Yangon’s Pirates of Pansodan St. – A new copyright law may bankrupt Myanmar’s book business

Along Yangon’s Pansodan Street toward Merchant Road, located among the heritage Victorian buildings of colonial-era Rangoon, a pirated book market thrives. The books lining the shelves of street-side stalls, or inside adjacent bookstores, give the appearance of a booming business, featuring longtime bestsellers from Aung San Suu Kyi’s Freedom from Fear and Letters from Burma to George Orwell’s Burmese Days. But a closer inspection reveals that these are photocopied versions of the originals being sold for a fraction of the price.

As Myanmar’s new copyright law comes into effect this year, pirated books will likely begin to disappear from the bargain shelves, and many bookstores will feel the pinch. Urged on by publishers in the country, the government has begun to hold panel discussions on the new laws. Writers – many disgruntled by past copyright infringements – have also begun to highlight copyright issues through campaigns. But there is more to this story than meets the eye. Pirated books have seen Myanmar through periods of media suppression, they help the public learn about sensitive topics like the Rohingya crisis, and, some might argue, they add value to the economy.

Pirates versus publishers

Book piracy, the unauthorised use or reproduction of another’s work, is a term that evokes maritime theft and plunder. The industry dates back to 16th-century England and 17th-century Europe. In Myanmar, as in many emerging economies, pirated books are commonplace.

But over the years Myanmar’s book pirates have faced increasing opposition from Myanmar’s publishing industry. Publishers like Myo Aung, who sells imported books, have been asking the government to adopt modern intellectual-property legislation for the last ten years. Myanmar did not sign the 1886 Berne Convention – an international agreement governing copyright, and the Burma Copyright Act of 1914, conceived prior to the advent of the internet and applicable only to domestically produced literary works, has been ineffective.

Publishers claim that their industry faces structural challenges, such as rising rents and poor logistics and distribution systems. In 2019, a new copyright law was adopted along with patent, trademark and industrial-design laws to bring Myanmar into a new age of intellectual property rights. The law will impact approximately 2,822 registered publishing businesses in Myanmar. Still, according to the new law, Myanmar’s President Win Myint must announce the date of enforcement for the law to be applicable. “I told the government not to wait [to implement the law]. The earliest date possible is good for everyone,” said Myo Aung, owner of Pyi Zone Publishing House in Yangon.

Myo Aung believes there are roughly 100 unregistered book publishers still operating in Yangon, where the country’s publishing industry is located. Looming enforcement has sent shockwaves through Yangon’s pirated-book market to nearby streets where pirated DVDs and CDs can be found. The new law extends to audiovisual, film, architectural and choreographic works, among others.

Piracy during dictatorship

Parallel to Pansodan Street, just one block east on Merchant Road, is 37th Street. This is where Ko Harry Books, Bagan Book House and OS Bookshop are located. It is also home to the Old Book Market that sells secondhand children’s books and novels in English and Burmese languages, buried alongside pirated nonfiction books on Burma’s turbulent political history.

Following the 1962 military coup, many books were banned outright by the new regime and freedom of speech was severely restricted. As a result, many people smuggled books into the country, photocopied them and sold them clandestinely. At the time, piracy was critical for spreading new ideas. “In the past, booksellers would hide banned books. You needed to request the book. He would look at you to determine whether he should sell it to you or not,” said Myo Myo, a Yangon-based reporter for the Wall Street Journal. “If the authorities knew he was selling banned books he could be detained,” she added.

It was only after the National League for Democracy’s 2012 by-election victory that restrictions on media and censorship were relaxed. Gradually, books on political affairs were displayed openly, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s own books and the numerous biographies written about her.

U Htay Aung runs Bagan Book House, established in 1976 by his father as the preeminent destination for used English-language books. But secondhand books were difficult to bring into the country in the 1980s and 1990s, and now very few used books are on display inside. Instead, the walls and shelves are covered instead with pirated books. Htay Aung said he knew he risked arrest and interrogation by police and security agents in the past for carrying certain titles on Myanmar. Today, he carries on his family’s tradition of selling a curated selection of low-cost used and pirated books. It is still the go-to bookshop downtown for locals, foreigners and tourists looking for cheap reads in English.

Bagan Book House also carries books on sensitive topics like the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crises in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states. These books are flaunted next to more academic texts that also would have been banned before 2012, because they are critical of the role of Myanmar’s military in society and politics. In today’s Myanmar, the most risky books are those about the Rohingya community, against whom the Myanmar military carried out what it called “clearance operations”, but which the United Nations described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

Pirated copies of Myanmar’s ‘Rohingya’ Conflict (2018), The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide (2016), and Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’ (2017) are available in English. But they are unlikely to have Burmese translations any time soon, since translations may cause offence to nationalists and Buddhist monks, many of whom reject the name ‘Rohingya’ and – imputing foreignness to this community – use the appellation ‘Bengali’ instead.

The disgruntled author

Swedish journalist and author Bertil Lintner has spent the last 40 years reporting and writing about Myanmar. Walking down Pansodan Street one day, he spotted pirated versions of his books on Myanmar, along with their unofficial Burmese translations on bestseller shelves. They ranged in price from MMK 5,000 to 10,000 (USD 3.50 to 7) while the original copies can cost between USD 25 to 45 at two of the country’s most popular book chains, Innwa Books and Myanmar Book Centre.

Lintner told me, “I haven’t been paid even one kyat for any of the altogether seven books which were translated into Burmese with [or] without permission from me or the original publisher.” He added, “Some Myanmar publishers have asked me for permission to translate books, but I have to explain to them that they can’t ask me for permission to do that. They have to ask the publishers.”

To challenge piracy in Myanmar’s book publishing industry, author and historian Thant Myint U had a legal notice published in the state-run Kyemon daily and shared on his Facebook wall. He requested bookstores and stalls to no longer carry pirated versions of his books. As a result, his most recent work, The Hidden History of Burma, is not displayed on the bestseller shelves at Yangon’s book shops and stalls that sell pirated books. Since it was released in late 2019, it has only been possible to purchase an original copy at the Myanmar Book Centre, located on Merchant Road one block west of Pansodan Street – rather than east where pirated copies of his books were once sold openly.

Thant’s three previous books – including his bestselling historical memoir The River of Lost Footsteps (2006) – were pulled from bestseller shelves last year as the notice went out. “I’m no longer allowed to sell Thant Myint U books,” Htay Aung said as he reached behind a rack of other bestselling pirated books on Suu Kyi to show me a stash of copies of The Hidden History of Burma.

These pirated books are now hidden away and only sold to customers who really want to read the book but don’t have enough money to pay MMK 35,000 (USD 24) Myanmar Book Center. Htay Aung only charges MMK 7000 (USD 5) for this book and MMK 5000 (USD 3.50) for each of Myint U’s previous three books.

In the past, authors have had no legal recourse to combat copyright infringement. Myint U is the first author to challenge book piracy and have bookstore owners pull pirated copies from shelves. Some pirated books stalls along Pansodan Street are even located inside entranceways to the heritage buildings that Yangon Heritage Trust, a group founded by Myint U that works to preserve the city’s colonial-era architecture, has been fighting to protect from demolition or neglect. The trust’s office, ironically, is one block south of the pirated book market on Pansodan Street.

Enforcing copyright

Pirated books banned under the military regime are starting to disappear off shelves as word of the 2019 copyright law reaches the pirated book market. This has many bookstore owners like Htay Aung and Khin Maung Tin confused. Skeptics like Myo Myo, on the other hand, believe enforcement of the copyright law won’t happen for many years, likely after the 2025 parliamentary election.

“We obey the law. In a few years the copied books may disappear,” said Khin Maung Tin from Ar Yone Thit Bookshop – a bookstore in Yangon that sells mainly pirated English language textbooks and novels for students and foreigners. “Customers may not be able to afford expensive books. Nobody knows what will happen in the future. [This law] may be good or bad.”

According to the new copyright law, those caught selling pirated works will be imprisoned for at least one year with a fine of MMK 1 million (approximately USD 700). Repeat offenders will be subject to up to ten years of imprisonment and a fine of MMK 10 million (approximately USD 7000). Says Myo Myo, “After 2012, people have begun to talk about copyright. Nowadays these voices are louder. In the future, most people in Myanmar [must] follow and obey the law.”

But getting rid of pirated books may be harder than imagined. Pirated books are available for purchase in all bookstores in Myanmar, not only in the pirated book shops and stalls of downtown Yangon. In fact, Innwa Books and Myanmar Book Centre, too, sell pirated books alongside originals. For most book buyers, it’s hard to tell the difference. So, the retailers put up notices that read: “English books from these shelves are not original or authentic books.” When asked about this, staff at both stores would not comment.

The economics of piracy

With free primary education and an adult literacy rate of approximately 76 percent, Myanmar has a significant appetite for reading. However, despite this, many people may not be able to afford to pay the full listed price for a book like The Hidden History of Burma;the purchase would represent about 2 percent of the average annual income in Myanmar (USD 1325).

This is unrealistic given that the average Burmese household spends only 3 percent of total expenditure on entertainment. Myanmar is not alone in this; the inability to afford book prices set in advanced economies is a problem in other developing countries as well, including India, Brazil and South Africa.

As the authors of Media Piracy in Emerging Economies (2011) suggest, specific industries may incur losses as a result of piracy, but these are not necessarily losses to the national economy. Piracy of domestic goods is “a transfer of income, not a loss. Money saved by consumers or businesses on CDs, DVDs, or software will not disappear but rather be spent on other things—housing, food, other entertainment, other business expenses, and so on.”

Meanwhile, the 2019 copyright law will almost definitely affect the revenue stream of book retailers. Their revenues have continually decreased since the reforms to Myanmar’s telecommunications sector began to take effect in 2013, allowing for the spread of cheap SIM cards and data plans. Myanmar’s internet penetration rate increased from approximately one percent to 31 percent between 2011 and 2017, while in the same period mobile subscriptions per 100 inhabitants increased from 2.4 to 90.

This means that more people are now likely to use the internet to read books – where many books are now available, for free, online. Recognising this trend, Myanmar’s biggest wireless carrier created an ebook app with book prices between MMK 500 and 800 kyat (35 to 56 US cents). Like book pirates, they too hope to capitalise on high demand for books and the unaffordability of original books.

Unfortunately, this is a perspective that is often overlooked by publishers in Myanmar. “In this business it’s important to be honest,” said Myo Aung. “You must ask permission and acquire the rights to publish a book. If you’re caught pirating, please apologise.”

Published @Himal Southasian

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Aung San Suu Kyi turns to Facebook to get coronavirus message out

Myanmar leader’s live broadcasts on Facebook draws hundreds of thousands of views.

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A video conference between Aung San Suu Kyi, (top right) and government officials from the Yangon region as she gives daily updates on Facebook [Myanmar’s Ministry of Information/ AFP]

YANGON, Myanmar – Broadcasting live from Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, Aung San Suu Kyi shuffled some papers, looked straight at the camera and smiled before welcoming her guests to a teleconference call on Facebook.

“Currently, migrant workers are coming back from Thailand and some have resettled in the country. So we are taking the necessary steps to provide quarantine facilities,” the country’s de facto leader told the more than 300,000 viewers who had tuned into her broadcast on Wednesday.

Alongside her, the screen featured three of Myanmar’s labour leaders. The first topic of the day was about how returning migrant workers could minimise the spread of the new coronavirus in the impoverished country.

“Those gathered in large groups could be a danger to themselves and the country if they don’t follow the rules,” Suu Kyi said.

The 74-year-old state counsellor heads Myanmar’s coronavirus response team and has reluctantly turned to Facebook to spread her message on the challenges posed by COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus.

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Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi talks to government officials from the Yangon region via a video conference from the presidential house in Naypyidaw [Handout/ Myanmar’s Ministry of Information/ via AFP]

Despite creating a Facebook profile in 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi only posted her first update on April 1, declaring that while she did not want to use the platform at all she was forced to do so in order to “effectively communicate with citizens”.

Since then, Aung San Suu Kyi has taken to the platform daily to update her 2.2 million followers on the government’s efforts to fight the virus. Facebook has the largest reach out of any traditional media or social media platform in Myanmar, registering an estimated 21 million users in the country of 53 million.

There are now 127 confirmed infections and five deaths from the coronavirus in Myanmar. While the figures are the second-lowest in Southeast Asia, experts worry a large outbreak could swiftly overwhelm the country’s healthcare system, which is ranked among the worst in the world following decades of military rule. The country is now bracing for the return of more migrant workers from Thailand and China, some of whom may have the coronavirus.

During her broadcasts, Aung San Suu Kyi hosts state and regional health officials as well as volunteers working to slow community transmission. She moderates panel discussions and listens to and congratulates people across Myanmar, from Mon state in the southeast of the country to the Ayeyarwady region outside Yangon, in an effort to reassure people that authorities are doing everything possible to combat the virus. Respect the rules, she urges viewers frequently, telling them to follow social distancing guidelines and hygiene practices including the wearing of face coverings.

The broadcasts typically garner hundreds of thousands of views and as people on the front lines share their stories, viewers flood the screen with thumbs-up signs and heart-shaped emojis. In addition to the praise from supporters, the discussions have drawn plaudits from the traditional news media, too.

“The biggest result of our video meeting with citizens across our country is to know about the important needs of those who are trying to overcome the COVID-19 challenges [we face],” Aung San Suu Kyi said on Tuesday.

Kaung Htut, a bank employee in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi’s live broadcasts.

“The teleconference call is a good thing … she should have been doing this all along,” the 39-year-old said. “She’s not communicating detailed plans by the government. She’s trying to clarify some information for the public. The guests respectfully listen and answer her questions. But nobody challenges her.”

But some critics say the tactic bypasses the news media and public health officials should have taken the lead, not Aung San Suu Kyi.

“She should hold press conferences and communicate with journalists to make sure the right messages are getting out,” said Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a 28-year-old democracy activist who tunes in to Aung San Suu Kyi’s live broadcasts.

“The press conferences or online press briefings should be regular. She’s taking on the roles other people should.”

Meanwhile, some activists are using Aung San Suu Kyi’s newfound appreciation for Facebook to seek accountability for the continuing conflict between the military and the Arakan Army rebel group in Rakhine and Chin states.

The United Nations says 32 civilians, mostly women and children, have been killed in the fighting in Rakhine and Chin since March 23 – the date the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Myanmar. And while Aung San Suu Kyi used one of her recent Facebook broadcasts to mourn the loss of a woman to the coronavirus, activists say she has not paid the same attention to the conflict deaths.

On Tuesday, Aung San Suu Kyi released a statement expressing her support for the military in western Myanmar, and went on to remark that her government was “deeply saddened to learn of civilian casualties in Rakhine and Chin states,” where 150,000 displaced people are living under a mobile internet ban and are unable to receive information about the pandemic.

Moe Thway, president of Generation Wave Youth Force, a group of political activists critical of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, said he frequently leaves comments on Aung San Suu Kyi’s Facebook posts highlighting the number of people who’ve been killed in the conflict in the past month alone.

“For the moment coronavirus is the most important issue in the country. But the war in Rakhine and Chin states should be the second,” he said.

“People living in the conflict zones need protection and information,” said Moe Thway.

Aung Hla Tun, a spokesman for Myanmar’s government, declined to comment for this story.

Published @Al Jazeera

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In Laos, price of free speech a heavy one

BANGKOK [OP-ED] – The imprisonment of Houayheuang “Muay” Xayabouly, a young, female Lao environmentalist turned internet activist who simply asked for help for flood victims, should be a matter of deep concern to the international community.

On Sept 5, 2018, Muay used her 17-minute-long Facebook Live broadcast to counter the official narrative of the government — and state-run media — on the 2018 dam collapse in southern Laos.

After speaking up for the flood victims, she found herself arrested and was sent to jail last year.

Her Facebook Live video was viewed 150,000 times and shared 2,244 times.

In the video, she told a story of flood victims living on the roofs of their houses, drawing attention to the government’s negligence during the deadly flooding.

“I cannot be silent as we have been in the past. The era of the regime keeping the eyes and mouths of the people closed has come to an end,” Radio Free Asia quoted her as saying in the video.

Her scathing live reports evaded Lao censors and got news from communities affected by land confiscation, the loss of natural resources, and the construction of dams along the Mekong River, out to the public before the government was able to ask Facebook to take down her posts.

Her video plea for flood victims was still available on her Facebook page recently.

In Laos, any criticism of the government on social media can land you in trouble.

Muay, 31, is the mother of a four-year-old girl. She worked as a tour guide before being arrested on Sept 12, 2019 and charged under Article 117 of the Lao criminal code, for spreading “anti-state propaganda”.

She was sentenced to five years in prison. But this wasn’t the first time Muay had gotten into trouble.

Police had previously questioned Muay about her growing influence on social media in Laos. When she challenged the official narrative about the floods caused by the dam collapse, and resulting loss of life and livelihoods for people living in Attapeu province, she hit a nerve.

“Muay had been arrested before but [had always been] released. This time they wanted to make an example of her,” said Emilie Pradichit, director of Manushya Foundation — a rights group based in Bangkok.

“She refused to apologise this time so she was sentenced to jail,” Ms Emilie added.

Many Lao political activists fear the government. Seven years ago, community development expert Sombath Somphone was kidnapped at a police checkpoint in downtown Vientiane; he hasn’t been seen or heard from since despite an international outcry.

Human rights groups say the Lao government is using enforced disappearance as a weapon to silence dissent.

Last August, Lao refugee Od Sayavong disappeared in Bangkok, where he’d been waiting for resettlement to a third country. The news of Od’s disappearance sent shock waves through Thailand’s refugee community.

“With social media, Lao people have more channels to express themselves. They don’t have to take to the streets to protest and [be] arrested,” said Sunai Phasuk, a Thai researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“But the Lao government is intensively surveilling its people online,” Mr Sunai added.

Thai and Lao political activists in Bangkok have teamed up to launch the #FreeMuay campaign. They want to raise awareness about missing Lao activists like Od and have called for an immediate investigation into Muay’s case in Laos.

The #FreeMuay campaign seeks to inform the world — as Muay did herself via social media — about the difficulties faced by the Lao people in raising their voice to demand accountability and transparency inside Laos, or in exile in Thailand.

The Thai group Humanity Beyond Borders is raising funds and awareness through this campaign, to assist Muay and anyone who dares to speak out against repressive regimes anywhere in the world.

People around the world have suffered a great deal from natural disasters like the flooding in the south of Laos in 2018. That calamity may have been less severe and less deadly if the state were held accountable for its responses. It is a cause for dismay that someone like Muay, who wanted to hold the government responsible, ended up in jail. She does not deserve this.

Thailand and the international community must focus on gross human rights abuses in Laos.

The most important thing now is for the United Nations and international organisations to go to Laos to visit Muay in prison and pressure the Lao government to release her. She should never have been jailed in the first place.

Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a student activist at Chulalongkorn University, spearheads the #FreeMuay campaign. Adam Bemma is a writer based in Southeast Asia.

Published @BangkokPost

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Vietnam’s battalions of ‘cyber-armies’ silencing online dissent

‘Force 47’, thought to be 10,000-strong, seen as government’s online enforcers as new cyber crime law takes effect.

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Vietnam has a population of 96 million, with more than 60 million people having their presence on the social media platform Facebook [File: Luong Thai Linh/EPA]

HANOI, Vietnam – Wearing his trademark black fedora, human rights defender Anh Chi updates his YouTube audience on the situation in Dong Tam village, 40km (25 miles) southwest of Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, the site of a recent deadly dispute over land.

Anh Chi is among the few social media-savvy activists, who are trying to push the boundaries of delivering news and analysis straight to the Vietnamese public. But these days, their voices are increasingly becoming muted due to government restrictions.

The deadly January 9 incident in Dong Tam is a case in point.

According to the authorities, three police officers and 84-year-old village leader Le Dinh Kinh were killed after local residents clashed with police in the early hours of that day.

The dispute, over agricultural land next to a military airport, shocked the country.

But afterwards, Vietnam’s cyber-army, also known as Force 47, was deployed to counter the content on social media platforms deemed critical of the way the authorities handled the situation.

The authorities also arrested three activists over posts made in relation to the dispute, while Facebook users faced restrictions.

“The Vietnamese government’s heavy-handed efforts to censor discussion of this land dispute are the latest example of its campaign to assert control over online content,” Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s regional director, said in a statement.

“Social media, particularly Facebook, is increasingly becoming weaponised by Vietnam to go after those who peacefully speak their mind. This is an unacceptable attack on freedom of expression and a clear attempt to stamp out dissent.”

‘Force 47’

Vietnam’s Force 47 is run by the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) to hack anti-government websites and spread pro-government messages online, and is believed to be at least 10,000-strong.

Anh Chi, the pen name of 46-year-old Nguyen Chi Tuyen, knows the ministry’s tactics well. He has created videos criticising Force 47, and has expressed concern about the impact of a new cyber-law that came into effect at the beginning of the month.

“I strongly oppose the many articles in it that violate freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and basic human rights,” he said.

Digital rights campaigners accuse Vietnam of attempting to replicate China’s “Great Firewall”  by regulating and censoring the internet  with the cybersecurity law.

Neither Google, which owns YouTube, nor Facebook has complied with the legislation, which requires the American tech giants to open local data storage facilities inside Vietnam by January 1.

The Asia Internet Coalition, a lobby representing Facebook and Google, said the legislation was a step in the wrong direction for the country’s growing digital economy.

The law states that “it is prohibited to use cyberspace to prepare a post and spread information that has the content of propaganda opposing the state of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, or anything that offends the nation, national flag, national emblem, national anthem, great people, leaders, notable people and national heroes”.

Growing marking of 96 million people

As Vietnamese searched for more information about what happened in Dong Tam a week ago, some Facebook users reported receiving the message online: “Due to legal requirements in your country, we have restricted access to your profile on Facebook. This means that other people in your country cannot see your profile, and may not be able to interact with you over Messenger.”

Vietnam has a population of 96 million. With more than 60 million Facebook users, it is the platform’s one of the fastest-growing markets.

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Reporters Without Borders ranks Vietnam near the bottom of its 2019 World Press Freedom Index at 176 out of 180 countries listed [Luong Thai Linh/EPA]

“Facebook is the main source of independent news now in Vietnam,” said Trinh Huu Long, a co-founder of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam.

“The government has been working with Facebook to try to control content posted by dissidents and independent voices,” he added.

Searches for protests in Hong Kong have also been affected. Many, like Anh Chi, blame the cybersecurity law for the filtered information.

“They know people in Vietnam are active on social media, and they follow the news, especially with what’s happening in Hong Kong every day,” he said. “The government fears that one day people in Vietnam will join such protests.”

‘No free press’

Bao Trung, 37, started his own Facebook page called “Bao Sach [Clean Newspaper]” with five other independent journalists in 2019. The whole team used to work for the state-run media.

“Most of the people in Vietnam have Facebook accounts. Anybody can be a reporter now with a smartphone,” Bao Trung said. “I think it’s impossible for the government to control online news and information.”

Vietnam’s dispute with China over its claim on the islands and energy-rich waters in the South China Sea is also sensitive.

Vietnamese people have long viewed their northern neighbour as a threat. In June 2018, there were nationwide protests against the cybersecurity and special economic zone legislation because they were seen as favourable to Beijing.

The authorities reacted quickly to end the protests, which activists described as the biggest in Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975.

Vietnam’s cybersecurity law stipulates that social media platforms must allow the authorities access to local user data. The government has even pledged to create its own Vietnamese platform to rival Facebook, although its attempts have failed.

‘People’s journalist’

The Ministry of Public Security claims the cybersecurity law is needed to stop cyber-threats and attacks against Vietnam.

Independent journalist Pham Chi Dung was arrested last year and is still under investigation without formal charges by police in Ho Chi Minh City.

Anh Chi does not seem bothered by such threats. He had a blog on Facebook for nine years until he switched recently to YouTube. But with a decade of political activism under his belt, he calls himself “the people’s journalist”.

In a country where state institutions, from citizens committees, to the military and newspapers refer to themselves as “the people’s [nhan dan]”, this claim may ring hollow with his audience – which he said ranges from local street vendors to government civil servants.

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With a decade of political activism under his belt, Anh Chi calls himself ‘the people’s journalist.’

“I choose to spend my time on YouTube rather than Facebook because Vietnamese people are busy with work,” he said. “They have smartphones, so while they’re working they can listen to the story rather than having to read.”

Reporters Without Borders ranks Vietnam near the bottom of its 2019 World Press Freedom Index at 176 out of 180 countries listed. Freedom House labels Vietnam as “Not free”.

The 88 Project for Free Speech in Vietnam states there are 276 activists currently in prison, while human rights group Defend the Defenders monitored the cases of 36 convicted in 2019.

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In 2019, Bao Trung started his Facebook page called ‘Bao Sach’ (Clean Newspaper) with five other independent journalists.

Vietnam’s government disputes these statistics, but under the country’s legal system they already have several laws to prosecute online dissenters.

Many fear the cybersecurity law is just another layer – a way to deter people even from questioning the government.

Anh Chi is unbowed, saying he will continue to speak out. He dedicated an entire episode on his YouTube channel to Le Dinh Kinh, the elderly man killed in Dong Tam last week.

“If they want to arrest anyone of us, they can do it. There are many laws in the penal code to use against us,” Anh Chi said. “We’re ready to defend our human rights. That’s our challenge and our mission.”

Published @AlJazeera

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‘Pushing boundaries’: The rise of Samizdat publishing in Vietnam

Liberal Publishing House publishes and distributes books Vietnam’s government does not want its citizens to read.

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Vietnam’s publishing industry is tightly controlled by the government [File: Kham/Reuters]

HANOI, Vietnam – Inside a cramped room in a secret – and temporary – location in northern Vietnam, a printer whirs to life, spitting out sheets of paper covered in text.

Neat piles are stacked on nearby tables and a man wearing an air respirator places one of them into a machine that cuts and binds the pages to a cover.

“The dampness in the room has caused the paper to crease. This isn’t good,” said the editor in chief of Vietnam’s Nha Xuat Ban Tu Do – Liberal Publishing House – as he flipped through the newly-printed book.

In Vietnam, as in the former Soviet Union, such publications are known as Samizdat – the illegal copying and distribution of books – and are banned by the government as “anti-state” activity. Under Article 117 of Vietnam’s criminal code, anyone involved in Samizdat risks a jail term of 20 years. The Liberal Publishing House editor prefers not to share their name.

The publishing house was founded last February in Ho Chi Minh City by a group of dissidents as a direct challenge to the government’s control of the industry and to bring the non-fiction work of Vietnam’s growing crop of dissident writers to the nation’s readers.

“Every printing house in Vietnam is controlled by the government. We had to buy our own printing press to do it clandestinely,” said Tran Ha, Liberal Publishing House’s founding member, who asks that we use a pseudonym to protect their identity.

Immediately after the press was set up, Ha had to move it from Vietnam’s largest city to an undisclosed location due to pressure from police trying to shut it down and arrest them.

“We’re unable to stay anywhere for a long period of time or our work may be revealed. If we’re discovered even the community will be at risk,” added Ha.

‘Dangerous and damaging’

The government has long censored and controls its media and publishing industries and imposed tight restrictions on them.

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Liberal Publishing House has published dissident author Pham Doan Trang’s latest books Politics of a Police State and Non Violent Protest. [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

The Law on Publishing prohibits “propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” the “spread of reactionary ideology” and “the disclosure of secrets of the [Communist] Party, State, military, defence, economics, or external relations.”

Liberal Publishing House has published 11 books from eight authors during the past year on politically sensitive topics including China’s role in Vietnam and controversial legislation on Special Economic Zones. It has also released a legal handbook for jailed activists.

It is the first Samizdat in Vietnam to launch a website and Facebook page.

“We have tens of thousands of readers despite police repression and state censorship,” Ha said. “Many of them are members of the Communist Party.”

There is no way to verify these claims, but in October, Vietnamese authorities cracked down on Liberal Publishing House, its distribution network and readers.

In November, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released a joint statement calling for an end to the intimidation and harassment of people either associated with the publisher’s activities or trying to obtain copies of Samizdat books.

According to Amnesty International’s Vietnam campaign team, police have questioned nearly 100 people for either owning or reading books printed by Liberal Publishing House.

“They know how dangerous and damaging [Samizdat publishing] is to their regime,” said Trinh Huu Long, a democracy activist and co-founder of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam.

“By printing books, they can make independent information look professional and legitimate to readers. If they can hold it in their hands they trust it more. It’s valuable.”

Clandestine network

Walking along popular bookshop-lined streets in either Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi it is easy to find and buy copies of Western and Vietnamese literature banned by the government since reunification in 1975. While some illegal books are smuggled into the country, most are photocopied versions of the originals.

But finding Samizdat books written by Vietnamese authors in Vietnam itself is difficult so press freedom activists have started a support network to help keep Liberal Publishing House operational.

Supporters help ship books within the country. Readers across Vietnam place an order and decide a location from which to collect the books which are delivered by motorbike-taxi drivers – rather like ordering food online.

“A lot of those shipping our books have been trapped by police officers pretending to be readers interested in buying copies. They order a book from us online and set a place and time to have the book delivered to them,” said Ha.

“We’ve had two of our staff arrested and one was forced to confess.”

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A Samizdat book from Vietnam’s Liberal Publishing House whose readers are mainly from the country’s remote and poorer areas [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

Liberal Publishing House has begun to distribute digital versions of their most popular books to help pay for the costs associated with publishing physical copies.

‘Pushing boundaries’

Nguyen Quang A, 73, has been challenging state censorship under his SOS Squared Library for 20 years. He has published dozens of banned books in physical and e-book format and was the inspiration behind the Liberal Publishing House’s Samizdat operation.

“I gave up printing paper books,” Quang A said. “My objective is not to be a hero fighting against the corrupt censorship system. It’s just to discuss ideas.”

Ha said the feedback its Vietnamese readers give Liberal Publishing House reflects the hunger people have to know more about public policy in Vietnam.

“I think Liberal Publishing House is pushing the boundaries,” said Dinh Thao, a 28-year-old activist living in Hanoi. “In the past, [Samizdat] publishers would rather print translated books, but now they publish books from Vietnamese authors inside the country. These are the kinds of books I like to read.”

Bestselling copies of dissident author Pham Doan Trang’s latest books Politics of a Police State and Non Violent Protest sit on the table at Liberal Publishing House’s Samizdat printing facility.

While Hong Kong’s protests have continued into their eighth month, books on the subject are scarce in Vietnamese. Liberal Publishing House’s next release will shine a light on anti-China protests in Hong Kong and those that took place inside Vietnam in June 2018 – the biggest protests since the end of the Vietnam War.

“We’ve had a lot of interest from Vietnamese readers about the Hong Kong protests,” said Nguyen. “Our readers are coming from some of the most remote and poorest areas of the country.”

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No Progress or Answers on Enforced Disappearances in Thailand

BANGKOK, Thailand – Porlachi “Billy” Rakchongcharoen went missing in 2014. At the time, the land rights activist had been assisting Karen villagers with a lawsuit against the authorities in Phetchaburi province, 190km southwest of Bangkok, who had evicted and burnt down their homes.

Five years later, his skull fragment was discovered by special investigators in a burnt oil drum. It’s renewed efforts from civil society to hold perpetrators of torture and enforced disappearances accountable.

Billy’s wife Pinnapa Prueksapan broke down into tears when she heard the news. She’s been fighting for justice over the last five years. But Thailand has no law against torture and enforced disappearance, which means that enforced disappearances are not officially recognised as a criminal offence.

It’s a situation that’s painfully familiar for Angkhana Neelapaijit—she’d also brought such a case before the courts 15 years ago, after her husband, human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit, disappeared in Bangkok in 2004.

“After my husband disappeared, five police officers were arrested. Some eyewitnesses saw police push my husband into their car and nobody has seen him since,” Angkhana tells New Naratif.

“My husband’s case was the first time in Thailand a victim’s family took it to the court. Unfortunately, after 11 years, the Supreme Court of Thailand reached a verdict. It said there was no evidence and it acquitted all the accused.”

Today, Angkhana Neelapaijit is a leading voice in the country calling for laws that can take action against torture and enforced disappearances.

Missing in Thailand

According to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance, there are 82 unresolved cases of enforced disappearance in Thailand, dating all the way back to 1980. Thai academics have researched thousands of disappearances prior to this date.

Under international law, enforced disappearance refers to the forcible abduction, arrest, or detention of someone, followed by a refusal to acknowledge or address that person’s fate or circumstance. This leaves people who have been disappeared outside the ambit of the law, as it becomes very difficult to press a case or seek answers.

Thailand has been a state party to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) since 2007. It has also been a signatory to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) since 2012. But it has yet to adopt any law criminalising torture or enforced disappearance.

Over the last 10 years, Angkhana and other Thai civil society actors have been lobbying for an anti-torture and enforced disappearance bill. They’ve made some progress. In 2016, while the country was still under the rule of the military junta, Thailand’s Ministry of Justice teamed up with civil society to draft the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act.

Many Thais were expecting this bill to become law. But it was dropped from the slate of bills passed by the National Legislative Assembly—known as the junta’s “rubber stamp” parliament—before the March elections.

“No reasons were given by the [legislative assembly] as to why this bill disappeared from the agenda right before the election,” says Sanhawan Srisod, Thailand team leader and legal advisor at the International Commission of Jurists.

“It took time to form this new government [following the March elections] and now nobody is talking about the bill.”

“I encourage other victims to stand up for human rights”

Following her husband’s disappearance, Angkhana went on to set up the Justice for Peace Foundation in 2006 to advocate for access to justice and to end impunity in Thailand. From 2015–2019, she served in the Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission, but resigned ahead of the completion of her term. She said that, due to restrictions and an unsupportive work environment, she could no longer perform her duties effectively.

Days after her resignation, Angkhana was named the winner of the 2019 Ramon Magsaysay Award, often known as “Asia’s Nobel”. She joins an illustrious slate of previous winners, including Youk Chhang, the executive director of the Documentation Center for Cambodia, and Vientiane Rescue, a volunteer-run group in Laos that responds to thousands of road accidents a year.

Prema-Ja

“I encourage other victims to stand up for human rights,” Angkhana told New Naratif shortly after receiving the award.

“Most victims are scared to come forward. Sometimes they withdraw their cases and the human rights violations continue. We can’t let the perpetrators walk free any more.”

Angkhana’s win, coupled with the tragic developments of Billy’s case, seems to have pushed the issue of enforced disappearances into the public eye again. But renewed efforts to get the bill passed could still run into familiar roadblocks.

Despite elections that took place earlier this year officially ending the rule of the military National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the 2017 Constitution allows the junta to appoint 250 members to the upper house of Thailand’s National Assembly. This means that those responsible for not passing the law before the elections are now sitting in the upper house of Parliament, with final say over any proposed bill voted on by the 500-seat lower house.

The Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act is currently with the Ministry of Justice. The International Commission of Jurists submitted recommendations to the ministry on 20 December. But the group also expressed concerns over the delays in enacting this law, and says that the latest draft continues to fall short of what stakeholders say will need to be done for the country to meet its international human rights obligations.

The issue of non-refoulement

One major concern of the bill raised by human rights groups is the issue of non-refoulement, which refers to the principle of “not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution.”

The International Commission of Jurists say that they were informed that non-refoulement had been removed from the bill, because legislators claim that Thailand doesn’t have a custom of forcibly sending refugees or asylum seekers back to their home countries anyway.

But human rights activists point toward troubling examples that might challenge this claim. According to Amnesty International Thailand, one Cambodian was forcibly returned this year.

There have also been other cases that raise red flags: a Lao political activist and a Vietnamese blogger—both of whom were seeking asylum at the UN Refugee Agency in Thailand—recently went missing.

Then there are the cases that occur outside of the country: earlier this year, two Thai asylum seekers in Laos were found dead in the Mekong River. Other Thai exiles in Laos and Vietnam have been reported missing.

Such cases have led to accusations that Southeast Asian governments are collaborating to arrest and return one another’s dissidents.

“When there’s no law, then outlaw actions occur. We see the trend and we hope it doesn’t get any worse,” says Piyanut Kotsan, director at Amnesty International Thailand.

“Cases of enforced disappearance are now taking place between countries in the region. Thailand should take the lead and investigate the cases.”

“How far back are you willing to go?”

Jularat Damrongviteetham is the author of the chapter “Narratives of the ‘Red Barrel’ Incident” in the book Oral History in Southeast Asia: Memories and Fragments. The chapter covers a painful past: 1970s Thailand where the state violently suppressed (real or perceived) communist movements. The “red barrel” in the title refers to the red oil drums used to kill suspected communists; within one community in a southern province of Thailand alone, over 200 suspected communists were incinerated in such oil drums.

“If you start to investigate torture and enforced disappearance in Thailand, how far back are you willing to go?” she asks.

“I think a public inquiry would be good but I’m afraid under this government it would be difficult.”

Thailand’s current government is led by Prime Minister—and former military coup leader—Prayut Chan-ocha. The country’s human rights record has deteriorated under the NCPO regime he’d led. Many believe this may be the reason why the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act was dropped by legislators at the last minute.

Billy’s remains were discovered in an oil drum much like those used against suspected communists back in the 1970s. It’s a reminder that impunity and lack of accountability pervasive then continues today in Thailand.

“We organise an event every year for the International Day of the Disappeared, but we don’t want to keep doing this and getting nowhere,” says Piyanut of Amnesty International Thailand.

“We want something to be done. It’s a good thing that Billy’s wife and children know what happened. But they still don’t know how the case is going to end. And what about the 80 other cases of enforced disappearance?”

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The Independent Outlets Plugging Gaps in Thai Coverage

BANGKOK, Thailand – Thai journalists Hathairat Wist Phaholtap and Yodsapon Tai Kerdviboon sit side-by-side on a couch at the Isaan Record’s office in Khon Kaen, 456km northeast of Thailand’s capital, Bangkok.

The small regional news outlet—which only employs five staff members—publishes several local print stories to its website every week, but is now trying to expand its repertoire, and Wist is helping Tai gain more video-making skills.

The duo teamed up for the first time last month to file a Facebook Live report on aid efforts during the flash floods in Ubon Ratchathani that led to 33 fatalities. The Isaan Record, founded in 2011 to tell the stories of northeast Thailand, had been one of the first media outlets on the scene in Ubon.

Wist has spent the last 16 years working as a journalist in Bangkok. Her career includes stints at Thailand’s leading Matichon newspaper and the Thai PBS television network. She returned home earlier this year to take up a job as an editor at the Isaan Record.

“I left Thai PBS in 2018. I felt I wasn’t being challenged any more,” Wist says. “I was a senior journalist. I could do any story I wanted to and go anywhere, but I wanted to come home.”

New media ventures in overlooked spaces

Isaan is Thailand’s agricultural heartland and a region often neglected by the Thai media. For the past eight years, the Isaan Record has set out to fill the gap, publishing in both English and Thai.

“I want to bring us more international recognition,” Wist says of her publication. “We’re an independent news media that’s quite alternative and progressive compared to the mainstream media in Thailand.”

Its success in covering stories and having them picked up in the national and international media has since inspired others—two new alternative websites are now trying to replicate its brand of journalism.

The Isaan Voice and the New Isaan Movement have begun reporting local news in Thai. The quality of their work has impressed experienced journalists; even Wist admits to checking these newcomers often for story ideas to pursue at the Isaan Record.

Isaan isn’t the only part of the country where independent media outlets are trying to correct the Bangkok-centric skew of the national media industry.

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Chiang Mai, Thailand 501room / Shutterstock.com

In Chiang Mai—known as Thailand’s “Rose of the North”—CityLife Chiang Mai magazine editor Pim Kemasingki felt the same pull that Wist did for her hometown when she returned to Thailand from abroad 20 years ago.

“I do like to show Chiang Mai as it is, which is a city with a huge amount of potential, lots of charm, but also insidious corruption like anywhere else in Thailand,” she says.

But this desire for localised reporting can sometimes come with its own risks. Last year, Pim and CityLife were threatened with prosecution by the Thai authorities for sharing an image to Facebook of Chiang Mai’s Three Kings Monument donning facemasks in a protest against the government’s lack of response to local air pollution. Due to a public backlash online, criminal charges were not filed.

Pim was unfazed and continues to challenge the authorities on environmental issues. She writes and edits all of CityLife Chiang Mai’s stories. The magazine had once been the only regional media in northern Thailand, but Pim has since seen the ebb and flow of online local news websites. Despite this, she thinks that local media start-ups have been overlooked in Thailand’s media landscape.

“Before, it was a slumbering little town. As the city grew there were more issues to deal with and things to talk about,” Pim says. “I don’t see any conversation happening now about the local media.”

Plugging gaps across Thailand

Mana Treelayapewat is vice president at the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce School of Communication Arts in Bangkok. He sees the growing amount of online news generated from outside of Bangkok as giving Thais a better understanding of what’s happening in the country’s 76 provinces.

“Chiang Mai and Khon Kaen are two cities where local journalism is improving and stories there are now getting mainstream media attention,” Mana says.

But Thai journalist and senior staff writer at Khaosod English, Pravit Rojanaphruk, is concerned by the lack of news coverage from Thailand’s underreported “Deep South” provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Patani.

“I think regional media is serving local news needs. I think it’s only in the Deep South where local news and alternative media is needed most,” Pravit says.

Former BBC Thai journalist Noi Thamasathien has responded to this need, founding Patani Notes last December to raise more national interest in local stories from the Deep South of Thailand.

“We started small. I wasn’t very sure whether it was going to be successful. Getting people to write is difficult,” she says.

“They depend on other people to report about the area, but I know there [are] a lot of people who want to have media done by and for the local community.”

Wist has big ambitions for the Isaan Record. Bringing her multimedia skillset with her, she’s planning on improving its investigative reports, in-depth features, and daily news coverage of the northeast—a known stronghold of Thailand’s pro-democracy movement.

But a journalist like her is a rarity; it’s still rare for Bangkok-based journalists to leave their jobs and relocate to their hometowns in the provinces to find a paid media job.

“Most Thai journalists in Bangkok are not from Bangkok, because there isn’t opportunity available elsewhere,” Pravit says. “Unlike in the US where there are a lot of cities where you can do media work, in Thailand there’s only one. But I think that’s starting to change.”

Before leaving Bangkok, Wist teamed up with Swiss Public Radio and Al Jazeera English to cover the 2019 Thai election. This led her to directly challenge 2014 coup leader General Prayut Chan-ocha while he was on the campaign trail. The video of her peppering Prime Minister Prayut with questions went viral and led to online memes about her hard-nosed approach to reporting.

“I’ve seen three coups in my lifetime and have covered two as a journalist,” Wist says. “Covering stories in Isaan is a new kind of challenge.”

Spreading the word

The Isaan Record wants to build a network of journalists in the north and northeast of Thailand to improve knowledge and coverage of human rights and democracy. To achieve this, it’s teamed up with Prachathai, an alternative news portal based in Bangkok.

“The mainstream media has stringers in each province. We’re a small news portal trying to focus on underreported stories or what mainstream media only sometimes highlights,” says Pongpan Chumjai, executive director at Prachathai.

The opportunities are certainly there for the taking, as long as platforms are willing to plunge into the breach. Since 2009, Thai authorities have shut down popular community radio stations across the north and south on the grounds that they were affiliated with the “red shirt” pro-democracy movement and insurgent groups in the Deep South.

This has prompted many prominent Thais to turn to popular social media applications like Facebook and Line to consume and distribute local news and information, shunning the mainstream media.

Back on the couch at the Isaan Record office in Khon Kaen, Wist pauses for a moment before wrapping up the mentorship session. She’s got a new idea.

“I grew up listening to radio. It’s important to people in Isaan,” she says.

“Maybe we should start a podcast.”

Published @NewNaratif

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