Burma’s Web-Savvy Rebels

Burma’s Web-Savvy Rebels

When Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt visited Burma in late March, he lamented that only about 1 percent of Burmese are connected to the Internet, and urged the government to increase connectivity. "The answer to bad speech is more speech. More communication. More voices," he told students at a technical university in Rangoon, the country’s largest city. "If you are a political leader you get a much better idea of what your citizens are thinking about."

But to find out what one group of Burmese are thinking, the government would do better to turn to the Chinese Internet. Tens of thousands of militants who live along the Chinese border, occasionally skirmishing with troops aligned with the central government, are surprisingly web savvy. And they’re not using Google or Twitter to spread their message.

The United Wa State Army, Burma’s largest ethnic militia group, with an estimated force of 30,000, communicates with the outside world using Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform similar to Twitter. Their account, titled the Wa State News Bureau, has more than 55,000 followers, and is verified by Sina. Besides the Wa Army, several paramilitary groups along Burma’s restive border use Sina Weibo to build support from Chinese sympathizers and to tell their side of the story. (None of the groups mentioned in this story agreed to be interviewed.)

Unlike Somalia’s al-Shabab militia, which often uses its Twitter account to take responsibility for assassinations, the Wa Army portrays itself in a more wholesome manner: as a supporter of ethnic autonomy in Burma’s border region, and as an opponent of poppy planting across the roughly 6,600 square miles area under their command. "They mostly use microblogs for propaganda, but also for their business actives and to communicate socially," says Yin Hongwei, a journalist for the Chinese newspaper Time Weekly, who has been in close contact with Burma’s ethnic border militias for more than a decade.

Weibo is a powerful platform for the rebels, for two main reasons: They speak Chinese, and that’s where their pool of potential supporters hangs out. Worldwide, there are more than 500 million Sina Weibo users, the vast majority in China. There are no good statistics for Sina Weibo users in Burma. And because Burma’s telecommunications network is unreliable, militants often use Chinese IP addresses, further obfuscating the picture. (This also means Twitter, blocked in China, is more difficult for them to access.) Among the militants, Yin estimates, "there are about a thousand users regularly publishing articles and comments online," and added that roughly 100 are directly linked to the leadership circles of these armed groups.

Earlier this year, a Chinese-language microblog affiliated with the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, a militia Yin estimates has 200-300 soldiers, had been thanking "online friends" for their donations. The army "has added two new primary schools," read one post. Along came photos of recruits training in the newly built camp and photos of commander Peng Deren, the son of the group’s octogenarian leader Peng Jiasheng, distributing Chinese currency.

For almost two decades, the Peng clan ruled the Kokang Region, an autonomous zone with roughly 140,000 people that shares a 107-mile border with China. In August 2009, a Burmese offensive ousted the Peng clan and installed a replacement; Peng and his army have since been hiding in Wa-controlled territory, according to Yin and a foreign diplomat in Burma, who asked to speak off the record. Dong Rubin, a Chinese IT specialist who frequently travels through the border areas, says that the ouster of the Peng clan was the first instance when Burmese militia power struggles appeared on Chinese microblogs.

The second jump in users occurred in October 2011, when a militia group executed 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong River, said Dong. "When the Mekong massacres happened, microblogs in Shan State’s Wa territory started showing a high degree of activity," he added. A Chinese investigative unit hunted down the killers; they were executed on March 1.

The Wa Army used its Sina Weibo account to refute accusations over its involvement in the killings. But members have also used the service to boast about its armaments. Photos of Wa military parades have circulated in Chinese military forums, showing armored troop carriers along with Wa carrying crossbows. A January report on Chinese support for the rebels prompted a terse denial by the Chinese embassy in Burma, saying allegations of providing military equipment to ethnic militias were "misguided."

The Wa don’t mind if photos of their armaments appear in China, said Yin, who added that they share footage of their parades to show how close they are to China. The relationship between the Chinese and the border rebels stretch back at least half a century, when the Burmese Communist Party skirmished with the central government, often with Chinese support. When the Burmese Communist Party splintered into militias in the early 1990s, China maintained its relationship — and a porous border allowed the smuggling of supplies to the beleaguered rebels. In September 2011, the Wa reached a peace treaty with the Burmese government, but in January the Wa Army used Weibo to threaten a return to the decades-long "civil war period" where thousands died, and tens of thousands fled to neighboring countries.

During the Burmese army’s 2012 Christmas offensive against the roughly 8,000-strong Kachin militia, its largest military operation in two decades, Chinese-speaking Kachin soldiers microblogged troop movements, overflight routes, and information regarding casualties. "Around 6:30pm today, the Burmese artillery fired two 105mm grenades at the KIA headquarters in Laja Yang, one of them exploded on a mountain slope in Laiza and did not cause any casualties," one ethnic Chinese soldier who gives his surname as Su wrote on Sina Weibo during the early days of the offensive. At the time, messages like Su’s were the only source of information for outside observers on an important and little understood conflict.

"China doesn’t censor their microblogs, because they haven’t affected Chinese internal security yet," said Dong. "But relevant departments are closely monitoring their activities." And the Burmese government is probably
taking Schmidt’s advice and doing the same.