MAE SOT, Thailand - The distributed denial of service attacks, or DDoS, that
hit and disabled several exile media websites between September 17 to 19, are
widely held to be the latest attempt by Myanmar's military regime to silence
its legion of critics.
The cyber-attacks, which flood a website with information requests which block
regular traffic and eventually overload and crash it, coincided with the run-up
to last year's "Saffron" revolution, in which soldiers opened fire and killed
Buddhist monks and anti-government demonstrators. But the junta's cyber-warfare
specialists appear to have wider designs than just censoring an uncomfortable
anniversary and they are receiving
plenty of foreign assistance in upgrading their political dissent-quashing
The Defense Services Computer Directorate (DSCD) was set up by the War Office
in around 1990, originally with the aim of modernizing the military's
communications and administration systems. By the mid-1990s, however, the
center had become much more focused on Information Warfare operations,
according to a signals intelligence expert who spoke with Asia Times Online.
The center became responsible for monitoring telephone calls, faxes, e-mails
and other forms of electronic data exchange. Another computer center was later
set up at the Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence (DDSI), Myanmar's
main military intelligence service. The DSCD is aimed more at military
communications, while the intelligence service's computer center is more
politically focused, including monitoring opposition groups both within and
The service was disbanded in 2004 after the arrest of former prime minister and
intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt. It was later reformed as the Military
Affairs Security (MAS), which has also presumably taken over cyber-warfare
functions, and its capabilities have reportedly substantially improved in
Singapore has been the military's main partner in bolstering those
capabilities. The DSCD was originally set up with computers from Singapore and
the city-state has been heavily involved in the cyber-units technological
evolution, including upgrades to the regime's computerized information systems
hardware and training, says the signals intelligence expert. The intelligence
service's center was also set up with Singapore-provided assistance.
Several opposition media sources, including The Irrawaddy magazine and
Democratic Voice of Burma satellite television station, have said they received
information that the most recent attacks on their Websites may have been
conducted by Myanmar military officers trained or undergoing training in Russia
and China. A longtime analyst of Myanmar's signals intelligence capabilities
noted that many of the officers who have undergone training in Russia and China
have taken courses in computing and information technology.
While China has been heavily involved in improvements to the Myanmar military's
radio communications and, together with Singapore, connecting major military
commands with fiber-optic cable, it apparently has been less involved in
developing the regime's cyber-warfare capabilities, experts say.
The opposition movement has become noted for its extensive usage of the
Internet to send and receive information, reports and news the regime has tried
to suppress. As activists and underground journalists have become more
tech-savvy, the intelligence service has become more determined to counter the
outflow of information. Much of this has taken the form of harassment and more
recently DDoS attacks.
Long-running media list server, BurmaNet News, has been a target of Myanmar's
junta, which is known to have posted misleading and often inaccurate
information to discredit the pro-democracy movement. In 2000, a wave of e-mail
messages were received by activists with attachments containing a virus that
many suspected came from the regime.
Exile-run political groups, human-rights groups and non-governmental
organizations have all repeatedly accused the regime of launching viruses, and
Trojan horses, defacing websites, sending waves of spam e-mail and even
purchasing domain names with political significance. Although it is difficult
to prove who exactly is behind the waves of cyber-harassment, the sheer volume
of the attacks points to the regime's trained cyber-specialists, experts say.
Last year, the day after the regime's violent crackdown on street protesters,
the Thailand-based Burmese media organization The Irrawaddy was hit by a virus
that also infected visitors to their site. The timing of the attack raised
suspicions of the junta's involvement.
In July 2008, the websites of the exile-run, Oslo-based Democratic Voice of
Burma (DVB) and New Delhi-based Mizzima News were hit by DDoS attacks that shut
down their websites for several days. The attacks followed both news
organizations' extensive reporting on the junta's inept and some say corrupt
response to the Cyclone Nargis disaster.
On September 17, another wave of DDoS attacks was launched, this time against
The Irrawaddy, DVB and the Bangkok-based New Era Journal. Two community forums,
Mystery Zillion and Planet Myanmar, were disabled and shut down by similar
attacks in August. Although not political in nature, both websites provided
information and instruction on how to circumvent the regime's tough Internet
controls and firewalls, which include blocks on internationally hosted e-mail
services gmail and Yahoo!.
Analysts say the cyber-attacks have notably ramped up during the anniversaries
of the August 1988 pro-democracy uprising and military repression, and the
September 2007 crackdown. Servers involved in the most recent attacks have
apparently been situated in Russia and China - however, experts say this may
have been done by hackers trying to cover their tracks.
According to communications security expert and Australian National University
Professor Desmond Ball, DDoS attacks are relatively simple and can be
engineered without the aid of powerful computers or an advanced computer
science degree. Similar attacks, he says, have been carried out against Taiwan
and Japan for years by young nationalistic Chinese hackers.
DDoS attacks, redirection and defacing of websites are all overt forms of
cyber-harassment, but the real essence of cyber-warfare, says Ball, lies in the
ability to penetrate a computer or a network, cover your tracks to avoid
detection on the way in and out and steal information or disrupt systems
without the target knowing that they have been hacked.
The military regime's capabilities in this regard may be where the real danger
lies, he says. So far there is little known about the ability of Myanmar's
government cyber-warriors to carry out these attacks, partly because the nature
of these kinds of attacks is to remain undetected.
Internet security among computer users worldwide is notoriously lax and this
includes Burmese exile political and media organizations. Without firewalls and
anti-virus programs configured properly and IT specialists monitoring computer
systems - an expensive proposition for most exile groups - they are at a
distinct disadvantage against the junta.
Domestically, the regime has spent considerable effort to block the flow of
information into the country through the use of filtering software that block
certain media, human rights and political sites, as well as gambling,
pornography and other sites deemed socially unacceptable. Through the use of
proxy servers and encrypted webmail services, many of Myanmar's citizens have
been able to circumvent some of these controls.
Their tech savvy was shown to the world in September 2007, when graphic images
and video of the military's brutal crackdown on protesters were broadcast from
an instant army of citizen reporters, who sent their files to outside news
organizations over the Internet. In Myanmar's heavily controlled communications
environment, there are only a handful of Internet service providers (ISPs), all
of them either state-owned or with strong government ties, and thus easy for
the regime to disconnect.
Exile groups and much of the media pointed to the three-day period between the
beginning of the crackdown in late September 2007 and the shutdown of the
Internet as evidence of the junta's lack of technical expertise. Ball, however,
contends that the opposite is true.
The generals were willing to endure some international criticism in order to
monitor who was communicating with whom before shutting the system down
altogether. This information would likely have fueled their post-demonstration
manhunts, where thousands were put behind bars, he says.
Myanmar's original ISP is the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, which
was later joined by Bagan Cybertech, a private communications company
established by the son of former intelligence chief Khin Nyunt. Following his
arrest, the company was partially taken over by the government and renamed
A third ISP was reportedly set up by the government-supported mass organization
the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) in 2007 and is known as
Information Technology Central Services. In July 2008, a fourth ISP was
launched called Hanthawaddy National Gateway.
Established with technical assistance from China's Alcatel Shanghai Bell, the
service is currently only available to military officers, but is expected to
eventually expand throughout the country. Alcatel Shanghai Bell is represented
locally by Myanmar tycoon Tay Za, a close associate to the country's leader
Senior General Than Shwe and other senior officers.
Speculation as to the extent of the regime's cyber-warfare capabilities comes
during a fast expansion of Internet access across the country. In addition to
two new ISP providers, the generals are pushing local and foreign investment in
its Yadanabon Cyber City project, located east of Mandalay.
Over one-fifth of the 4,500 hectare city is slated for computer hardware and
software factories and is expected to have modern Internet services available
through ADSL, CATV, Triple Play and Wi Max. In July, 12 local and foreign
companies, including CBOSS of Russia, agreed to invest US$22 million in the
development of the city.
Although ostensibly a civilian initiative, much of the technology to be
developed, built and used there would have dual use capabilities, experts say.
Brian McCartan is a Chiang Mai-based freelance journalist. He may be
reached at[email protected]