11. Freedom of Opinion, Expression, and the Press
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
- Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
- Article 27, paragraph 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Freedoms of opinion, expression, and the press have been virtually non-existent in Burma since the military coup of 1988. The Press Scrutiny Board, a division of the powerful Ministry of Information, examines every publication for anything perceived as ‘anti-government.’ Similar censorship boards retain tight control over art, music, film, performance, and all other forms of artistic expression. All authors, publishers, journalists and poets must submit a personal biography to the board of literary censorship. The board then investigates to find out if these individuals have any association to opposition political parties or connections to other people or groups deemed threatening by the regime. Anyone suspected or proved to have ‘undesirable’ connections is placed on a blacklist and their work is not allowed to be published.
People’s access to information in Burma is officially limited to one main State run news agency that disseminates information to government controlled newspapers, radio, and television stations. Burma’s four daily newspapers are all published by the News and Periodicals Enterprise, a division of the Ministry of Information. While in 2003 there were approximately 50 private weekly and monthly magazines published in Rangoon, all were kept under close scrutiny by the regime. Burmese people are well aware that much of the news from official sources is propaganda, and to find out what is really happening in their own country and the rest of the world they must depend on sources of information outlawed by the regime.
The main sources of outside information are the daily Burmese-language radio broadcasts by Radio Free Asia (RFA), Voice of America (VOA), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). In addition, a limited number of publications by exiled groups working along the Thai/Burma border are regularly smuggled into the country. The SPDC is aware of and attempts to cut off these sources of information. Outside radio broadcasts are closely monitored and sometimes scrambled, and individuals caught distributing or possessing dissident news material are punished. As of 2003, within Burma, there was still almost no underground press activity, as the students who undertook such activities in the past, have largely been imprisoned, killed, or forced into hiding or exile.
As part of their overall effort to control information, the military regime severely restricts all forms of communication. Without a government permit, which is expensive and difficult to obtain, individuals can be arrested for possessing or using fax machines, mobile phones, photocopiers or computers. The Internet can only be accessed through a company called Bagan Cybertech, which is partially government owned and is also run by Ye Naung Win, the son of Burma's Prime Minister, Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt. The cost of this service however, has effectively barred most people in Burma from being able to use the Internet. (See section on the internet and electronic mail in Burma, below.)
International Media watchdog groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) have repeatedly criticized the Burmese regime for its suppression of press freedoms, and its imprisonment of journalists. RSF's annuals ratings of countries by their level of 'Press Freedom' placed Burma in the 164th place, above only North Korea and Cuba, out of the 166 countries reviewed for 2003. (Source: "Attacks on the Press in 2003," CPJ, 19 May 2004)
11.2 SPDC Laws Restricting Freedom of Opinion, Expression, and the Press
(Source: Burma UN Service Office)
The Official Secrets Act 1923
This law makes it an offence, among other things, to possess, control, receive or communicate any document or information, the disclosure of which is likely to affect the sovereignty and integrity of the State or friendly relations with foreign nations or is otherwise prejudicial to the safety of the State (section 5). No exception is made for disclosure of classified information on public interest grounds. Anyone convicted of an offence is liable to be punished with imprisonment for up to two years, or with a fine, or with both. Other, lesser known laws have been used by the military regime to justify their frequent clampdown on freedom of statement. These include:
The Burma Wireless Telegraphy Act 1933
This act makes it an offence to possess, without official permission, any ‘wireless telegraphy apparatus’. This law was amended in 1995 to cover the use of unlicensed fax machines, and again in 1996 to cover computer modems. Anyone found possessing these apparatus without official permission was made liable to be imprisoned for up to three years or fined up to 30,000 kyat. In April 1996, the SLORC used this law to prosecute James Leander Nichols, a close friend of Aung San Suu Kyi, on charges of operating unregistered telephone and facsimile lines from his home in Rangoon. Nichols was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, but died two months into his prison term, allegedly as a result of previous medical problems.
Section 122, Penal Code of Burma
This section of the Penal Code makes it an offence to commit treason against the Government. This offence is punishable with death or with imprisonment for life. Several of the NLD functionaries who attended meetings in Mandalay in September and October 1990 with a view to forming a provisional government-in-exile after the election results were disregarded, were arrested and sentenced from 10 to 25 years’ imprisonment under this section.
The Law Protecting the Peaceful and Systematic Transfer of State Responsibility and the Successful Performance of the Functions of the National Convention against Disturbances and Oppositions
This law makes it an offence, among other things, to incite, demonstrate, deliver speeches, make oral or written statements and disseminate anything which would ‘disrupt and deteriorate the stability of the state, community peace and tranquility and prevalence of law and order’, or ‘affect and destroy national reconsolidation’, or ‘affect, destroy and belittle the tasks being implemented at the National Convention for the emergence of a firm and enduring Constitution and cause misunderstanding among the people’. It also forbids anyone from drawing up or writing or distributing a Constitution for the country without legal authorization, and makes any attempts at collaboration in any of the above-mentioned acts an offence.
Each of these acts is made punishable with imprisonment from between three months to twenty years and a possible fine. Organizations found guilty of any of the offences risk being banned or disbanded and their properties confiscated. This law was used, for example, against nine students in September 1996 after they had distributed leaflets outside Aung San Suu Kyi’s house in Rangoon. Observers believe this law specifically targets the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi who, in 1996, announced that she and her colleagues had decided to write a new constitution for the country due to the SLORC’s continued refusal to hand over power to the 1990 elected representatives.
Emergency Provisions Act 1950
This law confers sweeping powers on the authorities to silence and punish any real or perceived dissent, even in the absence of a proclaimed state of emergency.
It is an offence, punishable with imprisonment for up to seven years, to commit any act which ‘violates or infringes upon the integrity, health, conduct and respect of State military organizations and government employees towards the Government’ (art. 5(a)), or ‘causes or intends to spread false news about the Government’ (art. 5(e)), or ‘causes or intends to disrupt the morality or the behavior of a group of people or the general public’ (art. 5(j)).
Article 3 renders any act which is ‘intended to cause, or causes, sabotage or hinders the successful functioning of the State military organization and criminal investigative organizations’ liable to be punished with death or life imprisonment.
Similar punishment is prescribed for ‘collecting and divulging, or intending to divulge, information to people involved in treason against the State, on the movements, the strength, the location, the guidelines and regional defense strategies of the State military organizations and criminal investigative organizations who are engaged in preserving the stability of the State’ (art. 2).
The Printers and Publishers Registration Law 1962
This law has historically been the main instrument of official censorship, requiring all books, magazines, other periodicals, song lyrics, and motion picture scripts to be submitted for vetting to the SPDC prior to publication or, in some cases, prior to distribution. The effect has been to shut out any criticism whatsoever of the regime. Anyone who fails to comply with any rules or regulations framed under the law could be imprisoned for up to seven years and fined up to 30,000 kyat.
State Protection Law 1975 (also known as the ‘Law to Safeguard the State from the Dangers of Destructive Elements’)
This law allows the Government to declare a state of emergency in a part or the whole of Burma and to restrict any fundamental rights of the citizens in specified regions or all over the country (section 4).
The law gives the authorities sweeping powers: anyone who is suspected of having committed, or who is committing, or who is about to commit, any act which ‘endangers the sovereignty and security of the State or public peace and tranquility’, can be imprisoned for up to five years without trial on the orders of the executive (section 14, as amended by Law 11/91, dated 9 Aug. 1991).
This law also allows the executive to pass restriction orders under which anyone can be confined to a specified area or have their freedom of movement otherwise restrained, or be prohibited from possessing or using specified articles (section 11). No order passed under this law can be the subject of an appeal to any court, although appeals are allowed to be made to the Union Cabinet.
The Television and Video Law
This law provides for compulsory licensing of television sets, video cassette recorders and satellite television by the Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraphs, and of the video business by newly constituted State or Divisional Video Business Supervisory Committees. The latter have been given responsibility for deciding on the grant of video business licenses and for inspecting and supervising video businesses within their territorial jurisdictions.
The law also provides for mandatory censorship of all videotapes, whether locally produced or imported, by a Video Censor Board composed of government officials and representatives of the public. The requirement of obtaining censorship certificates has been extended also to videotapes imported by foreign diplomatic missions or agencies of the UN for public exhibition. Operation of a television transmission business without permission from the SPDC is punishable by imprisonment for up to five years or an unspecified fine.
The Motion Picture Law
This law creates a regime of censorship for conventional cinematograph films. A license must be obtained from the Myanmar Motion Picture Enterprise, a State agency, in order to produce any kind of film. Violation of the terms and conditions of a license are punishable with a fine ranging from 5,000 kyat to 50,000 kyat and with revocation of the license. The law also provides for the establishment of a Motion Picture Censor Board. Foreign diplomatic missions and the UN have been made subject to the censorship regime under this law. Appeals against decisions by both entities can only be made to the Ministry of Information whose decisions on appeals are final and conclusive.
The Computer Science Development Law
This law requires anyone who wishes to import, possess or use computer equipment, notably those with networking or communication facility, to obtain a license from the Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraphs. It also requires those who wish to set up ‘a computer network or connecting a link inside the computer network’ to apply for prior sanction to that Ministry’ (section 28).
The Ministry is granted absolute power to grant or refuse licenses and sanctions and to impose conditions. Failure to obtain a license or sanction is made punishable with imprisonment for between seven and 15 years and with an unspecified fine (sections. 31, 32).
It establishes strict controls on the formation and operation of computer-related associations. Three types of associations may be formed with official sanction (the Computer Enthusiasts, Entrepreneurs’ and Scientists’ Associations), all others are illegal. Anyone forming, running or belonging to an illegal association is liable to be punished with imprisonment for up to three years, or with a fine, or with both.
The law in Burma makes attempts or conspiracy to commit an offence punishable with the same severity as the offence itself.
11.3 State of the ‘Freedom of the Press’ in Burma
In 2003, the regulation and restrictions on press freedom in Burma remained some of the world's most repressive. In the international rankings of press freedom by Reporters Sans Frontiers, Burma was rated at third from last place for the second consecutive year. The continued repression of the press in Burma indicates that restrictions were not eased during 2003. (Source: "Burma third from last in World Press Freedom Ranking," Mizzima, 20 October 2003)
Strict government censorship of all publications continued throughout the year and the SPDC continued to prohibit journalists from reporting on any events of real importance. Topics banned from media coverage included: natural disasters, the AIDS epidemic, human rights developments, drugs, debates about government policies, criticisms and commentary about the poor state of the national economy (such as the banking crisis in February), or any local, national or international news which could be seen as uncomplimentary to the Government (such as the 30 May attack near Depayin). On 17 February, there was also a ban on reporting about the deaths of 14 students in a bus crash on the road from Syriam to Rangoon (source: Burma - 2004 Annual Report, RSF, 20 October 2004).
Severely restricted in the news they can print, the 50 or so private journals published in Burma are also regularly forced to pay stiff bribes just to get non-offensive materials approved by the State censorship boards. If an article is found to violate government standards, the editors are forced to change the entire layout of the magazine to hide the removal of the censored material. There is therefore a strong incentive for magazine editors and writers to engage in self-censorship in order to avoid this extremely time-consuming and expensive process.
One publication which appears to be able to operate with slightly less censorship is The Myanmar Times, a glossy weekly magazine launched in March 2000, and published in English and Burmese. The magazine is privately owned by an Australian publisher, but is closely linked with the Office of Strategic Studies (OSS), which is controlled by military intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt (who was appointed to the position of Prime Minister on 25 August 2003). The Myanmar Times has more latitude than any other news source in the topics it is allowed to cover, and reported issues have included articles about the reopening of NLD offices and the dialogue between the regime and Aung San Suu Kyi. Many analysts have argued however, that The Myanmar Times is just a more subtle propaganda tool controlled by Khin Nyunt and is primarily aimed at attracting foreign investment. In terms of increasing access to information, The Myanmar Times has had little impact as, at 500 kyat per copy, most Burmese cannot afford to purchase the publication.
Harassment and arrest of journalists also continued throughout 2003. The offices of newspapers were repeatedly visited by government officials in order to warn journalists and publishers about specific incidents about which they were not allowed to write or print. Most notably these included the banking crisis and the 30 May attacks on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's motorcade near Depayin, Sagaing Division. (See chapter on assembly and association for more information about the events of 30 May.)
Foreign journalists, while not subject to the same risks and pressures as Burmese journalists, also face restrictions on reporting news from Burma. International journalists who write articles critical of the regime can find themselves banned from the country. Swedish journalist, Bertil Lintner, a reporter for the Far Eastern Economic Review and internationally renowned authority on Burma, has been blacklisted from the country for the past sixteen years. No foreign journalists are allowed to live in Rangoon, with the exception of one correspondent for China’s official Xinhua News Agency. Visiting foreign reporters must apply for special journalist visas as well as a "Permit to Conduct Journalistic Activities." In the past, reporters granted visas were kept under close surveillance by Military Intelligence (MI) agents, who often tried to prevent them from interviewing opposition leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi. (Source: "Attacks on the Press in 2003," CPJ, 19 May 2004)
As a result of the heavy control of journalism in Burma, most citizens choose to get their news from various foreign radio stations. These are the BBC, Voice of America, Democratic Voice of Burma, and Radio Free Asia. In 2003, it was reported that close to 95% of civilians, as well as members of the military rely on foreign radio broadcasts for information about events inside Burma. (Source: "Thanks to the foreign Burmese radio services," Narinjara, 11 June 2003)
Publications in Burma go through two levels of screening in addition the censorship that writers and printers impose upon themselves. Initially there is pre-publication censorship, which is administered by the Literary Works Scrutinizing Committee, a branch administration under the Ministry of the Interior. Following this, publications are reviewed every Saturday by the Censorship Committee, which decides whether to give authorization for distribution of the material. Every three months a review of media activity is sent by the Censorship Committee to the Ministry of the Interior. After an initial authorization by the central censorship office in Rangoon, publications are directed to their local office for regular screening (source: Burma - 2004 Annual Report, RSF, 20 October 2004). Publication agencies are also frequently sent government prepared stories to be printed. Compliance in using this material often brings monetary benefits but refusal may result in a government crackdown on the dissenting office. (Source: "Attacks on the Press in 2003," CPJ, 19 May 2004)
Military junta ban the reporting of the banking crisis
In February 2003, Burma's financial sector fell to near collapse as a result of the Government's closer of about a dozen investment firms that had previously offered higher interest rates than the banks. The public began lining up to make withdrawals and checks could not be cashed after the Central Bank had banned transfers and placed a limit on withdrawals in order to limit the economic impact. (Source: “Myanmar Media Black out News of Bank Runs," AP, 20 February 2003)
On 19 February, the Press Scrutiny Board called a meeting and warned business magazines not to publish anything mentioning the banking crisis and threatened them with reprisals should they fail to comply. Even Rangoon's only independently owned newspaper, The Myanmar Times, which had previously been given slightly more press freedom, was restricted from mentioning the situation. This censorship followed the Central Bank's policy of trying to prevent further economic collapse. In a statement released in March, Reporters Sans Frontieres stated that, "[the] blackout imposed by the military junta on a crisis in Burma's banking system is flagrant violation of the right of the Burmese people to be freely informed." (Source: "Burma - News blackout: Flagrant Violation of the Right of the Burmese People to Be Freely Informed," RSF and Burma Media Association, 5 June 2003)
On 30 May, in Sagaing Division, a photojournalist named Tin Maung Oo, who had frequently worked with the NLD was beaten to death by military backed assailants on the road to Depayin outside of Kyi village. He had been trying to take photographs of the violence during the attack on the NLD motorcade. (Source: Burma - 2004 Annual Report, RSF, 20 October 2004)
Immediately following the 30 May attack on Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD motorcade in Sagaing Division, the military authorities cracked down on potential sources of unrest. While the international media reported that the attack had been pre-meditated and SPDC-backed, all domestic news agencies were restricted from publishing views and information other than that which supported the SPDC claim that anti-NLD individuals had attacked the convoy after the NLD had tried to incite the people to make an armed uprising and other "acts counter to democracy". (Source: "Attacks on the Press in 2003," CPJ, 19 May 2004)
The Government's English language newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, ran a series of articles that began after the incident at Depayin in which an alleged NLD member published a first person account of his experiences with the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi. The overt criticisms in the articles were seemingly intended to discredit Aung San Suu Kyi and drive support away from her. (Source: “Daw Suu Kyi, the NLD Party and Our Ray of Hope (Part 1)," New Light of Myanmar, 5 July 2003)
Students have historically been a source of opposition, and the SPDC therefore suspended all primary, secondary, and university classes throughout the country immediately following the 30 May attack. The closures affected all schools under the Ministry of Education but the Yangon Technology University, which is run under the Ministry of Technology, was also shut down. The summer break for schools was therefore extended until 1 July. (Source: “Myanmar Officials Turn Away University Students after Suu Kyi Detention," AP, 2 June 2003)
Arrest and sentencing of a sports writer
On 17 July, MI agents raided the office of a well-known weekly sports magazine named First Eleven. During the raid the agents arrested five employees, including Editor Zaw Myint, chief officer Dr. Than Htut Aung, another staff member Soe Pa Pa Hlaing, Myint Zaw — who worked for a separate but affiliated news journal in Rangoon. In addition, they arrested the chief editor, Zaw Thet Htway, who had also been a former member of the Democratic Party for a New Society, a banned political opposition group, and had spent time incarcerated as a political prisoner in the 90s. During the raid the agents allegedly beat Zaw Thet Htway and confiscated unregistered equipment including fax machines, a computer with an installed modem, and a satellite dish. (Source: “Journal Office Raided, Editors Arrested," Irrawaddy, 22 July 2003)
Four of the staff members were released after two days of questioning but Zaw Thet Htawy was kept in custody and on 28 November he was sentenced to death by a special court inside Rangoon's Insein Prison under article 122/1 of the law on high treason for allegedly plotting to assassinate government officials and create instability in the country. The sentence was later commuted to three years imprisonment.
Exiled Burmese media groups claimed that MI had warned Zaw Thet Htway in June of 2003 after First Eleven had published an article questioning the spending of an international grant for the development on Burma's community football programs. He had subsequently published an article about fines imposed on a Burmese football team that did not participate in an Asian Football tournament. (Source: “Outrage over Death Sentence Passed on Sports Magazine Chief Editor," RSF, 3 December 2003)
In 2003, the SPDC reported the release of four journalists, though one of these, Yan Aung Soe, had been released in December 2002 after serving three years and two months in Myaungmya Prison. Yan Aung Soe had frequently published academic reviews between 1994 and 1997 and was imprisoned in October 1998 after having edited and distributed leaflets for the NLD. Initially he had been sentenced to a few weeks imprisonment, but this was subsequently changed to 59 years by a special prison tribunal. The sentence was later abrogated.
On 16 March 2003, the SPDC reported the release of journalist Myint Thein, who had served six years and three months in Thayet Prison. He had written articles relating to international relations before his arrest on 4 December 1996. He was seized by police during the student demonstrations in Rangoon in 1996 and was subsequently beaten quite severely during his interrogation.
On 28 April 2003, journalist, Dr. Zaw Min, and literary critic, Ko Htay Thein, were released after 14 years imprisonment. They had originally been sentenced to 20 years on charges of being linked to the Communist Party of Burma. Both suffered severe health deterioration during their incarceration and Htay Thein had attempted suicide several times while in prison. (Source: Burma - 2004 Annual Report, RSF, 20 October 2004)
11.4 Continuing Detention of Journalists
Despite the military's continued claims to have released large numbers of political prisoners, there were still at least 16 journalists in prison at the end of 2003. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that there were 10 journalists incarcerated as of 31 December 2003, though Reporters sans Frontiers (RSF) reported the total to be 15 as of the same date. The combined lists gave the names of 17 prisoners, though the status of one of these, Maung Maung Lay Ngwe, remained unclear as of 2003.
U Win Tin
U Win Tin, the 73-year-old former editor-in-chief of the Hanthawati and vice chairman of the Burma's Writers Association, completed his 15th year in prison during 2003. Originally arrested on 4 July 1989 for allegedly arranging a "forced abortion" for a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), he was later sentenced to an additional 10 years in 1992 for "writing and publishing pamphlets to incite treason against the State" and "giving seditious talks." U Win Tin had been a senior leader with the NLD and worked in 1988 to establish independent publications during the brief period of press freedom brought on by the student led democracy movement. On 28 March 1996, U Win Tin's sentence was extended by another seven years after he was charged under Section 5(e) of the Emergency Provisions Act for having "secretly published anti-government propaganda to create riots in jail." Included among these prison publications was a report for the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma about the conditions inside Rangoon's Insein Prison.
In 2003, he was being kept in the Prison Ward of the Rangoon General Hospital as he was in very poor physical condition. Due to extended years of poor treatment in Burma's prisons, he was suffering from numerous diseases and health disorders. On 5 February, Amnesty International met with him for close to an hour and reported that his health was steady but that he was suffering from urinary problems. On 21 March, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma Paulo Sergio Pinheiro also spent an hour visiting with U Win Tin. In 2003, he turned 73 years old and his cumulative prison sentence was 20 years, ending in 2009. (Source: "Attacks on the Press in 2003," CPJ, 19 May 2004)
Ohn Kyaing and Thein Tan
On 6 September 1990, Ohn Kyaing and Thein Tan were arrested along with four other leaders from the NLD and sentenced to seven years in prison by a military tribunal. According to the State radio broadcast, the group was charged with "inciting unrest by writing false reports about the unrest, which occurred in Mandalay on 8 August 1990." Ohn Kyaing was the editor of the Botahtaung newspaper and one of the most prominent of Burma's journalists. In 1988, he became actively involved with the pro-democracy movement. He was elected to parliament as the NLD representative for a district in Mandalay in the 1990 elections. Thein Tan was a freelance journalist and was also involved with the NLD. Despite both men's sentences having been reduced to 10 years, they were both still in prison at the end of 2003. (Source: "Attacks on the Press in 2003," CPJ, 19 May 2004)
Maung Maung Lay Ngwe
Maung Maung Lay Ngwe's status at the end of 2003 was uncertain. The Committee to Protect Journalists believed that he may have been released though they could not follow up on his status or find any records of his sentencing. He was arrested in September of 1990 after writing and distributing publications that were collectively titled Pe-Tin-Than (Echoes). He was charged with producing material that would "make people lose respect for the Government." (Source: "Attacks on the Press in 2003," CPJ, 19 May 2004)
Sein Hla Oo
Sein Hla Oo was a freelance journalist and former editor for the Botahtaung newspaper. He was arrested on 5 August 1994 on charges of contacting anti-government groups and spreading information damaging to the State. On 6 October 1994, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. Government officials claimed that Sein Hla Oo had "fabricated and sent anti-government reports" to diplomats in foreign embassies, foreign radio stations, and foreign journalists. He was elected to Parliament in 1990 representing the National League for Democracy (NLD) and had previously been imprisoned for his political activities. Though his second sentence of seven years had expired by 2003, he was being made to complete the remainder of the abrogated 10 year sentence from his previous conviction, of which he had only served one year and eight months. (Source: "Attacks on the Press in 2003," CPJ, 19 May 2004)
Aung Htun and Tha Ban
Aung Htun was imprisoned in February 1998 for contributing to a seven-volume text that documented the history of the Burmese student movement. He had been a writer and activist involved with the banned, All Burma Federation of Students Unions. His sentence totaled 17 years in prison for violating the 1962 Printer and Publishers Registration Act (three years), the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act (seven years), and the 1908 Unlawful Associations Act (seven years). In 2003, he was being confined in Tharawaddy Prison.
Arakanese journalist Tha Ban and five others were also prosecuted for their involvement in the writing of the same seven-volume text. Tha Ban was a former editor at Kyemon newspaper and a prominent Arakanese activist. He was sentenced to seven years and was being held at Insein Prison. In 2003, he underwent surgery for his degenerating eye-sight. Both Tha Ban and Aung Htun were reportedly suffering from a variety of illnesses. (Source: "Attacks on the Press in 2003," CPJ, 19 May 2004)
Aung Pwint and Thaung Tun
Aung Pwint, who worked as a videographer, editor, and poet, was arrested in early October 1999. Thaung Tun, who worked as an editor, reporter, and poet and is better known by his pen name Nyein Thit, was arrested separately though also in early October 1999. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that the two men were arrested for "making independent video documentaries that portrayed 'real life' in Burma, including footage of forced labor and hardship in rural areas." Aung Pwint was employed at a private media company that produced videos that were used for tourism and educational purposes, but he also worked with Thaung Tun on video documentaries. Their videotapes managed to get circulated throughout Burma through underground networks.
The Committee to Protect Journalists also stated that, "The military government had prohibited Aung Pwint from making videos in 1996, 'because they were considered to show too negative a picture of Burmese society and living standards,' according to Human Rights Watch." Human Rights Watch previously awarded Aung Pwint a Hellman-Hammett grant in 2001 in recognition of his efforts to disclose the realities in Burma.
Aung Pwint and Thaung Tun were tried together, and they were both was sentenced to eight years in prison. Aung Pwint was initially held inside Insein Prison though later he was transferred to Tharawaddy Prison. Thaung Tun was incarcerated at Moulmein Prison, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPPB). (Source: "Attacks on the Press in 2003," CPJ, 19 May 2004)
Zaw Thet Htway
(See sub-section on the arrest and sentencing of a sports writer in the section on the state of the ‘Freedom of the Press’ in Burma, above.)
Kyi Tin Oo, who was 61 years old in 2003, was imprisoned on 1 March 1994 and sentenced to 10 years in prison by a special court inside Insein Prison under articles 5(j) of the Protection of the State Act and 17(l) of the Illegal Associations Act. The main source of incrimination came from his political writing in the monthly magazine Moe Wai, which closed in 1996 for financial reasons, and the magazine Tha-bin, which was banned in 1988. He had been previously arrested for his dissenting publications and, as of 2003, had spent 19 of the past 40 years of his life in prison. (Source: Burma - 2004 Annual Report, RSF, 20 October 2004)
Sein Ohn, who had worked as a camera operator with the NLD, was arrested in September 1996 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for distributing uncensored video material and possessing "undeclared" imported equipment (a video camera and video cassette recorder). He had shot extensive footage of Aung San Suu Kyi and made documentary videos that were critical of the military's policies. In 1996, Sein Ohn produced a video that documented peasants complaining of the failure of the Government to provide relief after extensive flooding in the Irrawaddy delta. As of 2003, Sein Oo was suffering from internal health problems and was being held at Mandalay Prison. (Source: Burma - 2004 Annual Report, RSF, 20 October 2004)
Aung Myint was arrested on 14 September 2000 by MIS officials and later sentenced to 21 years in prison on 20 December of the same year. He was charged with disseminating news about the NLD to foreign news agencies and western embassies in Rangoon. He was also known by the pseudonym "Phya Pon" Ni Loan Oo under which he had previously written for the magazines Cherry and Mahaythi. Much of his writing was banned by government censors or rejected by privately owned magazines. At the end of 2003, he was still being held at Insein Prison. (Source: Burma - 2004 Annual Report, RSF, 20 October 2004)
Aung Zin Min
Aung Zin Min was arrested in December 1996 and sentenced to seven years in prison for supporting the 1996 student demonstrations through his poetry. His work was primarily published in the magazine New Style, which he partly edited. By 2003, he was suffering from depression and serious memory problems which began the previous year. He received limited support from his family, and the food supplements that he did get were reported to be inadequate to support his nutritional requirements in prison. In 2003, his health continued to decline and he was kept at Thayet Prison, in the centre of Burma. (Source: Burma - 2004 Annual Report, RSF, 20 October 2004)
Kyaw Saw, known by the pseudonym Cho Seint, was arrested in May, 1997 for his support of the 1996 student protests. He wrote articles and poems expressing his solidarity with the demonstrators. These were published in opposition magazines. He was sentenced to seven years and sent to Tharrawaddy Prison shortly after his arrest. During his initial interrogation he was badly beaten which caused partial deafness. He is the grandson of Thakin Kotaw Hmime, one of the fathers of Burma's independence along with Gen. Aung San. His family has been deprived of resources by the Government, and he has received few visitors or assistance from outside of the prison. (Source: Burma - 2004 Annual Report, RSF, 20 October 2004)
Khin Maung Win
Khin Maung Win, also known as Sunny, is a photographer and cameraman who was imprisoned in June 1997. He was charged with participation in a group of dissidents involved with subversive activities who were termed "puppets of the American government" by the then Gen. Khin Nyunt (he has since been named Lt. Gen.). Khin Maung Win was sentenced to seven years in prison as a result of his assistance with an interview of Aung San Suu Kyi prior to a 1997 Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit. At the end of 2003, he was still being held at Loi-Kaw Prison, over 300 km north-east of Rangoon. (Source: Burma - 2004 Annual Report, RSF, 20 October 2004)
In September 2000, Monywa Aung-Shin was arrested and subsequently sentenced under article 17(20) of the Emergency Act to a seven-year prison term. He had been an editor for the magazine Sar-maw-khung (Literary World) before it was banned in 1990 and then worked as one of the NLD's press officers. (Source: Burma - 2004 Annual Report, RSF, 20 October 2004)
11.5 Academic Freedom
There is no academic freedom in Burma, and the Ministry of Education controls the selection of all faculty and students at universities. No new academic programs or courses can be initiated in the country without government permission. All academic discussions and seminars must be government sponsored, and moderators and university faculty members leading these events are chosen by the regime. The Ministry of Education, Ministry of Science and Technology, Human Resource Departments, and Ministry of Defense regularly organize academic seminars and symposiums affiliated with foreign institutes or governments, under the titles "Social Development," "Economy," "Education," or "Human Resources." Many Burmese scholars are invited to these events and encouraged to "freely" participate and present their papers and research on specific topics. However, all papers and other information presented by scholars at these seminars are banned from public distribution, and reports from these seminars are generally ignored by the military authorities once the event is over. (Source: 2002 Education Report, ABFSU, May 2003)
In their Country Report on Human Rights Practices - 2003, the United States Department of State indicated, "The Government continued to restrict academic freedom severely... The Ministry of Higher Education routinely warned teachers against criticizing the Government. It also instructed them not to discuss politics while at work." The SPDC further extended their control of schools, as in previous years, by coercing professors and teachers into joining the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA), the government's civilian mobilization organization. (Source: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2003, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 25 February 2004)
University professors are forbidden to say anything critical in their lectures about the curriculum, the education system or the military regime in general. MI and government officials regularly join university meetings to remind academics of these laws and to intimidate them into submission. Members of MI are reportedly present in every classroom to report on teachers or students who speak out against the military regime. All academic articles and papers are subject to censorship, and academic publications cannot be issued, or even distributed within the university, without government permission. Burmese scholars who criticize the Government or contradict government policy are frequently prohibited from publishing articles in their field of study. (Source: 2002 Education Report, ABFSU, May 2003)
Newsletters, research booklets and academic reviews issued by the departments of various educational institutes have been banned since the start of military rule in 1962. Students are prohibited as well from publishing course reviews and study guides, and only government sponsored textbooks on these subjects are available. Students are also discouraged from undertaking research and writing outside of their coursework. (Source: 2002 Education Report, ABFSU, May 20033)
Thesis proposals from graduate students studying subjects such as History, Burmese, English, International Relations, and Social Development, must all be submitted to MI and university authorities for approval. A small number of Burmese students are able to pursue graduate studies at universities in Japan and Singapore through scholarship programs. However, officials from the Burmese Embassy reportedly show up to monitor these students’ thesis defenses to ensure that none of their research could be interpreted as ‘anti-government.’ (Source: 2002 Education Report, ABFSU, May 2003) (For additional information on education in Burma see chapter on about rights of education and health.)
In March, the Censorship Office banned the publication of all articles written by historian, Than Tun. Previous articles by Than Tun had appeared primarily in Klaya, a monthly magazine based out of Rangoon. The ban came after the historian had refuted the Government’s claims that three white elephants found in Western Burma's Arakan State over the past few years were an omen of coming good fortune for the country. It was also claimed that Than Tun's articles, which had previously focus on Burma's 18th century dynastic history, had made too many references to events that could be applied to the country's current situation. (Source: “Junta Bans Historian’s Articles," Irrawaddy, 18 March 2003)
11.6 Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Expression
The SPDC restricts freedom of expression in any form. Government reprisals most commonly fall on those who have expressed criticisms of any aspect of the military authority or policies. In 2003, incidents relating to the distribution of leaflets critical to the regime and vocal statements along similar lines regularly resulted in the imprisonment of anyone involved either directly or indirectly.
Subsequent to the 30 May attack on Aung San Suu Kyi and her motorcade near Depayin, Sagaing Division, there was an increase in the incarceration of those who peacefully expressed their views. Most of those involved in these acts were charged under Article 5(j) of the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, which provides for up to seven years' imprisonment for "anyone who causes or intends to disrupt the morality or behavior of a group of people... or to disrupt the security or reconstruction of stability of the union". This law was applied to similar acts of expression in previous years. (Source: "Myanmar: Amnesty International's Second Visit to Myanmar Official Statement," Amnesty International, 22 December 2003)
Arrest of protesting nuns
On 16 January, two Buddhist nuns were arrested for staging a protest outside of the Rangoon City Hall. The nuns were shouting slogans against the rising cost of living in Burma as well as handing out leaflets calling for the release of all political prisoners and political reforms. The nuns were both sentenced in November at a court inside Insein Prison to terms of 13 years. After the arrest, the two women, who were labeled as "pseudo nuns" by the military authorities, were forced to disrobe and were then tortured. (Source: "Two arrested 'pseudo nuns' received NLD support: Myanmar junta," AFP, 17 January 2003)
SPDC threatens villagers before ICRC missions
On 3 February, in retaliation for speaking to ICRC members about government abuses, two displaced villagers from Laikha Township were beaten by SPDC troops. Military officials met with villagers in public meetings at various villages in Shan State to warn them about speaking about abuses to foreigners. Village headmen were threatened with large fines and up to five years imprisonment as a reprisal for any of their villagers who violated this order. (Source: “No Disclosure to ICRC - Shan State people threatened by Burmese Army Officers," Asian Tribune, 28 February 2003)
The ICRC continued to make visits throughout the year to Shan state, prior to which military officials made repeated threats to the local civilians. Some villagers of particular concern were ordered to leave the area during the visits. According to refugees who fled to Chiang Mai, Thailand after the ICRC's second visit in January, two villagers were beaten by military personnel until they were "bathed in blood". After the ICRC's third visit in June, 2 other villagers were taken from their home and never seen again. As a result of these military reprisals, some Shan families left their homes and headed for the Thai border. (Source: “Red Cross visits Shan area 4th time," Shan Herald Agency for News, 9 September 2003)
Villagers trained to lie to international monitors
On 16 February, government officials held a seminar at Yong-Dong village, Mudon Township, Mon State, where they informed locals how about to "communicate" with international organizations and cover up evidence that could incriminate the military and authorities. Over 100 USDA members attended the training and one claimed that, "We are told not to tell the truth about forced labour to international organizations... It's a course in how to lie to people who ask questions." (Source: “USDA train villagers to lie to international institutions," IMNA, 27 February 2003)
Discovery of listening device
On 22 March, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma Paulo Sergio Pinheiro abruptly ended his fifth mission to investigate the situation of human rights in Burma after he found a listening device hidden in a room where he was interviewing political prisoners. Despite having been granted permission to freely conduct his activities, Pinheiro discovered the listening device during an interview and therefore cut short his mission four days earlier than he had originally intended. He also stated that he felt very angry and disappointed as a result. (Source: “UN rights envoy cuts short Myanmar visit after bugging incident," AFP, 24 March 2003)
On 4 April 2003, after a two man protest outside of the British embassy, eight students were arrested and one fled into the embassy. The protesters were members of the People's Students' Oway Front. During the protest they waived red flags marked with the fighting peacock symbol and shouted slogans. The seven other members were arrested because of their association with this group, despite their lack of direct involvement in the protest. The People's Students' Oway Front had earlier released statements calling for the release of political prisoners. (Source: "Eight students arrested over embassy protest in Myanmar, exiled group says," AFP, 6 May 2003)
On 13 June, six police officers from Khamaunggyi police station in Kawthaung Township were detained. This happened after the men had gotten drunk in June and loudly voiced their complaints about the incident at Depayin. Prior to that time, the men had been warned by senior police officers about discussing their views on the subject. On 3 August, the officers were dismissed from service and sentenced by a police tribunal to one year of hard labour. The arrested officers were: Police Superintendent Thein Win, Police Sergeant Tin Tun, Police Corporal Khin Maung Win, Police Privates Zaw Zaw, Zaw Zaw Aung, and Myo Zaw Oo. (Source: “Six Policemen Dismissed for Discussing 30 May Incident," DVB, 13 August, 2003)
In mid-June, SPDC officials visited Wa leaders in Panghsang, Shan State and reportedly warned them not to contact the NLD or other political groups, or to speak out about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s imprisonment.
On 1 July, however, seven ethnic ceasefire groups including the Kachin Independence Organization, New Mon State Party, Kayan New Land Party, Karenni National People's Liberation Front, Shan State Nationalities People's Liberation Organization, Paulaung State Liberation Organization, and Shan State Peace Council wrote to Senior General Than Shwe in a joint letter expressing concern about the 30 May incident at Depayin.
On 18 August, it was reported that Lt-Gen Thura Shwe Mann had met with other ceasefire group leaders in Kachin State; including U Za Khom Thain Yain, the chairman of New Democratic Army – Kachin (NDAK) in Panwa and, U Lamung Tu Jai, the chairman of Kachin Independent Organization (KIO) in Loinza. It was reported that ethnic leaders were told again in these meetings not to publicly express anything regarding the 30 May attacks. (Source: “Gen. Khin Nyunt meets ceasefire groups' leaders," DVB, 19 Aug 2003)
Between 26 June and 24 July the military regime claimed that 91 political prisoners held in conjunction with the 30 May attack on the NLD had been released. These released prisoners were required to sign contracts stating that they would not discuss anything about the events of 30 May. This form of conditional release is consistent with the SPDC's regular practice, though it is not applied in all cases. (Source: Released Prisoners Given a Silence Order, Irrawaddy, 24 July 2003) (See chapter on arbitrary arrest for more information about the situation of political prisoners.)
Arrest of shopkeeper
On 7 July, a shopkeeper from Mandalay was arrested after he refused an order from police to remove a photo of General Aung San and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi that was hanging in his shop. He was later released on the same day but was ordered to check in with police every month. It was also reported that schools in Mandalay were forbidden to display photos of General Aung San. (See section 11.9 Personal Account, below.) (Source: HRDU, September 2003)
Youths arrested for distributing Leaflets
On 23 August, NLD youth members from Kemmendine Township were arrested after handing out leaflets protesting the events of 30 May and the military's refusal to implement democratic reforms. The leaflets were copies of a widely disseminated letter that was sent to the Committee Representing the People's Parliament (CRPP). (Source: "Burmese Youths Arrested for Distributing Leaflets on May Clashes,” DVB, 23 August 2003)
On 5 September, members of the NLD Youth Wing, Ko Thein Naing Oo and Ma Tin Tin Nyo from Dala Township were both sentenced to seven years in prison after having distributed leaflets referring to the 30 May incident near Depayin, Sagaing Division. The two youths were charged with allegedly attempting to incite the people to revolt under Act 5(j). (Source: "NLD Youth Sentenced,” DVB, 16 September 2003)
At the end of September, seven youths were arrested in Rangoon after reportedly handing out pamphlets denouncing the SPDC’s 'Roadmap to Democracy'. The pamphlets were copies of a statement released by the All Burma Student Democratic Front (ABSDF). (Source: “Seven Students Arrested in Myanmar Capital: Dissident Group,” AFP, 23 October 2003)
On 17 September, the SPDC sentenced Ko Myo Khin, the head NLD youth member from Yankin Township, who had been detained on 3 June, to three years imprisonment. Ko Myo Khin along with three other NLD youth members wrote a letter the day after the 30 May attack at Depayin, urging the regime to reopen the NLD Headquarters. (Source: “Democracy Party Youth Leader Sentenced to Three Years in Jail,” DVB, 26 September 2003)
On 3 October, two youths were arrested while traveling to Kinmunchone Village in Kayan Township, Rangoon Division. Yankin Township NLD youth member, Ma Myint Myint Soe and former political prisoner, Ko Han Win Aung were detained by MI. Ko Han Win Aung was reportedly arrested because of his earlier involvement in distributing leaflets critical of the SPDC’s 'Roadmap'. Ma Myint Myint Soe was apprehended because she happened to be traveling with Ko Han Win Aung at the time. The two individuals were taken to Insein Prison. (Source: “Youths Arrested For Planning To Distribute Anti "Road Map" Leaflets,” BBC, 19 October 2003)
According to the U.S. Department of State, throughout the year, the Government arrested dozens of others for distributing anti-government leaflets, including Thet Naung Soe, Nandar Sit Aung, Zaw Lin Tun, Kyaw Soe Moe, Kyaw Kyaw, and Win Ko. (Source: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2003, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State, 25 February 2004)
Solo protest by ex-soldier
In September, 46-year-old Phone Aung was arrested after staging a solo protest outside of the Rangoon City Hall, where he had stood with a piece of paper hanging from around his neck. The paper demanded political reforms and the release of all political prisoners. In December, he was sentenced to seven years incarceration by a court inside Insein Prison. (Source: "Myanmar democracy demonstrator sentenced to seven years in jail," AP, 12 December 2003)
11.7 Freedom of Expression in the Arts
Writers, poets, filmmakers, actors, musicians, painters, and other artists in Burma are subjected to numerous restrictions which seriously inhibit their freedom of expression. The heavy censorship of the Press Scrutiny Board restricts any artistic expression that might be distributed to repeated themes and only permits the distribution of works whose content refrains from any challenge to the status quo. The censorship board ensures that nothing produced in Burma or imported from outside the country can be interpreted as "anti-military" or "western-influenced" which could be detrimental to "national security" or "culture." The SPDC grants large subsidies, awards, luxuries, and chances to go abroad on artists who choose to be pro-military and who stay away from expressing any ideas deemed political. Artists who fail to fall in line with government policy are isolated and unable to get their artistic work published, distributed, or displayed. Many well known writers and artists are currently living in exile due to the content of their artistic expression.
SPDC dominance of literary gathering
From 6 to 17 January, the Literature and Journal Association, an SPDC run organization, ran a series talks and presentations in Shan State. These dates fell in the Burmese month of Pyatho, during which literary compositions were traditionally celebrated. These talks were given in the cities of Thipaw, Kyawt Me, Lasho, Muse, Kwan Lone, Tant Yan, Lawt Kaing, and Ho Pan. Prior to the events, the local SPDC officials in each city gave talks to the audience in order to disseminate government-sanctioned viewpoints. (Source: "Burmese Literature and Journal Group Will Hold Literature Talk in Shan State," Mizzima News, 5 January 2003)
Filmmakers in Burma are required to submit their scripts to the Press Scrutiny Board, and the censorship boards are notoriously sensitive about what might be interpreted as "anti-regime." Filmmakers in Burma are restricted in how much film they can buy, and after the shooting, the completed film must again be approved by the censors before it is released. Filmmakers are also required to occasionally produce government propaganda films. Actors who work in these films receive benefits and recognition. It has been the case that actors who have participated in pro-military films have won the Burmese Academy Awards. It is also common for actors to be seen in posters or TV specials, which promote the army. Beautiful young female actors dressed in military uniforms appear on calendars saying, "We’re with you!" Such actors are given opportunities for great popularity and wealth.
The two television stations in Burma are known for their overt endorsement of the military regime, and most of the programming is dedicated to showing the "achievements" of the military. There are a limited number of Chinese TV programs and foreign cartoons which make their way onto the airtime. Foreign films are also subject to censorship.
Censorship of Music and Musicians
Musicians face many difficulties in finding ways to express themselves through their music in Burma. The economic situation has made music a formidable occupation as instruments and music lessons are prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthy military and business elite, and finding venues at which to play is difficult. Lyrics to music are put through the same censorship as other writings, and even the musical style itself is often censored. Rock and Roll music is now common in Burma, and other western influenced styles, such as rap, are making their way in, but most western music is not widely available. Instead, Burma has an active "copy" industry, where original western melodies are converted into Burmese lyrics deemed un-harmful to the regime or the "national culture." The regime continues to monitor dress styles of musicians, and forbids them to dance on stage. The regime encourages (through the offering of privileges) musicians to sing government and pro-military songs and to perform at government sponsored events. Those who attempt to refuse are threatened with not being able to have their music produced.
Censorship of Painting, Photography, Sculpture, other Visual Arts, and Performance Art
Painters, photographers, sculptures, and other visual artists are also subjected to military scrutiny. As visual art played an important role in the 1988 uprisings, the regime has taken efforts to put an end to art deemed ‘revolutionary.’ After the military reestablished power in 1988, the fine-arts building at Rangoon University was destroyed and the fine arts program discontinued. Today it is only possible to study visual arts under private tutorship, or at the Cultural University (CU) in Rangoon. The CU, a military institute, is a prime example of the situation of artistic expression in Burma. According to an ABFSU report, ‘The Current Education System in Burma’, the CU only accepts 100-150 students per year, who are all required to be USDA members. The authorities at the Cultural University admit students according to such requirements, without first learning of the applicants’ artistic abilities. In addition, the Minister of Culture of the SPDC has told CU students that if they do not participate in any student strikes or demonstration, the regime will ensure them positions as officers in government administration. At the CU, students of Music and the Dramatic Arts are denied the chance to study international music and western plays, due to prohibitions from the military regime. The professors, lecturers and schoolmasters of the university are academics from the elite military society and military servicemen.
In her book, "Living Silence," author Christina Fink reports that in Burma, art exhibition organizers are required to submit a detailed written description of each of the art items to the Information Ministry prior to any art exhibition in Burma. Then, before the exhibition opens, the authorities come to do a final inspection. If any of the art pieces are considered to be "subversive," the art is not only taken down or away, but also stamped "censored" on the art work itself.
Performance art in Burma has also been restricted. The SPDC has promoted dance as part of its campaign to retain "national culture," yet dancers are only given career opportunities in such government sponsored campaigns or events. Comedy also suffers under the military eye, and comedians who make jokes, however innocent, that are considered to be "disruptive" are often threatened, interrogated, or even detained
11.8 Control of Computer Technology and Communications
Telecommunications in Burma
Telephones have greatly increased in Burma over the last decade but they still remain relatively limited outside of cities. There is approximately 1 phone for every 200 people, with this ratio rising in rural areas. The use of mobile phones in Burma has steadily increased since their introduction in the 1990s. In 2003, the US State Department reported that "[government] security personnel regularly screened private correspondence and telephone calls," (source: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2003, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State, 25 February 2004). The SPDC also maintained heavy control of all electronic communication equipment through the use of licensing and rationing policies. The possession of unregistered equipment such as telephones, fax machines, or modems was punishable by imprisonment and/or a fine. The law regulating this was enacted in 1996 and those found guilty of transgressing it can face up to 15 years imprisonment. (Source: "Internet Censorship and Burma: Does the End Justify the Means?” Wired, 18 March 2003)
Though laws, such as the Burma Wireless Telegraphy Act 1933 (see above), are already in place to control the use of telecommunications equipment, the SPDC began in May 2003 to draft a new communications law which would further serve to regulate the slight, but growing, use of telecommunications equipment and services. (Source: "Myanmar Drafts New Communications Law," Xinhua, 6 October 2003)
On 28 January, during a phone conversation with British Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brian, Aung San Suu Kyi's phone line was cut after repeated interference. There had been recent reports of deliberate interference with Aung San Suu Kyi's phone line preceding this event. (Source: Foreign Commonwealth Office, UK, 28 January 2003)
The Internet and Electronic Mail in Burma
The Internet was officially introduced in Burma in January 2000 when the Ministry of Post, Telegraph and Communications became the sole internet provider in the country. Initially, to connect to the Internet, individuals and businesses first had to obtain a license from the ministry. This was extremely difficult for the average citizen, as priority was first given to government officials and organizations, then to foreign embassies and foreign businesses, and finally to favored local businesses. In March 2002, Bagan Cybertech, a "semi-government" company run by the son of the Military Intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt, and its private joint venture partner, Maykha, began offering public e-mail accounts and restricted internet access. Overall this has done little to democratize internet access, as the company requires that customers pay an installation fee of US$ 260, which puts access out of reach for most of the population who make an average of about US$ 15 a month. As of 2003, over 20,000 people had registered for e-mail accounts through Bagan Cybertech.
In Burma it remains illegal for companies to operate unlicensed private computer networks connected to their overseas offices. On 10 July 2002, the Ministry of Post, Telegraph and Communications issued an order stating that companies must obtain permission to establish such networks which could be used to connect to the Internet. Those found to be in violation of this order can face from 7 to 15 years in jail (source: AP). The Government also monitors the content of e-mails for any "anti-nationalistic" sentiment. At the beginning of 2000, the Ministry of Post, Telegraph and Communications issued regulations for the Internet in which any mention or discussion of politics was explicitly banned.
Through Bagan Cybertech, public users are allowed to send and receive e-mails and have access to about 900 web sites. One sales manager for BaganNet said that in the future they will try to open up more sites requested by subscribers, but only if this is cleared with the board members, who are members of the military elite. Sales manager Ye Htut stated, "Internet users will be able to access all web sites except free e-mail and sites which could have an ill-effect on Myanmar culture." Sites currently accessible include computer-related sites, corporate websites for hotel chains, airlines, international banks, electronics companies, sports sites, a few foreign universities, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and Nasdaq. However internet users are blocked from access to any international news sites, web-based e-mail accounts or search engines. At present some companies and NGOs which have close ties to the Government are being allowed to apply for accounts that will allow them unrestricted internet access. However it is unknown whether or not this permission will be granted by the Government. Prices for these accounts are very steep, at US$ 500 for installation charges, US$ 300 in annual maintenance charges, as well as regular monthly charges.
One law, enacted in 1996, bans the use of the Internet to "undermine the state, law and order, national unity, national culture or the economy." Those who transgress this law risk up to 15 years in jail. The rules also ban any online material considered by the regime to be harmful to the country's interests and any message that directly or indirectly jeopardizes government policies or State security secrets. (Source: "Internet Censorship and Burma: Does the End Justify the Means?" Wired, 18 March 2003)
On 10 March 2003, the first two public internet cafes were opened up in Rangoon where users pay 1,000 kyat for an hour of online access. Bagan Cybertech stated that they would be offering e-mail accounts through these two cafes in the near future. Users were required to register their name, identification number and contact address on their first visit to either of these locations. (Source: “First Internet Cafes Launched," Irrawaddy, 21 May 2003)
11.9 Personal Account
Source: Interviews by Human Rights Documentation Unit
Interview date: 15 September 2003
Name: U Lay Phyu (not real name)
Martial Status: Married
I work as a mirror frame maker in my own shop. I assigned my son Maung Zin Aung (not real name), as the person responsible for my shop because I cannot work any more, as I am becoming old and unhealthy. I basically handed my job over to my son and I usually stay at home and relax.
On 7 July 2003, at approximately 9:00 am, an SPDC car arrived and stopped in front of our shop. Three soldiers got out of the car and walked forward to my shop. One of them was a General but the other two were normal soldiers who did not wear uniforms. They entered my shop through our alter room without permission. They took down the photo of General Aung San and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi that we had hanging on the wall near our alter without reason.
After they took it down, these unidentified men had an argument with my son Maung Zin Aung.
The General said, “Don’t put these photos on the wall.”
Immediately, my son Maung Zin Aung replied, “Why can't we put these photos that my father cherishes and feels strongly attached to on the wall?”
They handcuffed Maung Zin Aung and scolded him saying, "We don’t want to see shopkeepers keep these kinds of photos anymore." They asked Maung Zin Aung, “Are you Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporter?”
It was at this point that I arrived in my shop.
"What is wrong with my son that you have handcuffed him?" I asked the unidentified men.
The General said, "We have come to take down these photos as our commanding officers ordered."
"You don’t need to take down the photos of Aung San Suu Kyi and her family in our shop." I added, "We have had these photos for over 40 years. Furthermore, Aung San Suu Kyi is a leader chosen by and representative of the public, so we keep her photo and respect her."
After I said this, the General asked me to follow them.
“I can follow you if you un-cuff my son's hands,” I replied.
After they un-handcuffed my son, they took me to an investigation camp which is run by the Military Intelligence. I met with two unidentified higher ranking MI officers. They started interrogating me as soon as I arrived. They forbid me to put Daw Aung San Suu Kyi photos in my shop. Instead, they offered me a new suitable place where I could make a shop or a home. They threatened that my shop would be closed and I would be detained if I did not obey their orders. I objected that we have been taking care of these photos since I was child as Aung San Suu Kyi is a daughter of our General Aung San and I do not know what my mistake was.
The MI commanders raised one more question saying, “Are you involved with the political parties?"
I absolutely have never been involved or interested in politics. Then they said, "We trust you and are just telling you not to put these photos in your shop again but we will give you a new place (to live). We have to tell you about this because of the commanding officers’ order. "
I said, "I do not accept your offer and I will continue to hang these photos in my shop. You can arrest me if you want."
Finally, the MI officers ordered me to come to their camp once a month to sign a promise that I am following their orders. Then they released me.
Maung Zin Aung., son of U Lay Phyu, with unhappiness, said that nowadays many of the generations in Burma have never seen a photo of General Aung San, which he was able to see when he was in school.
Table of Contents Facts on Human Rights Violations in Burma 2003