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Aside from an emotional reunion with family and friends, Burmese blogger Nay Phone Latt knew exactly what he wanted to do after his release from prison: get back online.
It was a bold move, given that his Internet activities landed him a two-decade jail term back in 2008 under the former military regime.
“There are so many friends online who supported me via my blog,” said the 32-year-old, a few weeks into his newfound freedom. “So what I wanted to do when I was released was to go online and post a new post.”
He made his name through political commentary and poetry on his blog, which he set up to avoid strict press censorship and which soon became an important source of news on isolated Burma for the outside world.
He was among activists rounded up for their links to the “Saffron Revolution” monk-led protests against the junta in 2007, and believes he was punished for both his blogging and support for opponents of the generals.
His sentence was later reduced to 12 years and cut short in January, when the new government released hundreds of political prisoners — one of a series of reforms sweeping the country.
“To frighten the other bloggers and other IT-related youth, they sentenced me to so many years,” he told AFP, in English, over a cup of coffee in his hometown of Rangoon, which is dotted with popular internet cafes.
While detained in his own country, Nay Phone Latt was feted from abroad, winning the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in New York for showing the “strength of the creative spirit” in the face of repression.
Specific accusations against him included storing caricatures of the junta chief, found in his email inbox, and giving out CDs of performances by a satirical entertainment troupe.
“I don’t know what crime I have committed, I really don’t know that,” said Nay Phone Latt, who also owned and ran two cyber cafes before his arrest.
The authorities, he added, hated bloggers and “did not understand the Internet and technology”.
The years he spent in jail were a critical time for Burma, after almost half a century of draconian army rule.
In late 2010 the country held its first election in 20 years, widely criticised by the west as neither free nor fair, and early last year the junta dissolved itself and handed power to a new government.
It was dubbed as a transfer to civilian rule, yet Burma’s parliament is dominated by the military and its allies and the new president, Thein Sein, was formerly a general and prime minister in the junta.
So few were expecting the impressive series of reforms that he has ushered in over the past year.
Along with the mass release of political prisoners such as Nay Phone Latt, the regime has made progress towards peace with ethnic minority rebels, and the opposition party of Aung San Suu Kyi has been allowed back into the mainstream.
“I don’t think that they will turn back again,” said the blogger.
“They cannot change their uniform to the military so easily, so they want to go on, but this progress can slow and stop. This all depends on all of the people in our country”.
A former member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, the blogger is glad to see the party’s figurehead, detained herself for much of the past 23 years, running for office in by-elections in April.
“We need to amend so many nonsense laws and we also need to amend the constitution, so Daw Aung San Suu Kyi intends to do that,” he said, using a term of respect to refer to the Nobel laureate.
Nay Phone Latt is especially keen to see reform of Burma’s legislation on Internet use, the Electronic Act, which has been described by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders as “one of the most liberticidal laws in the world”.
He has no plans to become a politician himself, but neither does he intend to keep quiet as he tastes his new freedom, despite his ordeal behind bars.
His plans include furthering IT education in rural Burma, where many are still without access to the Internet, and publishing a book of “so many articles, letters and short stories and poems I have written in the prison”.
The recent political changes are being felt online. Internet connections are often still painfully slow, but websites of the opposition and exiled media groups that the government once tried to block are now freely available.
“There’s no more ban on the political websites,” Ye Htut, director general of Burma’s Ministry of Information, told AFP.
For Burma’s reform to keep momentum, citizens must keep on speaking out — “now they are listening to the people’s voice”, said Nay Phone Latt.
“They have got to give freedom of expression, so we need not be afraid of anything,” he said. “We have to say loudly and we have to say freely and we have to say bravely”.