Cutting Connectivity in Myanmar

Stephen DeAngelis

October 4, 2007

Few administrations around the world are more brutal than the military regime that controls Myanmar. Unless you’ve been isolated on an island without any connectivity with the rest of the world, you have seen pictures of Buddhist monks and average citizens protesting in the streets and have read about how the regime has tried to crush such demonstrations. The latest development is that the regime has attempted to “unplug” the country from the rest of the world [“Monks Are Silenced, and for Now, Internet Is, Too,” by Seth Mydans, New York Times, 4 October 2007].

“It was about as simple and uncomplicated as shooting demonstrators in the streets. Embarrassed by smuggled video and photographs that showed their people rising up against them, the generals who run Myanmar simply switched off the Internet. Until Friday television screens and newspapers abroad were flooded with scenes of tens of thousands of red-robed monks in the streets and of chaos and violence as the junta stamped out the biggest popular uprising there in two decades. But then the images, text messages and postings stopped, shut down by generals who belatedly grasped the power of the Internet to jeopardize their crackdown.”

There are plenty of political pundits to write about the regime and its maltreatment of Myanmar’s citizens. I want to discuss the power of connectivity to affect change. Even regimes that try to heavily censor the Internet, find that they must eventually change policies that the world finds distasteful. The generals of Myanmar are attempting what people thought was impossible, disconnecting their citizens from the world in the information age.

“‘Finally they realized that this was their biggest enemy, and they took it down,’ said Aung Zaw, editor of an exile magazine based in Thailand called The Irrawaddy, whose Web site has been a leading source of information in recent weeks. The site has been attacked by a virus whose timing raises the possibility that the military government has a few skilled hackers in its ranks. The efficiency of this latest, technological, crackdown raises the question whether the vaunted role of the Internet in undermining repression can stand up to a determined and ruthless government — or whether Myanmar, already isolated from the world, can ride out a prolonged shutdown more easily than most countries.”

The Internet was invented as a network (ARPANET) that could survive nuclear attacks so that command and control of nuclear weapons could be maintained. Since those early days, viruses and bots and have been developed that can wreak havoc on networks. Myanmar is not the first country to use strategically use viruses.

“OpenNet Initiative, which tracks Internet censorship, has documented signs that in recent years several governments — including those of Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — have closed off Internet access, or at least opposition Web sites, during periods preceding elections or times of intense protests. The brief disruptions are known as ‘just in time’ filtering, said Ronald J. Deibert of OpenNet. They are designed to quiet opponents while maintaining an appearance of technical difficulties, thus avoiding criticism from abroad. In 2005, King Gyanendra of Nepal ousted the government and imposed a weeklong communications blackout. Facing massive protests, he ceded control in 2006.”

A network’s weak spots are its nodes. In Myanmar’s case, the limited number of critical nodes (2) is what made taking the net down an apparently easy task. But the regime has gone beyond just taking down the net.

“Myanmar has just two Internet service providers, and shutting them down was not complicated, said David Mathieson, an expert on Myanmar with Human Rights Watch. Along with the Internet, the junta cut off most telephone access to the outside world. Soldiers on the streets confiscated cameras and video-recording cellphones. ‘The crackdown on the media and on information flow is parallel to the physical crackdown,’ he said. ‘It seems they’ve done it quite effectively. Since Friday we’ve seen no new images come out.’ In keeping with the country’s self-imposed isolation over the past half-century, Myanmar’s military seemed prepared to cut the country off from the virtual world just as it had from the world at large. Web access has not been restored, and there is no way to know if or when it might be.”

For the moment, the generals are using the tactic that all despots use to silence opposition — fear. Mydans notes, however, that the information age provides more tacit outlets for leaking information than in times past. As a result, it won’t be long before the curtain of secrecy that now isolates Myanmar will be lifted — if ever so slightly — to provide a peek into the evils being committed in the country’s relative darkness.

“It is not clear how much longer the generals can hold back the future. Technology is making it harder for dictators and juntas to draw a curtain of secrecy. ‘There are always ways people find of getting information out, and authorities always have to struggle with them,’ said Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of ‘A History of News.’ … Before Friday’s blackout, Myanmar’s hit-and-run journalists were staging a virtuoso demonstration of the power of the Internet to outmaneuver a repressive government. A guerrilla army of citizen reporters was smuggling out pictures even as events were unfolding, and the world was watching. … Since the protests began in mid-August, people have sent images and words through SMS text messages and e-mail and on daily blogs, according to some exile groups that received the messages. They have posted notices on Facebook, the social networking Web site. They have sent tiny messages on e-cards. They have updated the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. They also used Internet versions of ‘pigeons’ — the couriers that reporters used in the past to carry out film and reports — handing their material to embassies or nongovernment organizations with satellite connections. Within hours, the images and reports were broadcast back into Myanmar by foreign radio and television stations, informing and connecting a public that hears only propaganda from its government. These technological tricks may offer a model to people elsewhere who are trying to outwit repressive governments. But the generals’ heavy-handed response is probably a less useful model.”

What Mydans means is that as the number of nodes in a country increases the ease with which it the network can be brought down decreases. He talks about China as an example of this phenomenon.

“Nations with larger economies and more ties to the outside world have more at stake. China, for one, could not consider cutting itself off as Myanmar has done, and so control of the Internet is an industry in itself. ‘In China, it’s massive,’ said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project and an adjunct professor at the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. ‘There’s surveillance and intimidation, there’s legal regulation and there is commercial leverage to force private Internet companies to self-censor,’ he said. ‘And there is what we call the Great Firewall, which blocks hundreds of thousands of Web sites outside of China.’ Yet for all its efforts, even China cannot entirely control the Internet, an easier task in a smaller country like Myanmar.”

The results of cutting its citizens off from the world are not only apparent, but inevitable. Myanmar’s economy has tanked and continues to get worse (now ranking 133 out of the 145 countries ranked by the International Labor Organization). The country is considered one of the most corrupt in the world (only Haiti is rated worse). Good things come with connectivity and bad things happen when connections are severed. The only the thing the generals are concerned about is remaining in power. They can mount no arguments that would support the fable that they are acting in the best interests of their fellow citizens. Let’s hope the curtain lifts soon.