A court in Rangoon on March 5 sentenced three men who didn’t know each other to a decade’s imprisonment for a crime that they never committed – or rather, for a crime so nebulous that if any of them had ever used a computer he wouldn’t know if he had committed it or not.
The three, Win Maw, Zaw Min and Aung Zaw Myo, were accused of sending news about the September 2007 protests in Burma through the Internet. All were already in jail for other purported crimes.
The next day, police in Bangkok came to one of Thailand’s few outspoken and credible media outlets, Prachatai, searched the premises and arrested its director, Chiranuch Premchaiporn. She is accused of having failed to patrol, censor and delete the comments that readers left on a news website.
The police have charged Chiranuch under the Computer Crime Act 2007, which is only an “act” to the extent that the assembly of handpicked military stooges that passed it could be considered a legislature. According to this law, the importing of “false computer data, in a manner that is likely to cause damage” to a third party or the public or “is likely to damage the country’s security or cause a public panic” can land the accused a five-year jail term.
Now let’s compare that with Burma’s Electronic Transactions Law 2004, which is better described as an executive decree rather than a law. According to this law, whoever does “any act detrimental to the security of the State or prevalence of law and order or community peace and tranquility or national solidarity or national economy or national culture” with a computer can be put away for up to 15 years; the minimum term is seven.
Although the law in Burma is more exhaustive in its categories of offence and harsher in its penalties, it is fundamentally the same as the one in Thailand. The two are being applied in considerably different contexts and with different specific features, but they have a shared subtext.
First the different contexts: A closed court inside the central prison in Rangoon tried the three accused there in the absence of lawyers or relatives. The police had no credible evidence. It didn’t matter, because the case was decided before it was begun. The trial and its outcome went unreported inside the country, which is still a technological backwater despite a big uptake in Internet use during the last few years.
By contrast, a court released Chiranuch on bail. She has received strong local and global support. She will be tried in public, with lawyers, journalists and human rights defenders present. The police might be able to lodge the charges against her with a few scraps of randomly acquired evidence, but once hearings begin they will need more than this.
Thailand is one of the more technologically advanced countries in Southeast Asia. It is home to many millions of savvy computer users. Even accounting for its declining civil and political rights in the last decade, especially since 2006, it is still – in comparison to the majority of its neighbors, not least of all Burma – an open society.
Second, the common subtext, which runs as follows: You as a computer user may do something we don’t know about and don’t understand. We don’t respect you and are afraid of this technology. We don’t know what to expect and therefore we have drawn up a category of wrongdoing that can encompass any conceivable use of the Internet, and we will decide what does or doesn’t fall within its boundaries, case by case.
Win Maw, Zaw Min, Aung Zaw Oo and Chiranuch in reality all stand accused of the same crime: a commitment to free speech. Their offences have nothing to do with the technology after which the draconic instruments they purportedly transgressed have been named. The medium offended no one. The stuff that passed through it apparently did. These are not cybercrime laws at all. They are thought-crime laws.
In his most recent report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, the special envoy on Burma has written that the Electronic Transactions Law violates a raft of international standards. He has called upon the government to review and revise this and other laws to lower the incidence of systemic rights abuse in Burma. There is no such envoy on Thailand, but were there one – and perhaps it would not be a bad idea – the same would be written.
Although the scale of abuse in Burma and vengefulness of its government far exceed that of Thailand, the computer crime laws in the two countries are not substantively different. They are in every respect an affront to human rights, and in their deliberate indeterminacy run contrary to legality itself. They are un-legal laws. They are an insult to the millions of Internet users who deserve to be treated better, not least among them, Win Maw, Zaw Min, Aung Zaw Oo and Chiranuch Premchaiporn.
Abrogate the Computer Crime Act! Revoke the Electronic Transactions Law!