October 19, 2017
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Who knows what the day may bring

Who knows what the day may bring

Case studies in technical and human occupational hazards


Insufficient resources, lack of proper identification and a need for further professional training are just a few of the deficiencies that Mizzima and its staff are forced to confront on a regular basis. It is a situation only worsened by the fact that the few dozen exile employees of Mizzima, short in resources, routinely come up against entrenched state mechanisms, both in the form of the Burmese military junta and from neighboring countries for whom Mizzima staff often fail to fulfill national law concerning travel and work permits.  The following two brief case studies of recent events shed light on the technological and human obstacles that Mizzima confronts while working to fulfill its responsibility of delivering accurate and up to date news and information on the continuing plight of Burma and its over 50 million citizens.

Cyber War

As proven by the success of independent media groups like Mizzima, the Internet has revolutionized the means and outreach of smaller media outlets. If there remains any doubt as to the impact on the strategic thinking of Burma’s ruling generals regarding the Internet as a viable means of both disseminating and regurgitating news and information on Burma, one needs  look no further than last September’s violent crackdown on the monk-led protests, which saw the junta pull the plug on the Internet. It is unsurprising then that the military government is now actively confronting their perceived enemies on this 21st century battleground. The recent spate of attacks against Mizzima’s websites has forced Mizzima to devote significant attention to how cyber attacks can be repelled, while focusing attention on the gross disparity in resources available between aggressor and defender.

Following the success of Mizzima in chronicling the Saffron Revolution and Cyclone Nargis, Mizzima has come under three periods of direct cyber attack. On the last occasion, the perpetrators were successful in hacking all four websites and erasing their contents (Mizzima was able to retrieve the lost data through back-up files). It may or may not be significant that all three attacks occurred after Nargis, which could illustrate either the regime’s perception that accurate reporting of the government’s response to the humanitarian crisis was more detrimental to the perceived legitimacy of the generals than cracking down on political protestors, or be one further indication of the maturity of Mizzima in providing ever better information and news on events afflicting the Southeast Asian nation.

The initial two attacks, on July 27 and October 1, were Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. Mizzima’s defense against the violators fell virtually single-handedly on the one employee who has some substantial knowledge of the technical details of the situation – a 26-year old, self-taught migrant worker from Burma’s northern Shan state. In both instances, following a brief interruption of a few hours in service, Mizzima’s websites were able to resume full service.     
Sai, Mizzima’s resident IT expert, encapsulates many typical aspects of Mizzima’s struggle to maintain operational capacity in the face of limited financial, human and technical resources. Discontinuing his education in Burma as the quality of education offered was left wanting and corresponding employment options nonexistent, Sai moved to Chiang Mai to join the growing Burmese Diaspora community in Thailand’s second city after finishing class ten and one year of distance learning in Burma. Being from Shan state the transition was somewhat eased due to the fact that Tai-Yai, the predominant Shan language, and Thai are linguistic relatives. Once in Chiang Mai he proceeded to study English, tuition free, for six months at the School for Shan State National Youth. It was intended that he commence university studies, in a field that could have provided both him and Mizzima increased knowledge in combating cyber attacks, but Mizzima was unable to sufficiently support his proposed educational curriculum. With this army of one, buttressed by other concerned staff and well-wishers, Mizzima set about defending itself from a coordinated attack likely launched at the behest of a national government.

Despite taking the precautionary measures of enlisting the support of a Burmese IT expert in exile, who agreed to assist Mizzima on a pro bono basis, and in moving Mizzima’s four websites to a Canada-based server, Hostpapa.ca, to better protect the websites from DDoS attacks, a complex cross-site scripting (XSS) attack on October 9th successfully hacked all of Mizzima’s websites – resulting in the loss of all data on the sites. Shortly after this debilitative attack, Mizzima’s Canadian host identified 36 hacking files on the server directed at Mizzima, prompting the host server to notify Mizzima that it was forced to discontinue Mizzima’s service, as the sustained attacks put all their clients at risk. Mizzima’s websites were subsequently transferred to a home server, but a long-term solution needed to be found, and quickly.   

The XSS attack was described by Mizzima’s Canadian IT benefactor as thus: “This attack is not a random or small attack. This is a really serious and expensive attempt. No hacker will do it for fun. The hacking attempt is very sophisticated, well-timed and organized.”

Derived from a popular PHP Shell script, the hacking file utilized over 4,000 lines of code and was modeled to attack websites hosted with an outdated version of Joomla (Mizzima has since updated from the outdated Joomla v.1.5.6 that proved susceptible to attack). The hacker, or hackers, entered through the Mizzima TV site, using cross-site scripting to take advantage of a security loophole in Joomla.

Adding an aura of international intrigue to the unfolding crisis, it was learned that the primary hacker was based in Russia, a popular destination for Burmese army officers sent by the military government to study abroad, working in concert with other hackers in Germany and France. From these three countries, the attack was launched through proxy servers based in the United States in order to disguise the true origin and identity of the hackers. “They were very persistent and aware of what was going on with our sites – every minute. Basically, our sites were under watch all the time,” summed up Mizzima’s volunteer IT consultant.

Another hacking attempt came from a computer in Mumbai, India, by means of uploading a similar hacking file called spdc.php – SPDC stands for the State Peace and Development Council, the new moniker of Burma’s ruling junta, adopted in 1997 following the discredited image of SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council).

Initially it was difficult for Mizzima to find another server to agree to host the sites, though eventually one was identified, one it is hoped provides a better defense against the ill-intentions of hostile cyber warriors. However, when asked if there was any potential for future problems, Sai matter-of-factly responded, “If they want to, and the attached amount is huge and complicated, then there will be problems again.”                                  

So the question becomes, how can Mizzima mitigate the risk of exposure to its websites? Currently, Mizzima employs a strategy of daily backing up its sites while incorporating the use of ‘mirror sites,’ which – though there could be a slight delay of up to 24 hours – it is hoped would permit Mizzima to keep functioning when confronted by future attacks. Yet, to most securely and efficiently manage the websites demands considerably more time and money than what Mizzima can offer at present. The shortfall in human resources has already been documented. Monetarily, complete control of the Domain Name System (DNS) would cost millions – clearly not an option. However, domains – of which Mizzima currently maintains four – would cost $2,000 per month per domain to be assured of security against future DDoS attacks alone, a financial commitment Mizzima cannot at present afford.

What Mizzima can and is doing is to establish a separate IT Unit within Mizzima to be able to handle the growing needs of Mizzima in relation to IT skills and security. Mizzima also plans to send webmasters and IT personnel for further study.        

While the specific identity of those behind the cyber war launched against Mizzima cannot at present be ascertained with certainty, there seems little doubt that the sites have come under attack because of their content – specifically, providing an alternative and independent source of news and information on Burma. Similar to Mizzima, the six months since Nargis have witnessed many of the leading Burmese exile-run media services coming under cyber attack, including the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma, Chiang Mai-based The Irrawaddy and Bangkok-based New Era Journal.

Though the battle may appear excessively uneven based on certain criteria, the belief and conviction of Mizzima and its staff in the mission of an independent Burmese media means that the struggle will go on, and Mizzima will continue to grow, learn and adapt so that each future attack is effectively dealt with and the world continues to learn of the truth of the present crisis in Burma.

Burmese journalists and freedom fighters in Indian jails

Maung Kyaw Moe, like too many of his native compatriots, has lived nearly twenty years in exile following his involvement in the 1988 uprising. A noted and respected activist, he eventually found himself under the protection of the UNHCR in Bangladesh. In February 2006, Maung Kyaw Moe commenced work for Mizzima based in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka as a news stringer as well as a printer and distributor of the Mizzima Monthly Journal. Little did he know that when he left to join Mizzima colleagues for a meeting and training in the West Bengal city of Kolkata in September 2007 – he would not see his wife or child again for over a year.
    
Thousands of people are routinely forced to cross the border between Bangladesh and India without proper documentation every day. On September 21, 2007, Maung Kyaw Moe found himself in the unfortunate position of being one of those detained by Indian authorities for attempting to exit West Bengal without his papers in order. A Burmese citizen, his only form of identification was his Bangladesh-UNHCR registration card, placing him under the protection of the international agency in the Bangladeshi capital until the end of 2008.

Notified of the detention of their fellow reporter and freedom fighter, Mizzima sought to secure his immediate release. An attempt was made within days of his arrest to secure bail. In response to the question of who would guarantee his well-being and take responsibility for the accused when on bail, Mizzima answered in the affirmative. Nonetheless, authorities denied the bail request on the 26th of the month, providing as a rationale for their decision that bail be rejected due to “the nature of offence and early state stage of the investigation.”

The Solidarity Committee for Burma’s Freedom Fighters was brought on board to assist in gaining Maung Kyaw Moe’s liberation. The Committee, Chaired by Dr. (Col.) Lakshmi Sahgal – a highly respected freedom fighter during India’s struggle for independence from British suzerainty – was originally formed in early 2007 to assist in adjudicating the imprisonment of 34 ethnic Burmese freedom fighters who found themselves on the wrong side of Indian political machinations in 1998. Mizzima routinely works in close relationship with the Committee, which in addition to Dr. (Col.) Lakshmi includes respected human rights lawyers, politicians and activists.

As a part of Mizzima’s campaign to raise awareness of the 34 ethnic freedom fighters detained for a decade in India, Mizzima organized football matches in Kolkata in April 2008, pitting Mizzima’s own team against two West Bengal sides. The event was embraced by the local community and authorities, including six ministers and Mr. Biman Bose, Chairman of the Left Front that rules West Bengal, who inaugerated the match and publicly demanded the immediate release of the 34 Burmese freedom fighters from jail. Though falling short on the scoreboard, drawing one and losing one, the competition was not about the score on the pitch, but instead in pursuit of correcting the ledger of Burmese activists and freedom fighters incarcerated in India. Trial for the accused is now scheduled to commence shortly.

It was also during the height of Mizzima’s involvement in the case of the 34 ethnic freedom fighters that Mizzima’s head office in New Delhi was sealed off by municipal authorities on April 16th, 2007. The official reason for the closure was Mizzima’s being in violation of local zoning ordinances concerning the operation of a commercial enterprise. For two days the main office remained off limits to Mizzima staff, just one more reminder of the precarious position and status of Burma’s exile media. However, citing the incident as an “exceptional case,” the Municipal Corporation of Delhi ordered the doors reopened on April 18th. In this instance, the support network and name of Mizzima proved adequate to confront attempts to stifle Burma’s exile media.
    
But, unfortunately for Maung Kyaw Moe, further intervention on his behalf did not alter his predicament. A letter dated 1 October 2007 from the Solidarity Committee, expressing their shock “that not only was he [Maung Kyaw Moe] arrested but he was also beaten up by the West Bengal police and is now languishing in Dum Dum Jail,” was met with silence on the part of those who hold the keys to his cell. The door to his chamber in Kolkata was to remain firmly shut.

As those outside struggled to win his freedom, Maung Kyaw Moe languished in Kolkata’s Dum Dum Jail through to the new year. If there was one positive, however, to come of his predicament, he had not been deported to Burma. Mizzima, activists and the UNHCR all remained adamant that he must, in no scenario, be sent back to Burma, as he faced a distinct threat of persecution if he were to return. Similarly, when released, if unable to be deported to Bangladesh, permission is being sought from Indian authorities through the High Court to allow Maung Kyaw Moe to remain in India.

On the 26th of May 2008, after pleading guilty to 14 Foreigners Act, Maung Kyaw Moe was finally sentenced to a term of 250 days incarceration, to be accounted for by time already served. But still, the activist cum journalist remained in prison, even while appeals were made based on his suffering from tuberculosis and the hardship brought upon his wife and child across the border in Bangladesh.

At the time of writing, in November 2008, Maung Kyaw Moe continues to be held in Dum Dum Jail, despite recent efforts by the UNHCR and High Court of Appeals in Kolkata. In the first week of June, 2008, UNHCR urged Indian authorities to deport Maung Kyaw Moe to Bangladesh, noting that, “Mr. Moe was undergoing a court case which has been concluded vide order dated 26 May 2008.”

Similarly, the High Court of Appeals in Kolkata handed down a verdict, along an analogous argument to that of the Solidarity Committee, Mizzima and UNHCR, ordering the State and Central Governments to deport the detained Burmese journalist within three weeks of 1 October 2008.

Mizzima, friends and family remain hopeful that Maung Kyaw Moe will soon be reunited with his wife and child, and freed to continue his role in bringing news and information related to Burma’s ongoing struggle to the attention of the international community.

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