Freedom of Expression: Interview with David Matheison (Burma)
Director: Namita A. Malhotra, Subasri Krishnan
Duration: 00:34:40; Aspect Ratio: 1.819:1; Hue: 49.625; Saturation: 0.187; Lightness: 0.329; Volume: 0.158; Cuts per Minute: 0.634; Words per Minute: 117.270
Summary: The situation regarding censorship in Burma or Myanmar, has become increasingly severe leading to the house arrest of their leader Aung San Suu Kyi (released finally in 2011). However several independent efforts have been underway including the publication of magazines, radio channels, video and television channels and use of internet as well. An important record of the situation in Burma and how video was used is the documentary film, Burma VJ (2007) which was made out of smuggled hand-held footage made in Burma.
David Matheison works on issues related to Burma, including censorship for Human Rights Watch. He lives and works in the border town Mae Sot located within Thailand. In this interview he speaks about the situation in Burma in 2009, the repression of speech and the ordinary ways (using proxy servers etc.) by which users were bypassing censorship mechanisms of the State.
A few streets away from the cafe where this interview was shot, was the actual border between Thailand and Myanmar. This border is marked by a rivulet flowing across and a bridge across the rivulet, where the officials in charge of immigration and police are stationed. There are however countless crossing-overs across the water, on inflated tires - a young boy usually steers the tire along with the flow of the river, either against or with its current, to safely deposit his 'passengers' across the water, and across the border.
Subasri Krishnan (Interviewer) - For the record can you tell us your name and what you do?
David - David S. Mathersen, Burma researcher for Human Rights watch.
SK- What is Human Rights watch all about?
David - It is an international advocacy and research organization that has been around for more than 30 years.
David -It started with looking for rights in Soviet Union and eastern block dissidence and riders in the late 1970s.
David - It has expanded to look human rights for some of worse situations around the world, works in more than 70 countries on a broad spectrum of Human rights issues.
David - We use this research to lobby governments and international organizations to respect human rights and stand by defenders and victims of human rights around the world.
Its really what the organisation does.
SK - What is your own research?
David - I am one of the two people who research on Burma, the other colleague looks at Burma and Thailand. He does a lot of the research, lot of the advocacy around Burma and different capitals and in Bangkok.
David - And the job that I do is look at various research projects on Burma.
David - Do interviews and write news articles for international media, advocacy interviews and to look at part of a bigger team to look at Burma as an advocacy target in the international community.
SK- What brought you to this region?
David - I started working on Burma more than 10 years ago as a master's student in a university in Australia, I use to travel a lot to Burma to do research and travel around.
David - Then I came to Thailand to the border with Burma and started research on civilian displacement and conflict and the drug trade in Burma about 7 years ago.
David - I started working with Human Rights watch about 3 years ago.
SK - Can you tell us about the civilian displacement in Burma?
David - One result of the civil war which has been going on for more than 60 years....
SK - You don't need to give the reason's for the civil war but if you could just tell us the effect of the civil war...
David - There are more than half a million civilian people displaced internally in Burma in just eastern Burma.
David - That's a result of decades long civil war that has been going on in Burma for more than 60 years.
David - The people were displaced because of Burmese army, their units were burning down villages and forcing people to re-location zones around army camps and also building infrastructure projects.
David - So civilians in this part of Burma were treated very badly by the Burmese military army and uses them as forced labour and in some worse cases as human mine sweepers to walk ahead of the army and locate landmines. It's a horrific situation.
SK - Is it with any particular ethnic group?
David - Its actually any ethnic group that challenges military rule.
David - In this part of Burma its the ethnic Kokang group, further north its ethnic Karenni, Shan, Kachin in the north and in the west you have lot's of attacks against ethnic Arakanese, Rawang muslims and the Chin people along the Indian border.
SK - Can you map for us broadly what is been happening in Burma especially post 88 and where is it now?
David - In 1988 the Burmese military stepped in again and took complete control over the government after the nation wide demonstrations.
David - Even though in the past 20 years, they have opened up various aspects of the country to the outside world...
David - They have done some reforms of the economy, they have invited more international investment trade but probably the human rights situation has even got worse in the last 20 years.
David - They held elections in 1990, in which the opposition overwhelmingly won the elections and in the past several years the efforts to stamp out any opposition in the country has actually increased.
David - There are now more than 2100 political prisoners in Burmese facilities around the country.
David - There are very tight restrictions on basic freedoms, freedom of media, freedom of expression and ethnic groups in most parts are excluded from the political process.
David - So, the political and human rights situation is actually quite dire.
David - The military is orchestrating a sham sort of reform to entrench their rule with the civilian facade. They basically want to change everything a little bit and have a civilian parliament.
David - But we all know the military will continue to call the shots and continue to control the whole country and that's the whole point of these reforms.
David - In the mean time people's living situation have sharply declined and people are seriously unhappy with the political situation in the country and there is very little hope that it will change in the near future.
SK - You mentioned that there is a clamp down on the freedom of expression and other such things. Can you talk about that?
David - Freedom of expression and freedom of semblance. There's a semblance of a active press in Burma.
David - There are 100s of magazines, newspapers and radio stations and TV stations. There is access to cable news.
David - But there is also a very strong and determined censorship board which means most Burmese journalists operating inside the country cannot directly address the political situation.
David - They can't report on stories that have any meaningful impact on Burmese society.
David - Even though there is a semblance of media operating inside the country, there is also very sharp control on what they are allowed to record or investigate.
David - And that's anything that is damaging or challenging to the military government.
David - An access to outside media is also restricted.
David - You have a system where a lot of exiled or international media groups that after being inside the country are in many regards illegal and also to filter their information and publication in a relatively illegal way inorder to inform Burmese people throughout the country.
David - It's a very challenging environment. For an average person to talk about certain issues is very difficult.
David - You will confront the military regime if it sees what you are saying, what you are trying to organise even at a very limited level....
David - And three or four people getting together to discuss an issue would be seen as a threat to the military government...
David - So you risk arrest or harassment by local authorities if what they think you are doing is construed as a challenge to the military government.
David - So the restrictions on these basic freedoms, freedom of assembly and expression are very tight in Burma.
SK- Could you please speak about the Aung San Suu Kyi trial and what is the kind of coverage it is getting?
David - The average person in Burma gets his information from broadly 2 sources.
David - One is government media which has reported on the various aspects of the Aung Sang Su Kyi trial in a very circumscribed way and in a way to further discredit Aung Sang Su Kyi.
David - Most people actually tune into the radio, whether it is the BBC Burmese service or Democratic voice of Burma, or try and go online and find alternative resources to what the government line is.
David - Most people in Burma would instinctively mistrust what the government media is trying to do. They would see it as distorting the issue.
David - So they would seek out various other news outlets to find out what is really going on and in most cases it radio.
SK - What is the kind of internet usage inside Burma given the restrictions? Has it been able to create an alternative space within Burma?
David - In past several years internet usage has vastly increased in Burma, it has increased in certain areas and in certain ways.
David - The majority of Burma do not have 24 hours access to electricity that means no permanent access to the internet.
David - In Rangoon and Mandalay and major...
David -In Rangoon and Mandalay there are internet cafe, people have internet at work depending upon their work.
David - There is an access to a broader network of alternate information available to people. But in the vast majority of the country that is not the case.
David - Any one with computer and internet in rural areas would be the target of monitoring and surveillance of the local authorities.
David - Slowly its building up, internet is becoming more popular but it is circumscribed by government restrictions, by lowly development just because it is expensive to get a computer and then to get access to an internet service provider is very difficult....
David - Because you have then become a target for government surveillance and they are going to watch what websites you are logging onto.
David - But in Rangoon, it is becoming almost a phenomena that the government can't control anymore except just turning off those I.S.P.'s and blocking off access to the outside world.
SK - You said there are government restrictions. Can you list out these and how do people circumvent them?
David - Government restrictions are listing banned sites, many of them would be Burmese resistance blogs, many of them would post alternative news, views and music on to their blog sites to reach an audience inside the country.
David - There are also exile blogging sites, Burmese students studying outside the country would have websites which government does not want people to look at, but also websites of international organisations.
David - That are reporting on human rights and news stories inside Burma, so these sites like Human rights watch and also many other media sites are blocked.
David - But showing inventiveness of many internet users inside the country through the use of proxy servers, many people either at home or internet cafes are able to circumvent these blockages and access these web sites quite openly....
David - But what the people are doing is very dangerous because most public cafes are meant to report to the authorities what the patrons are looking at.
David - So it is perilous for people inside to search for broader news and views on the internet.
SK - You were talking about blogging. Can you list who are these bloggers and what is the kind of writing that is coming out? Is it just political blogging?
David - No it is not just political blogging, there are also lot of music blogs and social networking and cultural blogging.
David - One of the nastiest examples of the attempts of the military government was a crackdown on this young blogger called Ney Phone Latt, who has been sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2008...
David - For his blog site during the crackdown in August and September 2007, they actually found that he was putting up cartoons, video clips and reporting of the government crackdown on the protesters.
David - He was eventually caught and sentenced for a long time merely for having a blog site and disseminating alternative news for people who actually care to log on to his site.
David - They are quite a lot of bloggers in Burma and outside. Wherever Burmese people are there is probable a blog site that is critical of the regime or has a certain tentative push.
SK - I have a very basic question, you said that people access websites that cant be accessed. How do people use proxy servers to access these sites and what is the mechanism that they use?
David - As far as I am aware it is probably the biggest open secret in the country.
David - If you go to internet cafe and you are trying to log on and you can't access it, then there is someone with local know-how, they tap you on the shoulder and say this is how you do it.
David - You have the technical expertise, I think one of the by products of the internet and new communications technology coming into Burma is the local expertise on how to circumvent and how to adapt and how to use it has exploded.
David - So you have now this one element of social conflict inside Burma is between authorities and people who use online activism and internet as a tool to challenge the military rule.
David -And it's one of these games which is constantly going back and forth.
David - Whenever the government tries to clamp on people trying to use internet for advocacy or resistance tool, people always find a way to get around it.
David - This is not just true of Burma but a lot of different countries.
David - In Burma, it is a lot more challenging because of basic development indicators that they do have access to electricity...
David - And they do have access to update computer technology and other software but they are downloading it from the internet and adapting to local conditions very effectively.
David - At this point the only effective tool the government has is to switch off the internet service provider and that's becoming a lot difficult to do because its not just average people or internet bloggers and activist using internet.
David - It is business, it is government, it is the UN, it's the INGOs based in Burma who have to do their work.
David - So you turn off the central switch then you are affecting far more people than who you are trying to clamp down upon.
David - So that's good because people are using internet for activism and constantly finding methods to get around it and that's not a method that the military government can use too much.
SK - How do you think people in exile are using the internet to speak to people in Burma ?
David -They are using in more effective ways now than in the past few years.
David - Online activism as part of the Burmese movement really started in mid 1990s with the free Burma coalition in the United States but that was for an external audience, that was for the world to look at inside Burma.
David - There is lot of mutual reflexivity going on, people doing things outside the country for inside and inside the country to try to bring it outside, its two way action going on than the outside trying to get things in.
David - But I think the Internet in the past two or three years has become more important but other forms of the media such as the radio, TV and print media and simple old DVDs getting in and getting people to watch things inside the country are just as important.
David -But I think the use of technology and media has just become far more eclectic now because of the choices open to people inside the country.
SK - Can you speak a little on people getting DVDs inside the country and getting people to watch it?
David - I think some of the activists are been sentenced to outrageously cruel and long sentences is because of the video and television act, they have been arrested and have been found with DVDs or some kind of video footage that is meant to be banned.
David - Some of the activists are been sentenced to outrageously cruel and long sentences is because of the video and television act.
David - That's what they have been charged under because when their house was raided they have been found to have DVDs or discs with footage of protest.
David - Some people have copies of the film Rambo 4, anything that is a challenge to the military government and is on the DVD could potentially be a crime.
David - So dissemination is important even if it is low tech because merely having a DVD and television is not a crime in Burma.
David - People can use the internet to download video footage then disseminate though the use of DVDs to even small villages who have a poor electricity supply would have television and some kind of DVD player or even a computer that people can watch these things.
David - It is a very effective way, a next step to broaden out the information and get to a bigger audience through out the country.
SK - What is the video and TV act?
David -It is a repressive law that is incredibly vague like most Burmese laws to crack down on dissidents.
David - The video act basically says that any one in possession of illegal material can be sent to jail for three to five years or even longer.
David - So it is a very vague law to sentence anyone who's got any material that could be seen as subversive or a challenge to the state.
David - Some people have been charged for having a copy of President Than Shwe daughter's wedding video which was a big deal in 2006, it was a very lavish and outrageous wedding dripping in jewels of a lot of leaders and notables that were there.
David - That became a relative best selling bootleg copy that spread throughout the country,so people were watching and getting outraged by how lavish this wedding was.
David - That anyone caught in presence of that could have been sentenced to prison.
David - One more way on how military can crackdown on people is by the kind of material that is stored on their computer or on discs or video camera or mobile phone and that's through protests, through interviews or through banned publications or material from websites from the outside world.
SK - Whats been the kind of support of the Thai government and of the outside world on the Burmese situation?
David - In Thailand there has been a lot of goodwill on part of Thai authorities, they have permitted refugees and Burmese dissidents who were seen as political refugees to stay in Thailand.
David - Thailand is very important as a centre for Burmese dissidents to organise and operate but within a lot of restrictions.
David - Thai government is very good by permitting some of this to go on but it not necessarily part of Thai policy to permit this.
David - It is the same in India, Malaysia, Singapore. Dissidents use off shore locations to organise information and resistance activities mostly peaceful ones inorder to send information back into their own country.
David - But that's also true of US, Norway,Canada and Australia and many other countries where the Burmese people are living.
David - That's such an eclectic range of country, it goes to show the level of oppression inside them and that so many people have settled in so many other countries.
David - Most of the activism online is a result of the political dissidence that they were forced to leave the country and settle else where.
SK - Can the government access email communication and are there laws controlling it?
David - I think the use of email as a communication like the gtalk, skype has certainly increased in the past few years, that people have been using to communicate and to strategise.
David - Also the ability of the military government to monitor some of these activities and to interdict them and try and crack down on them has also increased.
David - I do not know where the expertise is coming from.
David - But they have been getting some help from the Russians and supposedly some help from the Chinese as well. But certainly the ability...
David - The ability of the SPDC to actually interdict and monitor email and those other forms of communications has certainly increased and email shouldn't be seen as an iron tide form of communication, not the slightest.
David - But there are options open on the internet to actually have more secure mail communications through hush mail and as far as we know now skype is relatively safe from being monitored.
David - Certain countries like the Americans, British, the Israelis have the ability to monitor skype but with Burma we are not too sure if they do have that ability.
David -Probably given their technical expertise they don't.
David - Then again people should be careful about what they put on an email, just as they would be on phone or in sending a text message.
David - Certainly in a repressive country like Burma people should be very aware of the ability of the military government to monitor, interdict and act on the supposedly secure forms of communication.
SK - I have heard that Fortinet filtering software is used by the Burmese government. Is that true?
David - Apparently they have using it and apparently it's a San Francisco based company is supporting them.
David - But there needs to be lot more research to the extent of foreign technology sale to the military government to actually make it more difficult for the activists and the dissidents to communicate.
David - We are not too sure where the SPDC is getting all the expertise from.
David - There are suspicions but it needs a lot more investigation.
David - And if there are technology companies that are selling this expertise as software to the military government...
David - Then there should be investigations of whether they are actually against US sanctions, EU sanctions or Australian sanctions or Canadian sanctions because it very well would be a contravention of those sanctions.
SK - Do you think that the repressive measures that the military government is using is a well planned action or is it just a knee jerk reaction?
David - I do not think there are too many repressive measures that the military government takes that are a knee jerk.
David - They have a very long track record in doing this. They have a brutally impressive track record in doing this in monitoring and following any forms of resistance inside the country.
David - You can see that what happened after the crackdown in September 2007, these night time raids, people being picked up for months after the demonstration, that indicated that they have been monitoring these networks and who these people were.
David - They were also using torture and other methods to find out where people were hiding.
David -And some of the things that the military government said afterwards about who said what when and who they communicated with and how they arranged certain demonstrations.
David - It is indicative of the fact that they were monitoring a lot of these things through electronic communication technology...
David - Through electronic communication technology and through informants and ill treatment of people in custody to find out information.
David - Even though there was a lot of self congratulation on about how a lot of the exiled media and the media inside Burma worked during that period...
David - I don't think that the brutality and the expertise of the military authority should ever be under estimated because they are very good in monitoring and cracking down very violently on them when they do uncover what is happening.
SK - You said you had been black listed, do you mind sharing why?
David - Burma is a very difficult country for Burmese activist and journalists to operate but it is also a very difficult environment for the western media or the foreign media and foreign Human rights researchers and other researchers to work.
David - The moment you are seen as criticising the military government and actually researching what they consider sensitive issues, you are immediately put on a blacklist or you are stopped from entering the country.
David - Scores of journalists who have traveled inside the country or on its borders and have worked on Burma for the past 20 years have been blacklisted.
David - I am one of the many. It is not something that I welcome. It is indicates just how paranoid, xenophobic and brutal this regime is.
David - They do not want foreigners to care about what is happening inside, get into the country, speak to people, to get the real story.
David - This is one more layer of evidence that international community has that this repressive regime wants to repress its people in quiet. They do not want information to travel outside the country.
David - The internet is for everyone to actually care to find information, to use information, to keep in touch, to do a whole manner of interesting things.
David - The dark side of internet is like the dark side of television, that it is used for very banal, boring reasons and...
[ CLIP ENDS]