Mystery blogger puts spotlight on internet freedom

'Dr Seik Phwar' has Myanmar's parliamentarians so worried they've set up an investigative commission to flush him out

Just who is the anonymous online blogger Dr Seik Phwar and why is he causing Myanmar's parliamentarians so much grief?

PARDONED PUNDIT: Blogger and political activist Nay Phone Latt, second left, celebrates his release in Hpa-an, in Karen State, following a mass amnesty for prominent dissidents and journalists.

In mid-January the blogger posted an article entitled ''Is parliament above the law?'' on blogspot.com which criticised the MPs for undermining the authority of President Thein Sein over the appointment of the chairperson of the constitutional tribunal.

The kerfuffle was triggered by an amendement passed by the parliament, or hluttaw, earlier this year which said the president must submit his candidate list for the head of the constitutional court only after consultation with leading MPs.

The mysterious Dr Seik Phwar, who has openly criticised the new government and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the past, was outraged. ''The very people who swore to safeguard the constitution are now violating it intentionally,'' blogged Dr Seik Phwar.

But what shocked onlookers even more was the heavy-handed response of the offended parliamentarians. Amost immediately, MP Soe Win moved an emergency motion calling for the creation of a commission to investigate the identity of the blogger and take action against him.

With overwhelming support, a 17-member commission was formed quickly and numbers among its members Soe Win and Mya Nyein, the deputy speaker of the upper house, who acts as chairman.

The commission has held several meetings and in early March invited local media figures to testify, including Maung Nyo the chief editor of Smart News journal which previously reprinted some of the mystery blogger's articles. The journal is published by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (CIT). Its Deputy Minister, Thaung Tin, and officials from the telecommunications department of the Myanmar army, were also interviewed by the commission.

But despite promises by the commission that Dr Seik Phwar will be soon outed, little is still known about him apart from the fact that he started his blog in 2011 and that some of his blogs have also been featured on the website Myanmar Express.

''Finding an individual blogger is totally personal. I don't like the way the parliament raised it as such an important issue. There are many more important things to be sorted out,'' Maung Nyo later told Spectrum.

MPs nominated by the old military junta are leading the charge to unmask the blogger and Smart News has been accused of trying to undermine Aung San Suu Kyi and her opposition National League for Democracy. Nevertheless, social activists and even some members of the investigatory commission generally agree with Maung Nyo.

One commission member, MP U Hla Swe, said the investigation could impinge on the right to freedom of speech, and said it would be ''impossible'' to find the blogger's real identity.

''I don't want to be on this committee. The hluttaw can respond on the internet if it is not pleased with this article. We will get less sleep if we wake every time a dog barks,'' said Hla Swe.

At a forum last weekend in Yangon, ''Myanmar media in transition to democracy'', Khin Maung Win, deputy executive director of the Democratic Voice of Burma, said the case of Dr Seik Phwar puts Myanmar's move to democracy into question.

''I wonder why politicians and MPs are not tolerant of such ordinary comments from an anonymous blogger.

''Criticising the president or parliament is a basic human right in a democratic nation,'' he told Spectrum.

FACEBOOK FACEOFF

Since assuming power in March 2011, Thein Sein has initiated a dramatic democratic reform programme that has included loosening draconian media censorship laws. However, publications are still required to submit a post-production copy of all articles to the government's press scrutiny department. Any journal that fails inspection can be suspended or face a court case.

In its latest report, Reporters Sans Frontieres warned that journalists are still prevented from openly criticising the government. The group currently ranks Myanmar 169 out of 179 on its press freedom index.

Electronic media have not escaped scrutiny, although internet restrictions were loosened after the 2010 general elections when Myanmar changed from military rule to a quasi-civilian government system.

Once these restrictions were eased, social media took off in Myanmar. The Electronic Transactions Law does not guarantee freedom of expression to internet users in Myanmar, but it doesn't scare them off. People are getting more familiar with social media, especially Facebook.

Although Myanmar has a very low internet penetration rate, just 0.44% of the population of 62 million according to the International Telecommunication Union, 80% of those who go online use Facebook. It has become a trendy platform for personal expression across the political divide.

Dr Seik Phwar's blog ''Is parliament above the law?''appears on Facebook with more than 14,000 ''likes''.

Interestingly, Ye Htut, Thein Sein's spokesperson, said on his Facebook page that he had been accused of being Dr Seik Phwar, a charge he flatly denies.

It is not uncommon to find comments likening retired military junta leader Than Shwe to a slum dog or even unflattering caricatures of ''The Lady'', Mrs Suu Kyi. Cyberspace is also the virtual battleground for pro-military as well as ethnic groups. While real fighting is going on in Kachin state and other border areas, Facebook is a space where ethnic people can freely express their opinions.

One comment regarding the Kachin conflict read: ''It would be possible to break the ethnic army if the Burmese [Myanmar] military use stronger force, but it won't be easy to break the hatred of ethnic people for the Burmese military unless they do the right thing.''

Political campaigns are also carried out on Facebook by pro-government supporters using fake identities to attack political activists and opposition politicians. Facebook is also widely used among journalists, and it is much more popular with the media in general than blogging sites which were banned after the 2007 ''Saffron Revolution''.

AMENDING THE ACT

Under the old regime many political activists, including comedian Zarganar and blogger Nay Phone Latt, were sentenced to long terms in prison under the Electronic Transactions Law. Nay Phone Latt was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for storing cartoons of ex-senior general Than Shwe, drawn by an anonymous cartoonist, in his email inbox. Since the transition to civilian rule there have been few if any comparable examples.

However, the 2004 Electronic Transactions Law is still on the books, and a penalty of seven to 15 years imprisonment may be imposed on anyone who commits an act which is deemed ''detrimental to the security of the state or prevalence of law and order or community peace and tranquillity or national solidarity or national economy or national culture'' by using electronic technology.

In January, the local journal Weekly Eleven reported that Deputy CIT Minister Thaung Tin had recommended in a session of parliament that provisions and penalties in the Electronic Transactions Law ''be amended in line with the current era''.

The Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation (Mido) has long lobbied the ministry to initiate such amendments. Nyi Nyi Than Lwin, a blogger and Mido vice-executive director, said: ''Even for a murder case, [the penalty] is only 10 years imprisonment, but the maximum term in the Electronic Transactions Act is 15 years. Isn't this terrible?''

He also said that the court should allow expert witnesses to be called in electronic transactions cases.

''We have learned lessons in the past when the judges have made misinterpretations in cases related to the electronic act because they lack IT knowledge.

''There is no law to protect end users of the internet. The electronic act favours only the interests of the government. We should draft a new act to protect both commercial and non-commercial interest groups,'' said Than Lwin.

Regarding the hunt for Dr Seik Phwar, he said, ''If someone can be arrested in such a case, he is not the only one.

''There are many anonymous online users who create religious conflicts or launch personal attacks using social media. If Dr Seik Phwar is going to be arrested, many others will be arrested too.''

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Writer: Mon Mon Myat