The Double-Edged Sword of the Internet
Than What had been hauling bricks all day for the construction of the new constitution hall in Rangoon, Burma. His transmission was shot and he wandered the spare parts market hoping to find a replacement. He was exhausted and frustrated—when the Burmese military asks you to haul bricks, you haul bricks, and you don’t expect to get paid. The next day was his birthday—he was turning 39—and he just wanted to get home to his wife and 2-year-old son.
So he stopped to call a co-worker and let them know he wasn’t coming back to the brick factory. When his co-worker answered the phone, he said, “Than What, don’t say anything just run, run, run.” Military intelligence officers had just found an unsanctioned newspaper in his car.
Unofficial newspapers and publications pass between friends and acquaintances who have contacts in the pro-democracy movement. People would often give papers to Than What because he had a copier machine in his house. His ancient machine could only make one copy at a time, but he would run off some 40-50 copies for people eager to read something other than the government’s official line.
When he hung up the phone he knew he’d have to move fast. A lot of truck and car drivers hang around the spare parts market, so he searched out someone he knew. He was able to get a ride with a friend who was making a delivery in Southern Burma. There he telephoned his wife, who said the military police had come looking for him. “Don’t come back home,” she told him.
He stayed at a friend’s house in Southern Burma, but was unwilling to jeopardize his hosts’ safety any longer. Than What then took an illegal boat to Thailand where he was sold to a factory as a laborer—a common practice when passengers can’t pay the exorbitant agent fees to be smuggled out of the country. After two years working in the factory he bought his freedom and joined friends in Malaysia.
In October 2008, he demonstrated with a group of his friends in front of the Burmese embassy in Kuala Lumpur. For that, he was arrested and thrown into a Malaysian jail, where he was stripped of everything, including his identity. “In prison, you don’t know who you are,” he said. “You become a number.” He lived in squalid conditions while a lawyer from the American embassy worked on securing their release
Than What was freed 20 months later and granted refugee status. He resettled in Pittsburgh in September 2007. He has built a life here, working at a bakery and has bought a house. He lives thousands of miles away from Burma and the intelligence officers who searched his home and car. But he still hasn’t completely eluded reach of the government. Like many of the people interviewed by Sampsonia Way for our special July issue on Burma, he was afraid to let us use his real name. The Burmese government trolls the Internet for articles about the country and then searches out the people mentioned. A wrong word could have dire consequences for his family. Other people—including Americans—asked that their names be withheld because Burmese embassy workers do Internet searches on visa applicants.
The Internet offers unlimited possibilities for disseminating information. It’s much faster than Than What’s ancient copier, but it has also extended the reach of dictatorship’s surveillance beyond their borders.
Than What’s story is just one of many we will cover in greater detail in our upcoming special issue on Burma. Click here to join our mailing list and receive a notice when the Burma issue is published.
Read Elizabeth’s bio.