Mobiles Hidden in Monks' Robes, Part II

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Nov 04, 2009

This article was written by Emily Jacobi from Digital Democracy. We are publishing her extensive report on Burmese dissidents' use of technology in three parts.  Part I of her report is here.  Names of individuals have been changed to protect their identity. 

Internet crackdown

New technology had fundamentally changed the context inside Burma. Although access at 2007 was less than 1%, even such low penetration of mobile technology and Internet presented a challenge to the regime.

According to a Democratic Voice of Burma TV producer based in Thailand, in the days leading up to the military crackdown, the camera phones concealed in monks' robes and the footage groups like his smuggled out were the only barriers preventing the government from an all-out massacre of protesters.

On Sept. 29, 2007, faced with widespread international condemnation, the junta resorted to a tactic that other governments are increasingly daring in the 21st century and pulled the plug on all internet and mobile phone use in the country, preventing news from coming in or out. The world was watching – and then the screen went blank. Journalists were still concerned, particularly in the face of government killings of monks, but without new images of the brave saffron monks facing down the military tanks and artillery, international media coverage moved on to other topics.   For five whole days there was virtual silence. Internet and mobile usage were not widely restored until Oct. 13th. 

Once the Internet and mobiles were cut and all land lines were tapped, reports of casualties and arrests were all but impossible to verify.  According to the BBC World Service at least 3,000 people were arrested and jailed in the week following the crackdown, including the populations of entire monasteries. But these reports were impossible to verify. 

No other government has attempted such a blackout to date, although the King of Nepal cut Internet access during a 2005 uprising. To most, the consequences of a combined mobile and Internet blackout would be economically disastrous, potentially destabilizing the government’s legitimacy.

The junta’s crackdown demonstrates the danger of a repressive government who controls the nation’s only mobile provider. Analysts fear this will be used as a model for other authoritarian regimes in times of political crisis.

Since the crackdown, there have been no widespread protests inside Burma, but dissent continues to find expression in small and large actions. And it is not only happening inside the country. We traveled around the borders to better understand how groups make use of technology in neighboring countries to support civil society inside Burma.

 Mobile Surprises in Bangladesh

Although the Saffron Uprising became famous thanks to photos from Rangoon, the monk protests actually began in Arakhan state, Western Burma. We traveled to neighboring Bangladesh to meet people who had fled across the border. There, we found surprising ways mobiles are being used by Burmese refugees and dissidents.

Bangladesh has been run by a military care-taker government since December 2006, when the military seized power from the two political parties, and stuck their leaders in a jail below the parliament building. But this military government has had a more supportive policy toward the Burmese refugees and an open policy towards tech.

In 2005, Bangladesh had a mobile penetration rate of just 2.8%.However the country allowed a small handful of mobile companies to operate, who competed with one another to offer affordable mobile bundles in both urban and rural areas. Notably, the leading provider is Grameenphone.  By the end of 2008, mobile subscribers represented almost  30% of the population, and mobile usage continues to grow.

We traveled to a remote part of Southeastern Bangladesh to visit Kutupalong Refugee Camp, one of two refugee camps for some 28,0000 officially recognized Rohingya refugees, a Muslim minority group from Western Burma. In 1992, a major military offensive by the Burmese government pushed over 250,000 (a third of their population) across the Naf River into neighboring Bangladesh – originally, over 20 refugee camps were set up.

Few foreigners aside from UN employees have entered the camps in recent years, but our visit coincided with significant changes at the national level, which had markedly improved the situation for the refugees. Bangladesh’s interim military government was eager to show off the improvements, since the camp’s conditions have previously come under criticism of Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and others.

We were able to enter the camp, and given free range to walk through the grounds, speak with camp residents, and take photographs. Most residents have been in the camp since 1992, but primary schools and clinics were only established within the past five years.

On the second day of the training, Mark was using GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) through Grameenphone on his mobile to check email from our remote location in the camp. Our translator, a 25-year-old camp resident named Mohamed, leaned over his shoulder to ask what he was doing, and Mark told him he was on the internet.

“Oh, I do that,” Mohamed replied, removing a cell phone from his pocket more sophisticated than ours. Mark was surprised and asked how Mohamed had learned to the use the internet on his mobile. Mohamed explained that he had figured it out through using the phone.

 “Do you wiki?” Mohamed then asked.  “You mean Wikipedia?” Mark asked. “Yeah, I wiki. But what do you search for?”

Apparently he spent his time researching cars. Although there are few opportunities for him to purchase a car in Bangladesh, it was his interest. Mark and Mohamed traded mobile numbers, and over the next few weeks, he sent us text updates on the situation in the camps, and the times when he and another translator, Rafiq, were allowed to leave the camp to visit Cox’s Bazaar, in case we might meet.

The next day, we boarded a boat for a day trip to St. Martin’s Island, home to Bangladesh’s sole coral reef. On board, we received a call from New York, with perfect reception. Meanwhile, Bangladeshi mobiles were being used by clandestine reporters across the river, in Western Arakhan state. The day before, Narinjara News filed a story about forced labor on a road project near Sittwe, capital of Arakhan state.

"We have not received any wages for the reconstruction despite having to work all day everyday,” reported a villager to a Narinjara reporter. “We heard the government allocated 6 million kyat (approximately $100,000 US) for the road construction from the state revenue, but township authorities forced us to work on it (without pay) after they took the money for their own interests." 

This, and other stories, are reported from across the border thanks to the range of Bangladeshi cell phones. Explained an editor for Narinjara, “Most stories from across border have been sent by our reporters inside over phones. In (two) townships, there are Bangladesh networking telephone and people use them secretly.”

Using Bangladeshi mobiles helps the reporters escape the Burmese government’s surveillance in two ways. First, the military has no control over content between Bangladeshi phones – whether listening to the audio or censoring text messages.

Secondly, travel back and forth across the border is highly dangerous. In addition to the landmines on the Burma side, there is strict surveillance. Any person known to have traveled to Bangladesh is considered a risk and potential threat to the nation. (Both Arkhanese and Rohingya rebel groups have at times conducted trainings from the Bangladeshi side of the border.) If reporters had to travel back and forth across the river to file stories, they would not only risk their jobs and lives, but endanger their interviewees and informants.

Still, using Bangladeshi phones to do their reporting carries risks, too. The Narinjara editor said, “Bangladesh telephone is not allowed by authority of Burma using in Burma territory. Therefore people in Burma have to use the mobile phones secretly. If someone arrested by authority on border area along with Bangladesh phone, the authority asked for a big amount of bribe. The authorities usually ask at least 200,000 – 300,000 kyat (approximately $220-350 USD) when they seize the Bangladesh phone from someone. If those people cannot pay the asking money to authority, the authority sentences them to two or three year’s imprisonment.”

The Bangladeshi government has increased government surveillance as well. In June, the government required all mobile companies to disconnect any SIM cards unattached to government issued ids. This new rule will make it harder for Burmese without official documents to access SIM cards in the future. Our sources have expressed concern about but they are still getting news from across the border. Also, they’re often reluctant to admit how often they rely on fake IDs but they do have ways of getting around some of the restrictions. 

A tale of many SIM cards – Navigating Northeast India

Leaving Bangladesh, we flew to Kolkata in West Bengal, India. The former capital of the British Raj was merely a stopover on our way to Mizoram, one of India’s seven northeastern states. It had taken weeks of work, but we had finally secured permits for the state, rarely visited by foreigners or even other Indian nationals. We were headed to Mizoram’s capital, Aizawl, to look into the the complicated situation in this state where an estimated 80,000 Chin people from Burma currently live. For Burmese coming from Chin state, in Mizoram they find relative safety but new challenges.  

Our trip was considerably easier than the overland trip most Chin people make by foot. We landed at the small, one terminal airport and greeted our contact, a woman we had met briefly in Delhi. Biaku handed us her cell phone and a couple of SIM cards and said, “You’re in good hands – I’ll be back from Thailand in two weeks.” Our permit lasted five days. Our replacement guide, Railae, said a shy hello and we headed for the taxi to take us into town. On the way, Railae told us about the work her women’s group has been doing to raise awareness about human rights abuses in Chin State.  

The next day, we were due to attend a public forum on Democracy in Burma. First we needed to get additional calling time for our phone. Like the rest of India, there are multiple phone carriers in Mizoram. This provides options, but none of the carriers have very good reception in Mizoram’s rolling hills. The young men at the store’s counter proved to be of no help, instead focusing on the television. Apparently their morning work routine consists of watching old videos of Korn and Insane Clown Posse performing at Woodstock ’99. Finally, though, Mark was able to get some minutes, and we left for first Mizo-Chin sponsored forum.

Although Chin people have been seeking refuge in Mizoram since 1988, this gathering of Mizo and Chin journalists, politicians and civil society organizations was the first public meeting of the two groups focused on supporting democracy in Burma. “We are here to support our Chin brothers and sisters,” said a moderator, an editor for the leading English-language paper in Aizawl. He then explained that it was the Saffron Uprising that marked the turning point for Mizo-Chin relations. The images of the protests were the first major coverage Indians had seen of the military’s repression in Burma. People in Mizoram were shocked by the images captured by citizen journalists of Burmese monks and laypeople being attacked for peacefully protesting. The Mizo editor explained that this generated more sympathy for Chin migrants, and helped pull together a coalition of leaders to support democratic reforms in Burma. At the forum, speakers argued the need to lobby the Indian government to support these.

As in Bangladesh, many Burmese organizations based in India monitor the situation across the border. Railea’s women’s group was sending young women across to Chin State to conduct interviews village by village. It is dangerous work – they face prison and abuse from the military if caught doing human rights reporting. They also have no way to remain in contact with the Aizawl office once across the border. In India, mobile reception did not extend across the border. It wasn’t until they returned to the relative safety of the border towns that they could call and update the office in Aizawl.

Khonumthung News, the Chin independent news group, operates in a similar fashion. An editor for the news service explained that they have trained about four people inside Burma to report for them. These reporters get the news to Aizawl “by reporting over the telephone.” But often they have difficulty calling from Burma, “so sometimes they have to cross the border into Mizoram and call from villages.”

This limited reception has increasingly frustrated Chin groups in recent months, as thousands more refugees have been pouring across the border into Mizoram due to a famine situation in Chin state, caused by a rat population that has fed off bamboo flowers which bloom once every 50 years. There has been little reporting from that border, and therefore little international awareness of the growing humanitarian crisis. With a more stable mobile network, relief could be better coordinated and fewer Chin would need to leave everything behind to seek food in neighboring India.

A Free China? Sharing information across the China-Burma border

Meanwhile, echoing Bangladesh, in northern Burma’s Kachin and Shan States, Chinese mobiles can sometimes cross the border more easily than the Burmese themselves. China is the world’s largest market for mobiles. Its two mobile providers are aggressively developing a 3G market for the urban population, and a 2G market for the 60% of the country’s population living in rural areas.

In September 2007, as the military was cracking down on protesters in Rangoon, I met with DC-based friend, Myat Brang.  His family has lived in Maryland for the past 10 years. Originally from Kachin State, Myat Brang didn’t become interested in politics until he was in college in the US. 

As an undergraduate, he attended Indiana University’s Kelly School of Business. There, he became a member of the Burmese Student Association, which led to involvement with the All Kachin Student and Youth Union (AKSYU). By September 2007, Myat Brang was heavily involved in organizing, coordinating the international side of things in support of AKSYU members inside Kachin State and along the China border. When the military cracked down on peaceful protestors, he was "outraged."

"(The generals) have heart for their families but not for us. People (are not carrying weapons) but the military are shooting at them - just blindly killing them."

A remote enclave in the north of the country, Kachin State is agriculturally rich, with many rice paddies. Yet at the time of sky-rocketing fuel prices, he explained, most of "the people are living off of rice sap, which is 3 cents a bottle, because they are forced to give the military a portion of their crops."

AKSYU kept busy by documenting the military’s abuse and failed policies. Taking advantage of the reach of Chinese mobiles across the border, they used their Chinese cell phones to organize protests and flyer campaigns against the regime. Chinese mobiles allowed the students to mobilize in the face of total communication blocks, but carried their own risk. Any student caught with a Chinese mobile risked arrest and political prison. Given the range of local mobiles, students were extra careful to hide foreign mobiles from the government’s eyes.

More than a year after the Saffron Uprising, the use of Chinese mobiles continues in northern Burma. Although getting across the border can often be difficult for Burmese citizens, once across it is easy for them to obtain Chinese mobiles in the border towns. At around $15 for a SIM card, these phones remain the cheapest and most reliable mode of communication in northern Kachin state.

In August 2008, my colleague Gabe Hopkins traveled to the China-Burma border to meet with Burmese organizations. It was the time of the Olympics, however, and the border was mostly shut to traffic.

It seemed none of the scheduled meetings might happen, but he was in luck. He found all the contacts stuck on the Burma side of the border carried Chinese mobiles. In addition to being cheaper and having better coverage, Burmese groups feel they can speak more freely on them, and explained they were not worried that Chinese authorities might be listening to their conversations the same way they worried about the Burmese government. Despite the border restriction, he was able to get in-depth interviews with our contacts, calling from his Chinese mobile to theirs.

For Kachin community organizations near the border, China is their only reasonable access point to the outside world.  Kachin State itself is currently too underdeveloped to support large-scale communications networks. The few communications networks that do exist in Burma are essentially unavailable to Kachin people, especially those involved in community or political organizing, because of the severe repression of the military government. 

Compared to the Burmese military’s repression, China’s mobile and internet technology seems incredibly free. As one young Kachin man told Gabe, “To me the Chinese web is totally free.”

Although Chinese mobiles have been effectively used by Kachin and Shan groups in northern Burma, carrying Chinese mobiles also risks interrogation by the junta. How do Burmese get around these threats?

Under normal circumstances utilizing these networks is relatively feasible.  However, there are several distinct disadvantages.  Though the Chinese government does not discriminate specifically against Kachin crossing the border it is ultimately sympathetic with the junta, not the Kachin Independence Organization. All Kachin operate with the intuitive understanding that the Chinese government is unlikely to tolerate activities it perceives as threatening or radical. 

More importantly the experience of the Beijing Games underscored just how tenuous a lifeline China is.  Should, for instance, the relationship between China and Burma deteriorate and the border become closed, the Kachin would become even more isolated and insecure in their ability to communicate with the outside world. For now, their focus is on the daily realities of traveling back and forth across the border, using Chinese mobiles on both sides.

Tomorrow: What is next for Burma?

Photo courtesy Racoles.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><p><br> <b><i><blockquote>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options