December 2007

Pulling the plug

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Introduction
A sudden sharp increase in fuel prices in Burma precipitated rallies in Rangoon on August 19, 2007. Burmese spend up to 70 percent of their monthly income on food alone, making the fuel price hikes amidst chronic inflation untenable. Over the next month, leadership of the protests passed from former student leaders and a number of female activists to Buddhist monks, with participation swelling to an estimated crowd of 100,000 protesters on September 23. Throughout the crisis, citizen journalists and bloggers continued to feed raw, graphic footage and witness accounts to the outside world via the Internet, even through the first days of a violent crackdown beginning on September 26 that left up to 200 dead. These citizen journalists have been described invariably as 'tech-savvy' university students and youth. However, through 'trusted-contact blogging', multiple generations of Burmese became involved in circulating valuable information not obtainable by traditional means to the rest of the world. Photographs and videos taken with cell phones and digital cameras were dispatched outside the country by way of the Internet and assembled into a patchwork of powerful images.

On September 29, 2007, the Burmese military junta, governing as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), raised the stakes of this information warfare by employing a tactic much cruder and more drastic than a firewall. The SPDC made use of its complete control over the country's Internet gateways to shut down Internet access altogether, and reportedly terminated the majority of cell phone services. It has yet to publicly acknowledge these acts. This was the government's attempt to immobilise and disarm the essential communication tools used by citizen journalists: cell phones and the Internet. The Internet, and correspondingly, information technology, has been credited as the transformative  platform that sets the 'saffron revolution' apart from the '8.8.88' movement. In 1988, a student-led democratic movement was met with a brutal crackdown in which 3,000 Burmese were killed. However, in the recent events of 2007, a relatively small group of Burmese citizens achieved a disproportionate impact on the global awareness and understanding of this current crisis, despite operating in a very limited online space where information is severely controlled.

By the time the protests began, the SPDC had already established one of the world's most restrictive systems of information control, and had been extending its reach into the Internet despite less than 1 percent of the population having online access. ONI testing conducted in late 2006 demonstrated that the two Burmese Internet service providers (ISPs), Myanmar Posts and Telecom (MPT) and BaganNet/Myanmar Teleport (formerly Bagan Cybertech), filtered extensively. They focused overwhelmingly on independent media, political reform, and human rights sites relating to domestic issues.

Until it shut down Internet access on September 29, the Burmese government did not take an entirely systematic approach to filtering. Of the sites found to be blocked, less than a third were blocked on both ISPs. The remaining blocked sites were blocked on one ISP or the other, but not both. Other significant variations among the ISPs, including the inconsistent blocking of pornography and gambling sites, suggested that distinct filtering methods were being used.

Crackdown on Internet use continues

The effort to bring the Internet under tight control intensified in the past few months and culminated in the complete shutdown of access on September 29. However, because it was focused mainly on constricting incoming political information from overseas, the government was unprepared for the outflow of information over the Internet.

After the shutdown, outside observers were likely to have more information related to the developing situation than people inside Burma. On October 11, 2007, during a break in the regulated outages, an Internet user in Rangoon reported that many international news sites were blocked, including CNN and Reuters. As of late 2006, Radio Free Asia and OhmyNews were the only international news sites blocked by both BaganNet and MPT. However, many of the major overseas news sites gathering the stream of images and updates as the protests escalated, including Mizzima News (www.mizzima.com), the Democratic Voice of Burma (www.dvb.no), and Irawaddy (www.irrawaddy.org) have been blocked since 2005. Both ISPs block many other independent news sites focusing on Burmese issues.

The government is just beginning to investigate Internet users who were involved in political activities and transferring information to news agencies. Along with Internet related services such as travel and Web sites, Internet caf

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