Latest Technology Links Jungle Rebels

Wired Revolution Helps Guerrillas


By Thomas Crampton    International Herald Tribune

BANGKOK - After fleeing into the Burmese jungle on foot as military police closed in on his home, Sonny Mahinder soon found himself immersed in a world for which physics classes had not prepared him.

One of the thousands of university students who fled Burma's central cities following the military crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 1988, Mr. Mahinder had no experience in jungle living and didn't even know how to hold a gun.

But equally important for his and other student associations that had been decimated after the crackdown was establishing effective communications to find out who was where and exactly what was going on.

While this took months to accomplish in 1988, Mr. Mahinder and members of rebel groups with strongholds along the Thai-Burma border say today's communications technology would have dramatically increased the speed of the process.

On arriving in the jungle, the students initially relied on communications networks already set up by long-established insurgent groups along Thailand's border. Many have been at war with the Rangoon government virtually nonstop since Burma gained independence in 1948.

To send a message into a city in central Burma, the rebel groups relayed messages via radio through a series of strongholds to the nearest friendly position, from where the final message was often delivered by foot messenger.

Although quite secure, the delivery time for foot messengers varies tremendously. Runners in low-risk areas can move at high speeds, while the presence of government troops limits messengers to night travel and forces them to circumnavigate large military emplacements.

Notes normally change hands several times, especially when they are taken into cities in central Burma.

Even after the students became more organized with the founding of the All Burma Students' Democratic Front, it could take up to two months to gather full information on allied and enemy emplacements.

The slow speed of communications hindered defensive deployments, prevented coordinated offensives and left soldiers blindly wandering into bloody clashes.

For those outside Burma, news was virtually nonexistent.

Now, however, the falling price of sophisticated radio equipment, the introduction of inexpensive satellite imagery and the spreading of news via Internet are making it easier to run jungle-based insurrection.

The communications revolution came to Mr. Mahinder in the form of FM wavelength walkie-talkies and shortwave radios purchased soon after he became regiment commander in charge of 200 soldiers.

''The FM communication completely changed our ability to report and get instructions,'' Mr. Mahinder said. ''Finally our front-line troops could tell where the government troops were coming from so we could prepare for their offensive.''

Shortwave radios may have a greater range, but handheld walkie-talkies are the most powerful communications tool for jungle warfare, Mr. Mahinder said.

''Walkie-talkies are easier to jam and easier for the government to monitor,'' he said. ''But it takes just a few minutes of training to operate a walkie-talkie, and it fits easily in your pocket.'' Shortwave radios run off bulky car batteries that must be recharged with a generator and setting up for a broadcast requires both skill and time.

All insurgent radio broadcasts use code to conceal information.

''We learned very early that there are no secrets in the airwaves,'' Mr. Mahinder said, adding that the Rangoon government has an elite signals intelligence unit with sophisticated listening posts that monitor insurgent broadcasts.

All information regarding troop positions, estimates of enemy movements and the time and date at which operations will be undertaken are broadcast in code that can be deciphered only with the help of a paperback code book carried by each unit.

For added security, the soldiers occasionally use a radio scrambling technique known as channel-hopping, whereby the radio frequency is changed at irregular intervals to make it more difficult to monitor an entire conversation.

Certain information - planned movements, logistics details and the names of contacts - will only be communicated in writing between commanders and delivered by hand with a messenger, Mr. Mahinder said.

The ideal addition to their current jungle communications equipment, Mr. Mahinder said, would be a network of solar-powered FM transmission boosters. Placed on hilltops inaccessible to government troops, signal boosters would increase walkie-talkie range up to several hundred miles from the standard two or three miles, allowing signals to be received in cities within central Burma.

''I could see sending swarms of people into the cities with walkie-talkies,'' Mr. Mahinder said. ''The government could trace the site of each broadcast, but by that time we would already have walked down the street.''

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THE clandestine radio communications coming out of Burma's major cities are now limited to brief bursts of shortwave transmission at predetermined times and frequencies in order to hamper the government in tracing broadcast equipment, Mr. Mahinder said.

There are a number of illicit briefcase-sized satellite phones in place within Burma, but their signal can be traced within a 50-kilometer radius and the calls are far too expensive for frequent use, according to Kyaw, director of the political defiance committee of the National Council of the Union of Burma.

''Even when donors provide us with the phones, $3.70 per minute is too expensive,'' Mr. Kyaw said. ''We are looking forward to prices of calls coming down with the Iridium system in place.''

When working in Thailand, an operational base for many fighting the Rangoon government, the dissident groups conceal their location from Thai authorities by communicating almost exclusively via mobile phones, which in some cases can even be operated from within Burmese territory.

Other recent technological advances that will assist dissident groups in the conduct of jungle warfare, guerrilla fighters and military experts said, include recent walkie-talkies designed to automatically channel-hop several times per second, handheld global positioning system hardware that can now be purchased off-the-shelf as well as the falling price of detailed spy satellite photographs.

Perhaps the greatest technological breakthrough for the dissident groups, however, has been the Internet, which they use to spread news and propaganda and rally support. East Timor activists recently threatened to conduct a campaign of cyber warfare against the Jakarta government if the promised independence vote did not take place.

One of the first and best known cyber campaigns confronting the Rangoon government is Burmanet, an e-mail service that distributes news about the country. A mainstay for activists and journalists covering the country, Burmanet is sponsored in part by the financier George Soros.

The Internet has become particularly important to the ABSDF ever since the group's recent decision to give up armed struggle in favor of political action, Mr. Mahinder said.

Collecting information about human rights abuses and delivering them to Internet-enabled offices along the Thai border is now one of the group's priority operations.

''If we hear about human rights abuses in the jungle, they can be sent out across the world via Internet in just a few hours,'' Mr. Mahinder said.

The information gathered is often broadcast back into Burma on the Norway-sponsored shortwave station the Democratic Voice of Burma, short circuiting the Rangoon government's monopoly on domestic news, Mr. Mahinder said.

THOMAS CRAMPTON is a correspondent for the International Herald Tribune based in Bangkok.