPA Fellow

Suu Kyi party learning Internet ropes  

Thaung Su Nyein, managing director of IT and media company Information Matrix, shares the concerns of Nay Phone Latt and many journalists. After all, he is a member of the Myanmar Press Council, the Myanmar Computer Professionals Association, and the Myanmar Computer Federation, which along with Nay Phone Latt’s group, helps draft ICT bills.

The son of former Foreign Minister Win Aung is the publisher and editor of 7Day News, the Internet Journal, and other publications housed in a new and sprawling office in a city where the influx of foreign investors are jacking up real estate prices.

The different hats Thaung Su Nyein wears allow him to see the connections and implications of the various bills.

“When you give an authority the power to license something, it basically means he also has the power to remove the license,” he remarked. “Even with the best intentions of the current government, who is to say these intentions won’t change in the next few months especially leading up to the elections, so we’re going to make sure those freedoms of expression are kept in place.”

In ensuring free speech, journalists had looked to political parties like Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to champion their cause. Yet contrary to expectations, the repressive version of the printing bill passed the Lower House without any opposition from the democracy icon and her partymates.

Valuing press freedom

The Press Council’s Kyaw Min Swe said the group’s meeting with Suu Kyi and the NLD in Naypyidaw in mid-August was surprising.

“She looked very much like a politician,” he said. “She didn’t say definitely she will support us. She said every issue has a win or lose but ‘I want to see the people win.’ If the people win, she will support. So that’s very general, very popular opinion. It sounds pleasant to hear.”

Asked about the journalists’ criticism, Suu Kyi’s NLD co-founder and adviser, longtime journalist Win Tin, chuckled in his Yangon home, a small shack on his friend’s property. Five years after his release, he still wore a blue shirt, the color of his prison uniform. He has vowed not to wear any other color until all political prisoners are free.

Win Tin was the lone NLD voice rejecting the printing bill. His criticism though does not extend to Suu Kyi and his party. Sitting on a chair underneath an old RWB poster with the greeting, “Happy 75th Birthday Win Tin, in prison for the past 16 years,” the 84-year-old defended his colleagues. He said that Suu Kyi and other members of parliament value press freedom but are not able to read all bills. 

But Win Tin admitted that Myanmar’s main opposition party is trying to address shortcomings in training young leaders, especially in using technology.

“We have this saying that we cannot cut the umbilical cord,” he said. “We have youth group leaders, some of them over 50 years old, grandfathers. So we are trying at the end of the year to have a youth conference. Another thing is now they are limited but very soon, they will use the Internet so it will be helpful to enlighten our party members. We are giving party members media classes, training, and how important it is to give news out.”

UNCERTAIN FUTURE. A video journalist edits his footage at the DVB newsroom in Yangon. His boss, Toe Zaw Latt, says the company faces an uncertain future with the absence of a broadcasting law. Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig, 2013 SEAPA Fellow

Ex-soldiers in parliament

It is not just the NLD that is in need of training and young blood, however. At a bustling newsroom of the DVB Multimedia Group in Yangon, Toe Zaw Latt wonders if his news organization can afford to fully operate in Myanmar.

“We pay very serious attention on what the new broadcasting law will look like,”  said the DVB’s Yangon bureau chief. “Look at the parliament. I doubt many of the parliamentarians know about specific media law, to be frank. They are former soldiers.”

Myanmar’s Constitution reserves a quarter of seats in parliament for the military while the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is also the ruling party.

In exile, DVB was known as the Democratic Voice of Burma. It had to change its name when it returned home last year. But Toe Zaw Latt said DVB is keeping its Chiang Mai office partly because of legal uncertainty.

He said technology and lawmakers’ knowledge of it are a key concern.

“If there’s a law saying about some control over content, we have to think about it. Because for example in your content, how many percentage do you have to cover this and that? That is very likely. On top of that, you have to uplink from a particular place. What if something goes wrong and the pictures on television do not come out? People don’t know the reason behind it.”

This is why besides lobbying, training members of parliament and ministry officials in ICT is part of Nay Phone Latt’s advocacy. He and his Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO) conduct workshops for government leaders, including NLD, his former party.

But is he taking it to the next level. “We try to make the connection between the government sector and ICT-related NGOs,” he said. “For 2015, we will try to push some of the IT guys to run for parliament. It should be like that because they want to make the law and the regulation for the ICT sector but if they do not have enough knowledge, they can’t do that.”

The website of the Eleven Media Group is a frequent target of cyberattacks, whose origin is still unknown. Photo of Eleven Myanmar office by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig, 2013 SEAPA Fellow

Cybercrime law still needed

Yet while he promotes free speech and the rights of Internet users, Nay Phone Latt believes in the need to regulate the Web. He is pushing for the passage of a cybercrime law to address hacking, phishing, and online theft.

“Cybercrimes will increase in the near future and if somebody committed the cybercrime, there will be victims,” he said. “There are so many people who are online but when they go to the police station, the police will say they don’t know about ICT and they cannot take responsibility. We need a cyber law and cyber police who are very skillful in ICT.”

Zaw Ye Naung, broadcast and online media editor of Eleven Media Group, supports the move. He said the Eleven Media website, one of the most popular news sites in Myanmar, has been hacked at least 4 times in the past two years.

In the past, cyberattacks were blamed on the state. But now Zaw Ye Naung said he has no idea who has been targeting Eleven Media’s site and Facebook page, with the IPs traced to places as diverse as Hong Kong, the United States, China, and Russia.

In late August, the Irrawaddy reported that the so-called Blink Hacker Group attacked Myanmar’s official Southeast Asian (SEA) Games website, as well as that of Eleven Media, the Iron Cross rock band, Myanmar Gamers, Yatanarpon Teleport, Red Link, and the web store of the Irrawaddy news agency.

“What if they hack a payment system?” asked Zaw Ye Naung. “We’re not a payment website, just a news website, but if we were, what do you have to show to your customers? How can we sue the person? Who is he?”  

ICT LITERACY. Nay Phone Latt's MIDO conducts ICT training for citizens and lawmakers alike. He says education is the answer to hate speech, not regulation. Photo courtesy: MIDO

Education, not regulation 

But he and other journalists are against government proposals to regulate Facebook to prevent the spread of hate speech amid violence pitting Buddhists against Muslims, and clashes between the military and ethnic groups.

Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut said in July, “Our department is willing to develop regulations and public service media training for that. The government has no intention of blocking people, but we are ready to stop people who are diverting from the law.”

Nay Phone Latt said he does not like government regulation either. “I want to have the regulation by the people,” he said. “We regulate ourselves. We will check and balance our own society. We will make our own regulation, like a self-regulation system. That is the solution. If we can regulate ourselves, the government need not regulate us.”

He paused, then continued: “Actually, the long-term solution is in the education system. If we can put the ICT sector in the curriculum, every student will know about the nature of the ICT and they will know how they can use ICT effectively and for their own development and for society’s development.”

Nay Phone Latt knows he has his work cut out for him.  As it is, the poor infrastructure and various sectors’ lack of awareness and capacity have limited the Internet into being just a supplement to direct lobbying for now.

He and other free speech activists are also aware that like the changes in Burmese cyberspace, the country’s democratic transition is still premature. So even now that he was already running late, he said he is still taking that bus ride to Naypyidaw.

“I worry for the future,” said Nay Phone Latt. “But at the same time, we try to cooperate with the government and the military and the solution is how we can persuade everybody: the hardliners, the military, everybody. The destiny of our country is how we can persuade them to go forward in the democratic society.” –

This is the second part of an article produced for the 2013 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) fellowship program. Rappler multimedia reporter Ayee Macaraig is one of the six 2013 journalism fellows of the Program. This year’s theme is Freedom of Expression Challenges to Internet Governance in Southeast Asia.

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