The cat-and-mouse of Asia

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JudyTaing

10 Apr 2012

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It is undeniable that the internet has fully hit East and Southeast Asia (E & SE Asia), the figures speak for themselves.

China has the greatest amount of internet users in the world, with current day statistics showing figures as high as 513 million users. This might not seem impressive for one of the most populated countries in the world, but it is mightily so coming from one of the most repressive countries in terms of freedom of expression and with some of the strictest internet censorship laws in the world. Then there is Indonesia, a country comprised of a smatttering of islands, but which outshines its regional neighbours with approximately 55 million users, over double of the figures from 2009.

The rates are staggering, and they have grown despite incredible odds. Vietnam and the Philippines both have close to 30 million users, despite Vietnam also having some of the harshest internet regulations in the world, and the Philippines being one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists to carry out their work.

The internet is providing the people of E & SE Asia with a chance  to challenge their goverments in a way that ink and paper cannot. It is allowing them to spread information at a rate that the television or the radio cannot match. It has given more people the taste of a right, and in realising the empowering capabilities of the internet, the governments of East and Southeast Asia are now stricken with panic as they quickly learn how to reign it in.

For example, in Thailand, netizens are using the internet itself to challenge the very laws that limit it, with news websites such as Prachatai constantly condemning government use of the Computer Crimes Act (CCA) to silence oppositional voices online. However, Prachatai webmaster, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, is currently on trial for anonymous defamatory comments posted on the Prachatai website, and is facing up 50 years in prison. She is just one of many accused under the CCA.

Vietnam has just recently made a name for itself as an ‘enemy of the internet’, with a long and growing list of detained bloggers, many of whom were apprehended without a court order and who are held incommunicado. The Vietnamese government is quick to pull out charges under Articles 79 and 88 of the Penal Code to keep their citizens quiet and afraid.

Then there is the Asian giant, China, where new regulations for microblogs have just been introduced in Beijing. Users now have to register using their real identity and provide their mobile phone numbers in order to use the microblogs and read its contents; all of this information is verified. Reports show that 260 million users of Weibo, China’s twitter equivalent, have already compiled. The Chinese authorities claim that this action is to tackle online ‘rumours’.

What we have now, in 2012, is a chase. The people are rushing to push the limits, find cracks in firewalls and dodge censorship mechanisms, while goverments are spending exuberant amounts of time and resources to try and overstep their netizens. When they do catch up, the penalties are harsh. The gap, this cyber window of opportunity, is getting smaller and smaller. This begs the question, can internet usage continue to survive in the region despite increasing challenges? And if internet usage figures do continue to rise, will the space be a democratic one, or will it too fall victim to state control?

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