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Burma's cyber war rages on

Mizzima News - While the Internet has became one of the main tools at the disposal of opposition elements against political and cultural repression in authoritarian states, governments have in turn used the same technology to limit the effectiveness of political opposition by either commercial or propagandist means.  

A debate about the Internet as a tool of democratization has emerged since the first uses of the Internet under authoritarian systems of government. On the one hand, there are those who subscribe to the “determinist” theory, for whom the Internet can contribute to the collapse of dictatorships. On the other hand are the so-called “instrumentalists”, who take the position that an authoritarian regime can control the Web and exploit the Internet to serve its own interests. But the most important question is how authoritarian rulers choose an information technology strategy.  

According to Nina Hachigian, in her paper 'The internet and power in one-party East Asian States': “The Internet presents a dilemma to leaders of authoritarian states and illiberal democracies. It promises enticing commercial advantages, such as transaction cost reductions, e-commerce possibilities, and foreign trade facilitation. Yet, by giving citizens access to outside information and platforms for discussion and organization, the Internet can also help politically empower populations and potentially threaten regimes."

According to a report recently released by the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) on information filtering in Asia, Asian governments are taking increasingly sophisticated steps to control access to Web content. The report reveals accelerating restrictions on Internet content as Asian governments shift to next generation controls. These new techniques go beyond blocking access to websites and are more informal and fluid while often backed-up by increasingly restrictive and broadly interpreted laws.  
The report further points to an emerging inclination for states to actively engage in cyberspace as a way to achieve enhanced control of information: “Since 2006, many Asian governments have quickly realized the potential benefits of exploiting opportunities for conducting propaganda or public relations strategies over the Internet, even while cracking down on independent and critical voices thriving in these online spaces – an example of the evolution towards next generation controls,” finds the report.

Yet, the Internet has simultaneously been shown to be an especially effective tool for journalists, civil society activists and opposition leaders in Asia during elections or other times of national political crisis.

Burma showed one of the most dramatic examples of citizens using online tools to circumvent government control over information during the Saffron Revolution. It is clear that the particular attention of the international community and foreign media toward the 2007 uprising in Burma was partly due to the various uses of new information technology – and particularly the Internet.

These “netizens” have demonstrated that new tools of communication, and especially the Internet, can impact on the global coverage of events and even on the sequence of events themselves. Vital information coming from inside Burma was posted by overseas Burmese news organizations and the international media, ultimately being fed back into the country of origin via satellite television and radio, thus achieving a bi-directional flow of information. Such newly available networks for the diffusion of information are surely challenging the rulers of closed countries like Burma.

Nonetheless, while “citizen journalists” provided the world with footage and news, the government eventually imposed a “blackout of the information”. By cutting all Internet connections, the junta tried to disarm "netizens" – in further testament to the perceived potential destabilizing effects triggered by such endeavors.

The push and pull battle over the Internet raises a serious question: Can emerging online technologies truly alter a country's isolationism and foster real political change?

In a closed country the Internet can effectively serve the propaganda efforts of the authoritarian regime while simultaneously providing a new capacity with which dissidents can communicate relatively freely without considering boarders. Further, more than simply a political weapon, the Internet can also help to mobilize and raise public awareness and coordinate demonstrations and campaigns.

But still, there is a dark side to the Internet that must be considered.  

Since 1997 the junta has purchased sophisticated technology from a Singapore-based company to assist in the development of a Cyber Warfare Center in order to accentuate efficacy and surveillance over the Army. Additionally, in May 2004, the junta purchased filtering software from American company Fortinet. ONI, largely as a result of such information technology transfers, has chronicled an increasing level of effectiveness on the part of the Burmese regime in the control of information over recent years.  

Burma, in the end, is caught in a vicious cycle. As the junta appears unwilling to improve the life conditions of the population, as one tactic to stay in power, the economy of the country is consequently not industrially and technologically adapted to take maximum advantage of the Internet. Moreover, launching economic development via information technology is not deemed worth the political risk in the battle over the dissemination of information. Severe restrictions on Internet access is thus perceived as one strategy in denying opposition elements a greater foothold in Burmese society.  

To summarize, as economic stakes are low and political risks much higher, the junta is less willing to let the population make use of the Internet than other authoritarian countries who limit Internet access to a lesser extent in order to foment economic development. “The exception," highlights the ONI report, "to the general embrace of ICT development [in Asian countries] has consistently been Burma.” However, for the regime there is also a concurrent downside in such an approach, as the country becomes even less attractive to potential foreign investors.   

The junta, though, is aware of the necessity to economically compete in the world economy. The construction of a cyber city by the generals is proof of this knowledge, while also further exemplifying the misappropriation of information technology development. The country’s largest information technology development, Yadanabon City – inaugurated in 2007, is projected to serve as the connection point for the regime with economic partners such as China, India and Thailand.  

Apart from economic interests, the Internet can also serve the propagandist aims of governments. The junta tries to use the Internet as a tool to spread its propaganda and political message to the world and to contradict accusations of its detractors. An active presence on the Web allows the government to present the world its own version of the facts. That is why the junta launched www.myanmar.com, allowing foreigners to read an electronic version of the state-run English newspaper The New Light of Myanmar.  

However, examples of the collapse of governments in Southeast Asia because of popular mass protest with the support of the media – as in the Philippines in 1986 and Indonesia in 1998 – still keeps hope alive of a coming shift in Burma.

But the Burmese example also reveals media pressure and "People Power" are not enough by themselves to ensure political transition. The media can assist in transition but not set the transition itself in motion. The media is dependant on a nexus connecting the economic, social and political spheres.

Nonetheless, if an authoritarian regime can be affected by the uses of the Internet abroad, it is clear the Internet can in fact impact events inside a closed society like Burma as well – by at least forcing the junta to act in a space open to everybody’s eyes.

Last Updated ( Monday, 29 June 2009 15:21 )  

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