Friday, August 31, 2012

Malaysia’s internet blackout: politicisation of online activism?

An internet blackout day was declared in Malaysia on 14 August 2012.

This was in protest against Section 114A of the recently-amended Evidence Act, which enables the authorities to act firmly against individuals who post defamatory, inflammatory and/or seditious content on the Internet.

The law not only holds the user/blogger potentially accountable for the offending post(s) but also any individual or organisation connected to the objectionable website or blog such as a person who: owns, administers or edits the website; is registered with the network service provider; and is in custody or control of the computer at the time the offence was committed.

These new amendments have alarmed many netizens and civil society groups because of the legislation’s wide scope and the heavy onus placed on the accused to prove his or her innocence. Many individuals have interpreted these amendments as an attempt by the Malaysian government to stifle internet freedom. The Stop 114A campaign was spearheaded by the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), a civil society group, but it soon attracted support from several prominent civil society organisations, bloggers and opposition parties.

In the wake of Internet Blackout Day, the Najib administration promised to re-evaluate Section 114A, with the Prime Minister assuring the public that ‘Whatever we do, we must put the people first’. While this outcome may be interpreted as a success for online activism in Malaysia, the question this raises is whether such online activism can truly create an impact on its own or whether it needs support from opposition parties and political notables to do so.

The Internet Blackout Day was inspired by a similar campaign launched earlier this year in the US. This was organised to protest the Protect IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), two bills aimed at curbing internet piracy by targeting foreign websites that commit or facilitate intellectual property theft. The bills would have given US authorities the right to compel US companies such as internet service providers, credit card companies and online advertisers to cut off ties with such websites.

While lawmakers expected both bills to be passed effortlessly through the US Congress, they encountered massive resistance from activists as well as major players in the IT industry. Google, Wikipedia and Reddit, for example, blacked-out their websites on 18 January 2012 in support of Internet Blackout Day. The strong support for the blackouts convinced many lawmakers who had initially supported the anti-piracy bills to withdraw their support. This subsequently forced Congress to delay plans to enact the bills into law.

Online activism had suddenly become very powerful. As Larry Downes from Forbes Magazine observed: (it was) ‘the introduction of the Washington establishment to “bitroots” activism, arising from a community of ordinary internet users that have used technology as tools to promote their cause’.

In contrast, the CIJ’s Internet Blackout Day in Malaysia did not attract enthusiastic support from industry players but gained backing from political heavyweights. These notables included opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (Parti Keadilan Rakyat [PKR]) and Lim Kit Siang, leader of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) as well as blogger Marina Mahathir, daughter of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed. While it did have support from other civil society organisations as well as some private sector companies, the involvement of these notables, and the awareness and additional support they were able to generate, created momentum to sustain the CIJ’s campaign.

The opposition parties, too, were politically advantaged by supporting the CIJ’s Internet Blackout Day. This was because they could: portray themselves as being in sync with the people and the people’s wishes; underscore their role as an effective check on the Government; distinguish themselves ideologically and administratively from the ruling coalition; emphasise their willingness to champion the people’s rights as well as what rights/values the party represented; and increase their visibility. All these are important considerations for the Opposition with the general election expected to be called very soon.

Prudently, the opposition parties (PKR and DAP) did not hijack the campaign but united in support of it. A united opposition is often well-perceived by the voters, and helps with possible coalition formation in the aftermath of elections.

Although online activism is seemingly gaining prominence in Malaysia, it does not appear to be taking the form of ‘bitroots’ activism. This is where ‘the online community’ struggles against ‘the establishment’ as in the US case. The prominence of the opposition parties in the CIJ’s campaign suggests that online activism, while initiated by ordinary individuals, is sustained by support from the major political parties and, hence, likely to be politicised in the end.

As there is much political capital to be gained from championing certain causes, opposition parties might begin to align themselves more with interest groups and activists. They could also hijack existing causes or tacitly instigate groups to advocate and mobilise around specific causes.

In light of this possible eventuality, the incumbent Barisan Nasional coalition could find itself in a possible face-off with an emerging political combination of bitroots activists and the political opposition. Dealing effectively with this highly potent combination may well prove to be the most important challenge for the Malaysian government ahead of the next polls.

Damien D. Cheong is a Research Fellow and Yeap Su Yin an Associate Research Fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. 
This article first appeared here as RSIS Commentary No. 163/2012, 29 August 2012. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

OBAMACOPTERS Give West Papuans Another Reason to Worry

There has been talk of an arms deal between the United States and Indonesia. Reportedly on the table are eight Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopters. These are top-of-the-line attack machines, the best in their class.

The exact status of the deal is unclear, but all indications are that both Boeing and Indonesia have pushed things as far as they can and that the ball on whether to move forward with discussions is somewhere in the US government's court.

For American officials, the presumable cause for concern is the political fallout that could arise from permitting this kind of exchange with Indonesia, as its military is infamous for atrocities committed against the country's own people.

But the Americans must also be weighing the benefits the deal would bring. Not only would Indonesia upgrade its aging arsenal and Boeing make up for business it is losing as the US cuts defense spending, but President Obama would come that much closer to fulfilling his pledge to double exports by 2015.

For the black Melanesian people of West Papua, too, the deal would seem to matter greatly. The region, Indonesia's easternmost, is one of the most militarized places in the world. Since the 1960s, Indonesia has maintained a continuous security presence there, ostensibly to counter a low-level separatist insurgency. It has also carried out a number of full-scale military campaigns, for the same reason. Indonesia is a land of incredible natural diversity, with hundreds of ethnic groups and languages spread across thousands of islands, and since it became independent in 1945, a fracturing of the unitary state has been what the country's nationalist leaders, the vast majority of whom are Javanese, fear most.

Since Indonesia annexed it in 1969, resource-rich West Papua has always been at odds with the central government. The region is unique in that it is the only place in the country subject to a virtual media blackout, with foreign journalists effectively barred from working there. Despite the restrictions, however, reports of human rights abuses by the security forces filter out frequently.

Last winter, the Army and police concluded Operation Annihilate Matoa, a massive joint offensive in the remote central highlands. According to reports by West Papua Media, an independent outlet headquartered in Australia that draws from a network of trained West Papuan journalists, 
Indonesian troops in search of Free Papua Movement (OPM) commander Jhon Yogi forcibly evacuated more than 130 villages, torched countless homes and killed dozens of civilians.
The operation also involved crude helicopter attacks. Using commercial helicopters borrowed from an Australian gold mining company, troops perched in the sky threw tear gas and grenades, poured fuel onto the hamlets below, and strafed them with machine-gun fire. Truthout
By Philip Jacobson


Jakarta/Brussels, 30 August 2012: Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono needs to act more firmly against institutions and officials that defy national court rulings or his inaction risks prolonging local conflicts. Read the full report

Indonesia: Defying the State, the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, details how one impact of the country's decentralisation drive has been the emergence of regional politicians willing to defy the courts for short-term political gain. Jakarta's response has been to dither and hope the problem will go away, encouraging more insubordination.
“Allowing local officials to defy courts sends the message that the power of the majority in a region can take precedence over institutions of justice in a way that emboldens mobs and threatens minorities”, says Achmad Sukarsono, Crisis Group's South East Asia Analyst. “It hurts the prospects of local conflict resolution and ultimately undermines Indonesia's democracy”.
The briefing examines three cases of local defiance. In West Kotawaringin, Central Kalimantan, councillors have been defying a Constitutional Court ruling that disqualified the winner of the district's election on grounds of vote-buying and gave the defeated incumbent a second term. The district chief currently cannot govern properly and opponents burned down his official residence. In Bogor and Bekasi in West Java, local executives, pandering to conservative Muslims, have denied permits for church construction although courts had overruled their objections. Tensions flare whenever Christians hold services at the disputed sites.
In each case, the central government failed to enforce compliance with court rulings and allowed resistance to escalate, sometimes violently. When tensions erupted to the point of attracting media attention, Jakarta sought negotiation and compromise rather than upholding constitutional principles and judicial authority. But when these efforts failed, the authority of the president and the courts was weakened.
Jakarta officials argue that relations with regions have changed. The devolution of powers to districts and cities since 1999 is a response to the more than 30 years of centralised rule of the late President Soeharto. The advent of direct local elections in 2005 made local officials even more independent of the central government.
In the short term, the central government should treat these cases as obstruction of justice and act accordingly, using a range of legal measures that are available to the president. In the longer term, it should develop the concept of contempt of court to strengthen the judicial branch of government.
“To promote a forceful role for Jakarta on these matters is not to advocate micro-management of the regions or recentralisation, but rather to strengthen democracy and ensure that local conflicts are not allowed to fester”, says Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group's South East Asia Project Director.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Great Electric Brain Robbery?

F is for fraud, 1 is for You

Tsunami of Global Crime
The idea of a conquering barbarian horde has haunted European nightmares at least since the Mongol invasion of Eastern Europe. More recently, the term has been used to satirize those who exaggerate threats hypothetically emanating from Asia. Since the 1970s Nixon-Mao rapprochement, many Americans and Europeans and sympathise with the Chinese notion of a "peaceful rise."

However recently, politicians and security chiefs have begun to warn of a tsunami of cyber espionage and cyber theft of intellectual property by ghostly Chinese hackers. The theft was described by one security chief as "the greatest transfer of wealth in history."

US President Barack Obama recently spoke of the need to strengthen US defenses against this threat, citing a figure of US$1 trillion stolen annually by hackers. Supposedly the reason we are not being flooded by news of hacker break-ins and thefts of all kinds is that most of the information is either classified, or in the case of private companies, they don't want to admit that they have been the victim of these crimes.

"What's reported is just the tip of the iceberg," said one US government cyber sleuth recently. "I’ve been circling the iceberg in a submarine. This is the biggest vacuuming up of US proprietary data that we’ve ever seen. It’s a machine.”

Said another security expert, "The activity we’re seeing now is the tremor, but the earthquake is coming." UK intelligence chiefs have made similar claims.

Cyber Hype?

But others have also questioned whether China is the source of this crime wave, because IP addresses can be spoofed. Others claim the figures are exaggerated. They suggest that security forces are hyping the problem to get additional funding, or worse, to strengthen their powers of surveillance and supervision over our own Internet.

Remember the failures of intelligence in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq? Why should we trust them again? What should we make of their claims? Are our offices and companies really being so thoroughly stripped of their intellectual property? Are hackers really turning off our electric power grids, as was also recently claimed? Do the data networks installed in many countries by Chinese companies such as Huaiwei allow the Chinese government to eavesdrop on everything we say?

Without a degree in computer science and clearance for classified information, it is tempting to just shrug one's shoulders and say we really haven't got a clue.

One of the recent reports on Chinese cyber espionage, released by the now-defunct Information War Monitor group, is titled Shadow in the Cloud and describes an organized hacking network called Ghost Net, It's all about shadows, ghosts, mist and fog, and very hard to be sure of anything at all.

But if it's true that we are being robbed blind, this is too important a subject for us to not make a few intelligence guesses. In fact we don't need to be a black belt hacker or work in the CIA to figure out what's going on, the answer is just a few googles away.

More People, More Hackers

In fact it would be strange if we were not being overrun by hordes of Chinese hackers due to the enormous size of the Chinese Internet population which has been growing like the peach in the garden over the last few years. China's online population is already approaching 600 million, equivalent to that of the US and Western Europe combined. More people online means more hackers, it's as simple as that.

As the Beijing police once said to me after I reported the pickpocketing of my wallet, "There are thieves in your country too." We don't have to get into criminology surveys, which are almost as murky as cyber warfare investigations. Let's just assume that China is a country with an average number of hackers, say one for every 10,000 Netizens. In the last five years, China's online population has tripled and an extra 400 million people have gone online. An extra 400 million people online means an additional 40,000 hackers.

That's a lot of extra hackers. And a hacker is not like a traditional burglar, who can only rob one householder at a time, because hacking is automated these days by software suites which can scan websites or web servers for vulnerabilities in just a few seconds. They send hundreds of thousands of e-mails per day, each containing a link to a malware program, which when clicked installs a Trojan horse on the user's computer, which can then be used by the hacker to turn it into a slave node in his network.

After this, he (or she) can control everything on the computer, such as turning off antivirus software, downloading files and contact lists, which in turn can be used to send more virus laden e-mail. In fact, the most effective attack is an e-mail supposedly from a friend or colleague about a subject we're interested in, and our interests can be discerned quite easily once the hacker has access to our whole computer.

But I'm getting sidetracked into the technical side of things, which I want to avoid, because I don't think is necessary to understand all this geeky stuff in order to measure the size of the Chinese hacking wave

Virtual Pickpocketing

So having established that the tsunami of hacking from China is inevitable and to be expected, we are entitled to ask whether this will just be an average size tsunami, as we might expect if the online population of a country with average levels of cyber crime suddenly expanded by 300,000,000, or something bigger or smaller.

I think that wave is a gigantic tsunami rather than an average or pygmy sized one, because in the off-line world, China suffers from endemic stealth crime, i.e. pickpocketing and theft. To support this view, I can only fall back on my own experience of Chinese crime and cyber crime, for what it's worth, which I admit is not very much in terms of a scientific sample.

I have lived for a total of about five years in China, and have frequently been robbed in traditional ways; I have had my wallet pickpocketed, I have had my cellphone, laptop and three cameras removed, all while I was distracted for a split-second.

I have never been mugged at knifepoint or gunpoint or physically assaulted in China, as I have in Europe and South America. I surmise that this kind of theft is rather common in China; silent theft of the kind which you only notice after the thief has disappeared, if you notice at all. And many Internet commentators theorize that what we do in the real world, we tend to replicate in our online world.

And I know from personal experience that the Chinese police have already adopted hacking techniques. My computer was hacked two years ago, either by Chinese police or people working closely with them. They had arrested a Chinese dissident friend, confiscated his computer and then sent everyone on his mailing list an e-mail purporting to be from him, with a link to a blog about his latest detention.

Overcome with curiosity, I clicked the link and I discovered a few days later that I had installed a Trojan horse on my computer. I don't know how much of my personal data was downloaded.

Secondly, I think we need to face the fact that an awful lot of Chinese people don't like us, and would like to get even by hacking into our governments or companies. By us I mean the United States and its allies. Which is not to say that many of them do like us as well; it's just that there is a large number of angry young men who buy into the patriotic discourse of a victimized China which is being deliberately usurped by Western powers.

One of the main themes of CPC propaganda is that China is under siege from these hostile Western powers, who use dissidents as pawns and promote human rights in order to overthrow China's government. Didn't you know that the 1989 democracy movement was blocked by the CIA to overthrow the Chinese government? That's why when 911 happened, there were scenes of jubilation and rejoicing throughout China. Of course that was over a decade ago, but if you log on to the popular Chinese online forums such as Strong Nation or Blood and Iron, you will find much the same sentiments being expressed every day.

So we have this big country, with hundreds of millions of people online for the first time, many of them angry and resentful of both Western governments and Western companies, which they tend to see as working hand in glove. Added to this is the widening wealth gap, which tends everywhere to fuel crime. And hacking is cheap fun which is suitable for the legions of young people who are trying to get by on US$2-300 per month. Is it surprising then that we have an epidemic of cyber burglary?

But hang on, haven't we forgotten something, after all isn't China's supposed to be a totalitarian state where the Internet is used spy on everybody and journalists or dissidents are arrested and imprisoned for posting opinions online? If China is that controlled, surely there cannot be so much hacking allowed? This is one of the major misconceptions of Westerners who only know about China through the Western media.

Surprisingly Free Country

The Western media tends to focus on certain issues in its reporting of China, one of which is human rights abuses. Exposed to other constant stream of such reports, Westerners get the impression that China is a police state like Orwell's 1984. And in some ways they are right. In Orwell's dystopia. common criminals are treated better than political dissidents. But in other ways China departs from 1984, because people have a degree of freedom to do what they want which is hard to imagine in Western countries, where citizens are brought up to respect the rule of law. That kind of respect is still a novelty in China. For example, recently, the Chinese government banned smoking in public places, but nobody took any notice. Restaurants still distributed ashtrays.

There are almost endless examples of lawlessness. I remember in the 1990s seeing motorcycles and even cars driving on the sidewalks. When I enquired why they did this despite the obvious danger to pedestrians, they told me it was because they did not have a driving licence and thus could not take the risk of riding the highway.

One of the most common complaints of political commentators in China is that Chinese citizens no longer have any sense of morality. Traditional Confucian and Buddhist morality was largely swept aside by socialism in the first years after the Communists took power, but that has now effectively been abandoned, leaving only greed and materialism.

Thieving by Remote Control

There's a common colloquial expression in Chinese, "Rabbits don't eat the grass around the burrow.” Thanks to the Internet, new job creation opportunities have emerged that allow young thieves to work remotely. From the perspective of the Chinese authorities, China's international hacking is actually a domestic crime reduction program.

It's obviously not a priority for the Chinese police to crack down this, it is not even near the top of their priorities list. That would be cracking down on organ smugglers, people traffickers, drug traffickers and fake drug manufacturers, poisonous food and drink manufacturers, large-scale industrial polluters-the list goes on.

The Chinese state seems to have already given up on most of these battles, which are much more important to its survival. It has lost control of the skies, the rivers, and food production, all of which are hopelessly contaminated with toxins. Why would they crack down on a group of harmless hackers, when they don't have what it takes to combat these much greater evils?

And after all, the hackers are harmless, at least as long as they don't target the Chinese government, and I don't think we would hear from them for very long if they did that. In fact more than harmless, amateur hackers provide a good recruiting ground for the professional cyber warfare battalions of the PLA. Besides, the transfer of intellectual property by traditional means has a long history in China, whether it be private enterprise which knocks off copies of branded Western goods for sale to tourists in downtown Shanghai shopping malls, or the government, which recently copied high-speed train technology from Germany.

And finally, having retreated to the refuge of patriotism after abandoning socialist rhetoric in the 1990s, the party state relies on these nationalists as its main supporters, and doesn't want to annoy them any more than you or I want to poke a stick at a wasp's nest at the end of the garden.

Amateurs or Professionals?

Western journalists often ask a related question; is the Chinese hacking organized by the government, autonomous groups and individuals, or an alliance of both? Of course there's really no way of answering this question fully. We know that China's military has both electronic warfare and cyber espionage capabilities, just as other armies do. And we can be pretty sure that not every hacker in China is working for the PLA, after all some of them are too young to join up or prefer to work from home in their slippers. But what we can be sure of is that the Chinese government is not doing much to stop this wave of cyber crime.

And we know that they have the ability. They roundup political dissidents pretty quickly every time the politburo sneezes. It's pretty easy for them to keep track on people nowadays when everybody has a cellphone.

Beware the Golden Cyber Horde

So in summary, the Chinese police are not going to crack down vigorously on international hackers, although they might slap a few on the wrist from time to time for the sake of appearances. And the hacking wave from China is just beginning, the netizen population there is still growing fast, with a new wave of smart cellphones likely to double the number of Internet connected devices in the next five years. Network connections will inevitably get faster and as computers spread deeper into our lives in the West, we are exposing an ever larger software and hardware surface area to the potential attacker.

And hackers are learning fast; there are a lot of smart people in China; remember that China tops the world in high school maths and China's Huaiwei is now the world's biggest network company. Make no mistake about it, the invasion of the Golden cyber Horde is just beginning.

(Stephen Thompson is a Hong Kong-based Sinologist and writer under the name
唐肆啼 for Open Magazine, (, a dissident monthly magazine published in Hong Kong)

Military Still the Wild Card in Myanmar

Last week's announcement by Myanmar's information ministry that it had abolished direct media censorship was hailed by observers as yet more evidence that the process of reform is well under way.

Things have certainly changed a lot since President Thein Sein took over in March last year. Myanmar's semi-civilian government — although still dominated by former generals — has allowed elections, eased rules on protests and freed dissidents.

And now that Western sanctions are being relaxed, it is also opening up for business. Not surprisingly, foreign investors are rushing into the country, hoping to take advantage of the economic opportunities that will surely follow.

Some consider the only problems to be practical in nature. Can Myanmar's sleepy bureaucracy and antiquated infrastructure cope with the influx? A report issued by the Asian Development Bank on August 20 added to the list. The main risks, it said, included factors such as weak macro-economic management and low tax revenues.

Overall, however, the bank painted a rosy picture of the country's economic prospects after five decades of economic isolation. Myanmar, the bank said, was poised to become Asia's next "rising star."

The euphoria, of course, is understandable. There is not much economic growth around these days, especially in the United States and Europe. And with China, Japan and even India starting to slow down, Myanmar looks far more attractive than might otherwise be the case.

What many seem to have forgotten, however, is that less than two years ago, Myanmar was little more than a military dictatorship, and that even now the military exerts a powerful influence on the government.

History suggests that military juntas do not give up power easily, and when they do, it is almost always to those whom the generals believe can be trusted to protect their interests.

Should the military decide that its interests are under threat, political and economic developments could take a very different turn, with serious consequences for the investors who are flooding into the country.

Optimists can point to the fact that, earlier this month, the soldiers who dominate the national legislature agreed to support the appointment of the nation's politically moderate naval chief as one of the country's two vice-presidents.

Vice-Admiral Nyan Tun, 58, replaced hardliner Tin Aung Myint Oo, whose resignation for health reasons (he was reportedly suffering from throat cancer) was officially announced last month.

But this development needs to be seen in the light of the fact that Parliament took almost a month to make the decision. The army MPs, who make up the majority of the military's representation in the legislature, initially preferred retired general Myint Swe — an army hardliner with close links to former strongman Than Shwe. They abandoned the effort only when it was pointed out that a constitutional provision initially crafted to prevent opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from holding office also made Gen Myint Swe ineligible.

Myanmar's 2008 Constitution forbids Myanmar citizens whose relatives or spouses hold foreign citizenship from becoming president or vice-president. Gen Myint Swe's son-in-law is an Australian citizen, while Aung San Suu Kyi was married to now deceased British citizen Michael Aris.

Tellingly, as late as July 25, MP Htay Oo, the head of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, was insisting on supporting Gen Myint Swe. "He's the only one we nominated," he told Agence France-Presse.

Army generals have long distrusted the navy. They have not forgotten, for example, that many navy personnel joined in the 1988 demonstrations against the regime that were bloodily suppressed by the army.

Adm Nyan Tun may therefore have a tough job convincing the generals of his willingness to safeguard army privileges.

President Thein Sein's commitment to reform seems genuine. But his experience as an army bureaucrat rather than a combat soldier limits his influence among serving generals. He also has a heart ailment and uses a pacemaker. He may not be in control for long. Will reform continue if he is no longer around?

Some observers believe key military figures have little interest in real reform. The generals are supportive for now, but only because such reform opens up the possibility of reducing Myanmar's dependence on China.

Meanwhile, the passage of a much-needed foreign investment law has been delayed because of the concerns of local businesses — many of them closely linked to the military — that they may be displaced by foreign companies.

In other words, if the current transition is not handled carefully, opposition to reform could grow very quickly.

Investors should tread cautiously. The military, not the nation's weak physical and social infrastructure, remains the real wild card. Jakarta Globe Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times