Arab Today, arab today myanmar web users looking online for freedom
Last Updated : GMT 02:25:52
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Myanmar web users looking online for freedom

Arab Today, arab today

Arab Today, arab today Myanmar web users looking online for freedom

Yangon - AFP

Kam Khan Cin travelled for four days from his remote mountaintop town to attend Myanmar's forum on web freedom as the country embraces its long-vilified netizens as part of sweeping reforms. The engineering student said he was compelled to journey to Yangon, an arduous trip made all the harder by monsoon rains that deluged the dirt roads of his native Chin state, to "find out what rights we are entitled to." "I believe that we will get those rights one day," he said. Most residents in his hometown of Tedim cannot afford mobile phones, but there are three Internet cafes and Kam Khan Cin perseveres to get online -- even though it often takes 15 minutes to load a page. "I can see what is happening in other places through the Internet. I feel connected with the world," the 25-year-old told AFP. Sanctions and economic mismanagement under decades of military rule left Myanmar impoverished and cut off from the world, an isolation deepened by a system of online repression imposed by the paranoid generals. Less than one percent of the country's population have access to the Internet and for those that do, unreliable electricity supplies and painfully slow connection speeds often make websurfing an excruciating experience. But web users say the curtain is lifting. Former political prisoners and activists mingled with politicians and government officials at Myanmar Internet Freedom Forum on Saturday all eager to hear debates on everything from censorship to cyber law. "The system has changed -- instead of the government giving out commands, it listens to the voices of the people. We want to know what we can do to create the Internet freedom that people want," said information technology deputy minister Thaung Tin. He outlined a vision of fast, cheap and widely-available web access that would have been unthinkable under the previous regime, which banned websites like the BBC and criminalised online dissent. Government ministers from a new quasi-civilian regime now use Facebook -- once only accessible through proxy sites -- as their preferred medium to make announcements and quote the BBC and formerly-prohibited exile media groups. Thaung Tin said Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and Intel have all held discussions with the government about boosting web access in the country, as global firms eye what is now seen as one of Asia's last untapped technology markets. But hurdles remain, despite international interest in the fast-changing nation. "I told Microsoft that we want to use their licensed software in our country rather than pirated copies," he said adding that he had asked the firm to provide it for a "reasonable" price. "They asked me how much is reasonable for us. I answered: 'Honestly, anything more than FOC (free of charge) is expensive'." Under the former regime connections were slowed down on politically significant dates, such as the August 8 anniversary of a mass political uprising in 1988. Myanmar's citizens used the web to leak extensive accounts and video of bloodshed during monk-led protests in 2007 to the outside world, prompting the regime to tighten its control of the Internet. The country was still listed as "not free" in 2012 by rights group Freedom House, which sponsored the Yangon conference. Myanmar's reforms have included scrapping a harsh censorship that muzzled the media, releasing political prisoners and unblocking news sites. A report published by international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders in December said Internet cafe owners were no longer getting police visits. But it noted that repressive laws -- under which journalists, bloggers and dissidents were previously jailed -- had yet to be dismantled. They include the Electronic Transaction Law, which makes using the Internet or digital technology for anti-government activities punishable by up to 15 years in prison. "Freedom is not only measured by being able to look at websites freely, bandwidth and Internet speed should also be in line with international standards," said blogger and activist Nay Phone Latt, who was behind the Yangon forum. He told AFP that the proliferation of hate speech online during religious violence between Buddhists and Muslims that has swept the country since last year was a concern, particularly as MPs recently set up an entire committee to expose a blogger critical of parliament. On a visit to Myanmar in March, Google chairman Eric Schmidt said the Internet would make it "impossible to go back". His vision appears to have been enthusiastically embraced by at least some of Myanmar's new leaders. Thaung Tin told the Internet conference that he imagines a Myanmar where rural children, instead of being hampered by electricity blackouts, are able to use tablet computers to search online for help with their schoolwork. "How pleasant is it when you close your eyes and think about it!" he said. "Nothing is impossible any longer."

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