03/22/2011, 00.00
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Burmese junta bans Skype and VoIP

These applications are illegal under existing legislation. If enforced, ban would reduce cybercafés’ business by 30 to 40 per cent. With SIM cards costing about US$ 1,700, the Internet has become a cheap way for migrants to keep in touch with families back home. For the authorities, censorship is necessary to prevent unrest.
Yangon (AsiaNews) – Burma’s military junta has targeted the Internet again. In an attempt to limit access to the net and further maintain their stranglehold on communications, Myanmar’s ruling generals ordered all public and private Internet cafés to stop overseas communication through VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) calls, deeming them illegal under existing legislation.

“The increasing use of the VoIP overseas calls via Internet services such as Skype, G [Google] Talk, Pfingo, VZO, etc. given by PACs [Public Access Centers] and cyber cafés have caused official overseas calls through the [junta's] communication services to decline, affecting state revenue,” read the official statement issued on 2 March by Tint Lwin, managing director of the Myanmar Posts and Telecommunication (MPT).

Internet phone is a scarce resource in Myanmar, where a SIM card for mobile phones, provided by a state monopoly, can cost a whopping 1,500,000 kyat (almost ,700), a price that has in fact doubled on the black market due to the extreme limitations imposed on mobile phone ownership.

On top of a very high-priced card, phone services are especially expensive for a nation with one of the lowest annual per capita incomes in the world, just above a thousand dollars per person. If Americans had to pay the equivalent of what the Burmese pay, they would have to spend US$ 74,000 for a mobile phone with an average annual income of US$ 47,000.

For Burmese emigrants, Internet is especially important—it is their main tool to keep in touch with family back home after fleeing poverty and dictatorship. Even though technology and infrastructures are underdeveloped in Burma, web phone services are one of the main communication tools used by ordinary Burmese, at least in the big cities like Yangon. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi relies on the Internet and Skype as well.

Cybercafé owners have not yet received any official instructions on the matter. However, if they had to cut services, they would lose 30 to 40 per cent of their business “because people here use VoIP calls increasingly due to the cheap cost which is more affordable then the government-run overseas call service,” The Irrawaddy newspaper reported one owner as saying.

To compensate losses incurred by the state monopoly, the junta has cut the price of a SIM card, which can now be bought for US$ 560.

However, the real reasons behind the crackdown are the junta’s concerns that software applications like Skype are harder to monitor and control compared to regular calls over mobile phones.

News from foreign sources about Mideast unrest and the Jasmine Revolution have reached Myanmar, pushing the military government to increase censorship.

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