In many countries, you have to commit a serious crime to be sentenced to 20 years in jail, but in Burma this can happen just for using the Internet.

There are almost 69 cyber-dissidents in jail worldwide, yet Burma’s Nay Phone Latt has become the first blogger to receive such a lengthy prison term. His crime? To have informed the outside world about the military junta’s brutal crackdown during pro-democracy protests in September 2007.

Nay Phone Latt

A Rangoon court judge sentenced Nay Phone Latt to two years for violating Article 505 (b) of the Criminal Code (which criminalizes defamation of the state), three years and six months for violating Article 32 (b) of the Video Act, and 15 years for violating Article 33 (a) of the Electronic Act. In total, Latt was sentenced to over 20 years in prison.

Nay Phone Latt is the pen name of Nay Myo Kyaw, 28, the owner of two Rangoon Internet cafés. Latt also kept a blog describing the hardships of daily life in Rangoon and the obstacles faced by young Burmese people in criticizing the government since the September 2007 protests. Latt is also a youth member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the opposition party led by the detained Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. Aung San Suu was elected prime minister in 1990, but Burmese generals have yet to acknowledge her victory; the military government has kept Aung San Suu under house arrest since 2003.

Latt was arrested in Rangoon last January while in possession of a video banned by the military government. Charged in July, Nay Phone Latt has since been detained at the infamous Insein Prison, where he has been denied basic medical care.

Extremely Harsh Punishment

Nay Phone Latt’s mother, who was not allowed to attend the trial inside the prison, said: “I was expecting him to get 10 to 12 years in prison at the most. I never imagined he would get this much. The authorities have been excessively cruel with him.” According to Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association, the blogger’s lawyer himself was jailed for criticizing the special court’s procedures.

Free Nay Phone Latt

Burmese bloggers regard Nay Phone Latt as an inspirational figure — a person who contributed greatly to the 2007 “Saffron Revolution” by showing the world digital photos of the massive anti-government demonstrations and the brutal crackdown that followed. According to the BBC World Service, his blog provided invaluable information about events within the locked-down country during the uprising.

This extremely harsh punishment is seen as an attempt by the military junta to set an example and intimidate those who use new technologies to circulate information not currently controlled by the Burmese Censorship Bureau. According to Global Voices:

A year after thousands of monks took to the streets of Burma’s towns and cities to protest against the tyrannical rule of the military junta [and photos of them] were broadcast across the world via the Internet, the junta has shown that it will not tolerate any semblance of critical opinion being voiced over the World Wide Web.”

Irrawaddy magazine, a Burmese news organization operating in exile, said the current crackdown is also intended to silence legal efforts to ensure fair trials for dissidents now appearing before judges in closed court sessions.

Internet Under Control

Burma, which is on Reporters Without Borders’ list of Internet enemies, is described as “one of the world’s least-connected countries” with a rate of Internet penetration that does not even amount to 1% of the population, according to the International Telecommunication Union. The network is regulated by the state military’s Censorship Bureau, which controls the only two available ISPs in the country. It blocks access to large numbers of news websites as well as international messaging services, including Hotmail and Yahoo. Connection speeds remain the biggest obstacle to Internet access — downloading a single article can take an hour. To help Burmese Internet users get around official state censorship, overseas Internet users often send proxy lists to small networks of trusted local bloggers.

From the end of August to mid-October 2007, Burma experienced its biggest uprising since the 1988 student demonstrations, in which 3,000 died. Thousands of Buddhist monks, joined by students and activists, took to the streets to protest against deteriorating living conditions.

In response to this so-called “Saffron Revolution,” the government shut down all Internet connections in a deliberate attempt to isolate the country and prevent any witness accounts from reaching the outside world. During these two weeks of blackout, the Internet was only accessible a few hours a day and all cyber cafés were closed. The only news source available to Burmese citizens during this time was satellite TV or foreign radio stations.

According to an Open Net Initiative December 2007 report on Burma:

The shutdown of Internet connectivity was precipitated by its use by citizens to send photographs, updates and videos that documented the violent suppression of protests in Burma, information that contributed to widespread international condemnation of the Burmese military rulers’ gross violations of human rights.

Far From the World’s Eyes

One year ago, thanks to the information sent out by Burmese bloggers, news of the crackdown circled the globe. Since then, the world’s attention has shifted, and the regime has resumed its crackdown on dissidents.

Internet Blackholes

Philip Robertson, director of Asia Human Rights Labour Advocates, told Al Jazeera that “post [Cyclone] Nargis, the international community’s attention has moved elsewhere so we’re seeing a larger crackdown all over Myanmar, with student leaders, monks, and even senior lawyers working for the NLD being thrown in jail.”

Strong condemnations worldwide

However, Nay Phone Latt’s extremely harsh sentence, as well as the arrest of other dissidents and lawyers, has again sparked outraged reactions worldwide. The U.S. State Department recently called for the release of four detained defense lawyers. U.S. President George W. Bush has nominated Michael Green, a former top adviser on Asian affairs, as special envoy and policy chief for Myanmar to increase pressure on the country’s military government.

The foreign ministers of the 27 European Union countries have deplored the lack of progress in Burma since the violent repression of peaceful protests last year, and the European Union stated on Monday that it would consider Burmese elections scheduled for 2010 to be illegitimate unless the ruling military junta first frees all political prisoners — particularly Aung San Suu Kyi.

Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association have launched a campaign calling for the release of Nay Phone Latt. In a press release, they have asked “for bloggers all over the world to demonstrate their solidarity with Nay Phone Latt by posting his photo on their blogs and writing to Burmese embassies worldwide to demand his release.”

Lucie Morillon is the Washington, DC, director of Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom organization. She covers press freedom issues in the U.S. and abroad and is a spokesperson for the group. She also handles advocacy work with Congress and has appeared on CNN, ABC and has been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other publications. Reporters Without Borders strives to obtain the release of jailed journalists and cyber-dissidents and supports an independent media and the free flow of information online. Morillon is the free-speech correspondent for MediaShift.