Myanmar: Prison, parliament and the Internet

PRISON TO PARLIAMENT. Blogger and former political prisoner Nay Phone Latt is now working to help amend the law that sent him to jail. He lobbies for greater freedom of expression in ICT bills. He is photographed in his office in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig, 2013 SEAPA Fellow

PRISON TO PARLIAMENT. Blogger and former political prisoner Nay Phone Latt is now working to help amend the law that sent him to jail. He lobbies for greater freedom of expression in ICT bills. He is photographed in his office in Yangon, Myanmar.

Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig, 2013 SEAPA Fellow

First of two parts

YANGON, Myanmar – Five years ago, Nay Phone Latt tried to kill time by reading, doing yoga, and writing letters, short stories, and poems. But on a recent gloomy Monday morning, the blogger could hardly answer a phone call as he rushed about before he took a bus to Myanmar’s administrative capital to help change the law that sent him to prison.

“I only have 20 minutes,” he said with an apologetic smile at his office in the ramshackle city of Yangon before braving the rainy Monday morning for the 4-hour bus ride to Naypyidaw. Making final arrangements on his phone, he paced to and fro the room with a wall bearing photos of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and his other technology idols.

Judging from photos taken right after his release from prison in January 2012, Nay Phone Latt had visibly gained weight. Once he finally settled on a couch, he began explaining why he is now working with the former military junta that sentenced him to 20 years and six months in jail.

“We got some extent of freedom but the thing is the Electronic Transactions Law by the military government is still valid and everybody can use the Internet freely but we are not free because the law is still there,” he told Rappler. “If they want to, they can sue everybody with this law. You can say we are free, but we are not safe.”

Nay Phone Latt was only 28 when he was jailed for his ties to the opposition and pro-democracy movement in 2008. During the 2007 Saffron Revolution, the monk-led anti-government protests, bloggers like him were a key source of information as the junta cracked down on dissidents and eventually shut down the Internet.

Despite his days in the notorious Insein prison and the Pa-an prison, Nay Phone Latt is now hopeful about the sea change in his country. He said much has changed since he witnessed the 1988 uprising as an eight-year-old boy, when the government brutally went after students and activists, killing 3,000 people.

GOING MOBILE. A monk speaks on his mobile phone in Myanmar's iconic Shwedagon Pagoda. The country is expecting a boom in Internet and smartphone use after the government awarded licenses to two foreign telecommunication firms. Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig, 2013 SEAPA Fellow

GOING MOBILE. A monk speaks on his mobile phone in Myanmar's iconic Shwedagon Pagoda. The country is expecting a boom in Internet and smartphone use after the government awarded licenses to two foreign telecommunication firms.

Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig, 2013 SEAPA Fellow

Ministers on Facebook 

In 2011, after 50 years of repression under the military regime, the former pariah state began opening up. Political and economic reforms have since earned President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government unprecedented praise from the international community. The release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners like Nay Phone Latt was one such change.

Yet Nay Phone Latt and many activists, bloggers, and journalists in Myanmar, also known as Burma, are worried about the transition. With draconian laws still in place and similar bills in the making, they fear that the government will backslide on its commitment to democracy.

Formerly in exile, under censorship or behind bars, Myanmar’s wired citizens are now using the latest addiction in the country to ensure that the generals-turned-politicians will not take back their newfound freedoms: the Internet. They are wielding this weapon not only to engage a growing smartphone-savvy audience but also to liberate an outdated legal framework that threatens freedom of expression.

Saying many netizens do not know about laws and the risks they face because of these, Nay Phone Latt and his Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO) plan to use Facebook among different platforms to get them on board.

Myanmar is expecting a boom in Internet and smartphone use, with Norway’s Telenor and Qatar’s Ooredoo just recently clinching 15-year mobile operating licenses in one of Asia’s last unconquered frontiers. The government aims to increase the mobile penetration rate from less than 10% at present to 80% in 2016.

Currently, Myanmar has a low Internet penetration rate estimated at one percent to 3% of the population (there are no official government figures). Yet on Facebook, some ministers actively engage with netizens and parliament regulary updates its page. Beyond social sharing, Burmese netizens have also turned the social network into a news portal and content aggregator.

In a country of 55 million where Internet connection is notoriously slow and power outages are a normal occurrence, Facebook has managed to overtake blogs in popularity. IT experts say the social network dominates the Burmese cyberspace so much so that for its 600,000 to 800,000 users, Facebook is the Internet. 

That Deputy Minister for Information and presidential spokesman Ye Htut announced the winning bidders on his Facebook page in June is a testament to how the social network has become a new space to communicate with policymakers.

ONLINE CRUSADE. Burmese journalist Myint Kyaw and his Myanmar Journalist Network took their campaign against a controversial media bill to Facebook. Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig, 2013 SEAPA Fellow

ONLINE CRUSADE. Burmese journalist Myint Kyaw and his Myanmar Journalist Network took their campaign against a controversial media bill to Facebook.

Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig, 2013 SEAPA Fellow

The journalists’ story

In another apartment-type office in Yangon, freelance journalist Myint Kyaw is also often on Facebook. Typing on a Macbook with the sticker “Give Freedom to Media Law, For the People to get truth," he talked about the whirlwind of meetings of the Interim Myanmar Press Council (MPC) composed mostly of journalists and media owners that the government tasked with drafting a media bill last year.

Myint Kyaw and his Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN), a media group with members mostly aged 20 to 30, recently launched a signature campaign to urge parliament to revise the Printing and Publishing Enterprise bill that the Lower House approved in July.

Local and international human rights and media groups then denounced the Ministry of Information (MOI)-drafted bill as a form of prior restraint and censorship.

Gathering over 10,000 signatures in Yangon, Mandalay and other cities, MJN called on parliament to revise the ministry’s printing bill and to consider the media bill the press council filed before the Upper House in mid-August. The MPC’s bill is a code of conduct covering all forms of media.

MJN took its campaign to cyberspace, discussing the bill in its closed Facebook group and public Facebook fan page. It also uploaded minutes of its meetings and shares the campaign logo on the social networking site.

In late August, the Upper House approved the printing bill with most of the MPC’s recommendations. Press Council secretary and spokesperson Kyaw Min Swe said the parliament deleted the clause on the MOI’s registration officer, authorized to issue and revoke licenses of print publications for violations as vague as “aggrieving races and religions, portraying obscenity, and abetting and instigating crime.”

The bill will be discussed again in the Lower House before parliament makes the final decision.

NO LICENSING. Journalists campaigned against a bill that authorized a government registration officer to grant and revoke licenses of newspapers and other print publications based on vague rules. Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig, 2013 SEAPA Fellow

NO LICENSING. Journalists campaigned against a bill that authorized a government registration officer to grant and revoke licenses of newspapers and other print publications based on vague rules.

Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig, 2013 SEAPA Fellow

A Net effect?

For now, it remains unclear how much of the journalists’ initial success can be attributed to online efforts, which were done simultaneously with lobbying offline through MPC press conferences, meetings with the MOI and members of parliament, and critical news reports on the issue.

Days before the sudden passage of the bill, however, Myint Kyaw had explained why it was natural for MJN to bring the media bill debate to Facebook.

“To some extent, because the Internet users, the government officials and some NGOs are there, the online network here is also effective in terms of our needs and our views,” said the chief editor of the now-defunct Yangon Press International, the first news organization in Myanmar that operated purely on Facebook.  

Myint Kyaw added, “They are doing their own business. They are also aware of what is happening in the media, what are the issues. Facebook, social media, is one of the best media to get in touch with the other sectors.”

In the case of the printing bill, though, Myint Kyaw admitted that the discussion on MJN’s public Facebook page was not vibrant, gathering only a few general statements of support. Other journalists and IT experts themselves say many Burmese netizens prefer talking about entertainment, lifestyle, and the raging ethnic and religious conflicts.

“They think the law is boring,” said Myint Kyaw. “Some journalists, they don’t read about the law. Even the journalists don’t read.”

FUN, GAMES. Many Burmese netizens go online for games and entertainment, unaware that draconian laws are still around and can be used against them. A Burmese teenager plays games in a cybercafe in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig, 2013 SEAPA Fellow

FUN, GAMES. Many Burmese netizens go online for games and entertainment, unaware that draconian laws are still around and can be used against them. A Burmese teenager plays games in a cybercafe in Yangon, Myanmar.

Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig, 2013 SEAPA Fellow

Nay Phone Latt made the same observation based on MIDO’s efforts to crowdsource online reactions to the technology bills it is helping draft.

“Most of the people in our country and most of the netizens, they don’t know about the law and they think the lawmaking process is not their duty,” Nay Phone Latt said. “Actually it’s not like that. The parliament members are not skillful in the lawmaking process. They don’t know everything so if they do something, we need to participate and if they do the law concerning the ICT, the people from the ICT sector should participate.”

As he takes part in the lawmaking process, the 33-year-old civil engineering graduate has noticed that members of parliament are still stuck in the old paradigm. 

“Most of the people in the government are from the military and their thinking is based only on safety,” he said. “Whenever they think of something, what they are thinking is safety and actually to think only of safety is not enough. We should think also of the freedom of expression and freedom of the people.” Rappler.com

This is the first 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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