Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

BURMA: Junta Turns to Draconian Electronics Law to Silence Critics

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jan 10 2010 (IPS) - A court ruling in military-ruled Burma has brought into sharp focus a law the junta widely uses to go after civilians it wants to silence.

On Jan. 7 a court found Win Naing Kyaw, a former military officer, guilty of violating the Electronics Act, a law controlling Internet usage, and condemned him to a 20-year sentence. He was linked to photos of a ranking junta official’s visit to North Korea that had appeared on a news website run by Burmese journalists living in exile.

This came just a week after a 25-year-old teacher, Hla Hla Win, was given a 20-year prison sentence on Dec. 31 for violating the same law. Her “crime” was the work she did as a member of the South-east Asian country’s growing network of “undercover journalists” for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an Oslo-based news organisation of exiled Burmese journalists.

The Electronics Law bans Burmese citizens from using the Internet to send information, photos or videos critical of the junta to foreign audiences.

The sentence for the freelance video reporter comes on top of another six- year prison term that was handed down last October for having a motorcycle that had been “illegally imported.” Myint Naing, who helped the freelance reporter, was condemned to 26 years in prison.

“Hla Hla Win has been working with us for a few years. And she did so knowing the danger of getting caught with video clips or being seen on the street with a video camera,” said Toe Zaw Latt, DVB’s bureau chief in Thailand. “She was driven to get images of what was happening inside Burma and get them out to the world.”

“Most ‘undercover journalists’ like her do not work for the sake of money,” he added during a telephone interview from Chiang Mai, a northern Thai city. “They are committed to tell the stories and are willing to take great risks to do so.”

DVB has over 100 such freelance journalists armed with video cameras to document the abuse and oppression unfolding in Burma. It shot to international prominence in September 2007, when the junta mounted a harsh crackdown on thousands of anti-government protesters, led by Buddhist monks.

Its video clips supplied by its network of citizen journalists – including Hla Hla Win – offered graphic details of the soldiers attacking the unarmed monks. An estimated 30 to 40 monks and between 50 and 70 civilians were killed during the crushing of the ‘Saffron Revolution’ three years ago. Close to 6,000 monks and civilians were also arrested at the height of this clash in Rangoon, Mandalay and other Burmese cities.

The period since the Saffron Revolution has seen Burma’s notorious network of prisons and labour camps swell with jailed political activists. Some of these critics of the junta have been given harsh prison terms, including a 65-year- sentence for Min Ko Naing, a former student leader and highly regarded pro- democracy activist. There are currently over 2,200 political prisoners, up from the 1,200 imprisoned political activists in mid-2007. That number, until Hla Hla Win’s sentencing, included 13 journalists and bloggers.

“The number of reporters and journalists imprisoned has gone up because the junta is using the Electronics Act to target them,” said Bo Kyi, a ranking member of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a group of former Burmese political prisoners championing the rights of prisoners. “The jail term is longer than the law used before, in the 1990s, to silence reporters, which was seven-year maximum sentence.”

Most of the pro-democracy activists that have been jailed since the Saffron Revolution were also accused of violating the Electronics Act, added Bo Kyi during an interview from Mae Sot, a town on the Thai-Burma border, where AAPP is based. “Activists like Min Ko Naing were arrested and then sentenced under this act.”

So was Zarganar, one of Burma’s best-known comedians. He was given a 45- year prison sentence in November 2008, which included 15 years for violating the Electronics Act. He was accused of sharing information with foreign media that had included criticism of the regime’s handling of the humanitarian crisis following the powerful Cyclone Nargis, which flattened the Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008, killing over 150,000 people.

The Electronics Act is one of a litany of repressive laws that are enforced to crush freedom of expression. The 2000 Internet law bans any information posted on the Internet that in the junta’s view may undermine the interests and security of the country. The 1996 Television and Video Act has penalties of up to three years jail term for “copying, distributing, hiring or exhibiting video tape that has no video censor certificate.”

Internet café owners in Rangoon, the former capital, are expected to follow strict guidelines to monitor users. It extends to keeping tabs on the identity of the user, the duration of Internet usage and the list of websites visited. Access to such websites like YouTube and e-mail services like Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail has been blocked.

No wonder the Electronics Act has been singled out by the exiled Burmese media as a major threat ahead of – and during – the general elections the junta has pledged to conduct this year. “It will be hard for the citizen journalists and other reporters inside Burma to work ahead of the polls,” said Aung Zaw, editor of ‘The Irrawaddy’, a current affairs magazine published by Burmese journalists exiled in Thailand. “The bloggers and citizen journalists will have a big role to play as they did during the Saffron Revolution.”

But the junta, it appears, is steeling itself to avoid a repeat of the video clips and blogs that flowed out of Burma when the September 2007 pro- democracy protest was crushed. “The sentencing of Hla Hla Win is all part of the regime’s preparations to impose more media controls ahead of the elections,” Aung Zaw told IPS.

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