Internet Censorship in Southeast Asian Countries (Myanmar, China, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam)

Submitted by tomo on October 19, 2012 - 7:17pm

Vietnam has been labeled an "enemy of the Internet" by Reporters Without Borders. There have been a lot of cases of bloggers being targeted, harrassed, and arrested. But RSF (Reporters Sans Frontieres - French for Reporters Without Borders) are possibly speculating heavily on many of their other arguments such as banning Internet (gaming) cafes near schools, the real origins of DDoS attacks, Considering Internet penetration in this rather populous country, with Internet usage continuing to rise rapidly each year, and an explosion of Vietnamese businesses operating on the web, it might be a bit of hyperbole to say that Vietnam and the Internet are enemies, just like people mistakenly still think that Vietnam and America are still enemies. But censorship of websites is an issue here in Vietnam. It's an issue in all of Vietnam's neighbors in Southeast Asia.

First, to the north of Vietnam lies the vast Middle Kingdom of China (China isn't properly part of Southeast Asia but it does border many Southeast Asian countries). China has been labeled #1 Enemy of the Internet for implementing a technologically advanced firewall (the Great Firewall of China). In China, hundreds of popular American websites are blocked including Google, YouTube, Facebok and Twitter. Search queries are also monitored for keywords and then stopped if a person is searching about a sensitive topic like the Tiananmen Square massacre. Chinese are forced to use local versions of social media (like Sino Weibo) which are more easily controlled by the Chinese government. You could try to draw parallels to Facebook versus Zing Me and other social networks in Vietnam but the huge difference is that Facebook is still accessible and the one and only social media platform in Vietnam. TOR (The Onion Router, used for anonymously browsing the Internet and TOR .onion sites) is also blocked in China.

Malaysia isn't your typical enemy of the Internet. Its government (like Vietnam) encourages a digital ("multimedia", a term from the 1990s) economy with various initiatives like Cyberjaya and the Multimedia Super Corridor and when those initiatives started, just as the Internet was blowing up around the world, the government declared that the Internet was to remain free and uncensored. But Convervative Muslims in charge do want to limit certain cultural shortcomings by censoring scenes in movies with nudity or even just cleavage and sex or even just kissing.

Singapore - the country where chewing gum is banned and could get you caned. It's also a country with a rather long blacklist of blocked websites, mostly porn sites like YouPorn or Pussy.com. In Vietnam, pornography is illegal and you won't find Playboy or other girly mags being sold at magazine stands. But online, while ostensibly the Internet censorship laws are for blocking online porn, no porn sites are actually blocked (I've checked some of them - for research purposes). In Singapore, to a lesser extent, bloggers have been shut down and so has a random website about traveling while infected with HIV due to unfavorable portrayal of Singapore's policies towards HIV carriers. But no reports of bloggers being jailed unless they were also jaywalking, chewing gum, dancing in public places without a proper permit, bringing durian onto busses, or being a graffiti artist.

Thailand demonstrates a tactic that has been used in Vietnam, Cambodia, and probably many countries. Websites are not strictly speaking made illegal by the government. Rather, the government makes secret requests to ISPs to make certain websites unavailable. ISPs can decide to comply or ignore the request but ignoring the request comes at a high cost and so ISPs will generally block any website upon request. This means now over 100,000 websites are blocked in Thailand, putting it in the same league as China! Out of the rest of the countries in the region Thailand and Cambodia are the only kingdoms. Thailand has lese majeste laws making it illegal to insult the monarchy. This has led to arrests of people saying potentially offensive things about the king on social media sites like Facebook or even for liking or retweeting such statements.

Cambodia follows Thailand and Vietnam's leads when it comes to Internet censorship (Cambodia also gets their Internet connection from those two countries). When the government "requests" that certain websites are blocked the ISPs generally comply making it unnecessary to outright criminalize the websites in Cambodia. At the same time, governments deny censoring any websites and ISPs also release confusing messages regarding any block or whether it's an official block or just "technical difficulties". Like in Vietnam, certain blogs hosted by massive blogging platforms like Blogger and Bloghost have caused both entire platforms to be blocked by ISPs, not just the offending blogs. A certain controversial artists has had his website blocked, as has the NGO Global Witness, who fights againgst natural resource exploitation, corruption, and human rights abuses, probably for writing stuff like Cambodia should not stand for UN Security Council until land grabs and repression stop. Strangely, the prime minister of Cambodia briefly banned smartphones and 3G due to the potential of being able to view sexy streaming videos on one's mobile phone.

In Burma, the problem isn't just that some websites are blocked. Rather, all websites are slow and access can be unbearably limited to the point where they are functionally blocked. In general, Internet access is hard to subscribe to and then expensive to use, unaffordable for most Burmese. They also apparently have the same networking gear used for censorship as in China. With recent changes in attitudes towards the West and to media, with promises of no longer censoring newspapers, this is one country to watch in the future from any angle.

Laos, on the other hand, appears to not censor anything on the Internet.

GREG RHAME (not verified)

i wonder if americans are "forced to" drive american, german, south korean, and japanese cars, since cars from other countries are banned in the usa by the u.s regime.

MN (not verified)

Thanks for being sanguine about the reality in VN when it comes to censorship, human rights, and corruption. It is refreshing to read, after having come across quite a few expats in VN who are too happy to turn a blind eye and pretend that, while there are "a few" problems, VN is all fair and happy. These are the expats who would go on and on about American human rights abuses and the need for anti-Americanism (you know, the big Satan) and yet so conveniently not mention a word about the daily oppression of ordinary Vietnamese, not a word about the disappearances of Vietnamese dissidents, and certainly not a word about the Vietnamese bloggers who are jailed.

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tomo

I also hear a lot of rose-colored-glasses expats, especially those who have just arrived. They attribute many serious problems to cultural relativism. The truth is a lot more complicated. I would say people here, all over the Southeast Asian region, are more accepting of these issues - at least so long as the economy is doing okay.

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