By Victoire Rio and Min Nwai Oo
While the Myanmar military was able to take swift control of the physical infrastructure of the Myanmar state by occupying key buildings and arresting top leadership in its 1 February 2021 coup, it faced an unexpected challenge: how to take control of the digital presence of the state?
Though there had been some efforts at harmonizing and consolidating the digital state apparatus under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, these efforts were still under way as the coup took place, and management of the state-affiliated social media assets was still heavily decentralized. This left the military to deal with a patchwork of digital assets, managed by a disparate network of admins, occasionally assisted by non state actors, and spread across different hosting and service providers, ofter under the control of global corporations.
This piece looks at the battle for control over the Myanmar digital state apparatus, which took place in the wake of the 1 February 2021 military coup. It builds on a mapping of the digital presence of the country’s executive and legislative branch. Though the junta succeeded in taking over control of official websites, it faced some resistance from admins and social media companies in regaining control over the state’s pre-existing social media presences.
The Myanmar digital state apparatus is composed of thousands of digital assets, which make up the online presence of the country’s various state institutions and agencies. Besides maintaining official websites, most state entities established social media presences across various social media platforms, often at national, as well as regional, and occasionally district or township level. Various departments within the same ministry or agency also often have their own presences, as well as occasional initiative specific assets.
As Myanmar embraced the online space, in the mid 2010s, the state lacked a formal strategy for digital representation. As a result, most of the state-owned assets were set up independently by their parent institutions, either through their own communication teams or via self-managed tender processes. This paved the way for a highly decentralized digital state presence, marked by a lack of naming convention, inconsistencies in the infrastructure used, and a significant decentralization in the administration of these assets.
In 2018, the NLD government sought to unify the country’s online presence by establishing the Myanmar National Portal. The Myanmar National Portal initiative worked to catalog government websites and migrate them to the gov.mm domain and a centralized and locally maintained server. The National Portal Initiative does not appear to have gotten around to consolidating social media or initiative specific presences, however, with most of these assets, as a result, remaining under the control and management of their parent entities and – occasionally – their third party partners.
Lack of a clear digital strategy
Though the military appears to have had a clear strategy to assert its control over the physical state apparatus – arresting leaders from the previous administration, declaring a state of emergency, establishing a State Administration Council (SAC) and appointing new leadership to union ministries, state & regional governments and key institutions – its strategy did not seem to explicitly account for digital assets.
In the hours following the arrest of president Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, the military appears to have scrambled to gain access to the President Office and the Ministry of Information’s Facebook pages. Though both pages were ultimately ‘captured’, it wasn’t until 6:24 pm on February 1, 2021 that they published the military’s announcement of a state of emergency, hours after it was first published on the military’s own channels.
Other official digital presences either remained quiet or went on with publishing their own content calendar in the immediate aftermath of the coup. Several subsequently went quiet.
The only notable exception, when it comes to adopting a formal digital takeover strategy, was the Information and Public Relations Department (IPRD). The department, which falls under the Ministry of Information, oversaw several hundred pages at the national, regional, district and township level. In the days following the coup, many of these pages underwent a coordinated logo change, clearly distinguishing the pages controlled by the junta from those still outside of its control.
Overall, the military’s attempt at taking control over digital state assets appears to have been ad-hoc and progressive, with several institutions resuming their social media posting on behalf of the new regime only months into the coup.
The timeline below retraces how different union ministries’ Facebook pages shifted over to posting on behalf of the junta.
The absence of posting by many of these social media assets for long periods of time prior to their switch is particularly interesting insofar as it suggests either one of two things:
1/ an active battle for control over these assets
2/ a lack of interest by the junta in using these assets
The partial re-emergence of a few of the Union Election Commission (UEC) Facebook pages, a few months into the coup, is particularly instructive in this regard. While all UEC pages had gone quiet after the coup, the central page of the UEC, along with its Kachin State page, came back to life shortly after the State Administration Council declared its intention to introduce proportional voting. Though it is still unclear how the junta managed to gain control over these pages, they went on to be actively used to make the case for proportional representation, while others – presumably still outside of SAC’s control – remained inactive. Facebook eventually banned all UEC pages under its Tatmadaw Ban Policy.
As of November 2022, the junta’s control of the Myanmar digital state apparatus still appears to be incomplete.
While most of the websites, associated with a centrally managed gov.mm domain, appear to be controlled by the regime, several of the social media assets associated with the Myanmar Digital State Apparatus continue to be inactive. Others, meanwhile, are no longer accessible either because they were banned or unpublished.
The table below provides an overview of the Myanmar digital state apparatus and its assets as of November 2022 – including union level government, parliament and judiciary and state and regional level governments and parliaments.
Of note is the junta’s apparent absence of control over the digital assets associated with the legislative branch of the government. This is consistent with the ways in which the takeovers appear to have been driven by the junta’s needs for communication. With Myanmar under a state of emergency, with all powers consolidated under the State Administration Council, the junta is yet to have a need for the legislature.
In the weeks following the coup, over 400,000 civil servants reportedly joined the civil disobedience movement (CDM). Though further analysis will be necessary to get at the specifics of exactly what happened to each digital asset, the civil disobedience movement may explain why some assets stopped posting after the coup, and why some, which initially continued posting in line with their traditional content calendar, eventually went quiet or disappeared.
Two CDM members interviewed for this research indeed reported that several of the civil servants going on CDM had admin access to the digital assets attached to their home institutions. Though they may not necessarily have had exclusive control over these digital assets, they may have actively sought to remove other admins upon joining CDM, or intentionally unpublished the assets to prevent them from getting captured. This was the response of one of the interviewees, who was the admin of one such asset.
Besides civil servants, some third party partners and non state actors may also have had admin access to some assets and played a role in resisting the junta’s effort to take back control.
In very few instances, we observed digital state assets being used to post content in direct opposition to the regime. In all cases, the assets belonged to the legislative branch of the government, whose role was all but erased by the state of emergency.
Beyond facing resistance from CDM civil servants, the junta faced active resistance from social media companies, which also sought to intervene on some of the digital assets that came under the control of the junta and were used to disseminate propaganda.
The table below provides an overview of the state entities confirmed to have faced platform-driven asset takedowns, as of November 2022. Banned assets are marked in red, while remaining existing assets are marked in green.
Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, was the most prolific in its restrictions, taking a formal policy stance against military-controlled state and media entities, as well as military-affiliated businesses. Over the months, it took down the pages of the State Administration Council, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Border Affairs, the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, as well as several pages of the Union Election Commission. Meta also blackholed various websites and third party assets associated with the military and its administration under its Tatmadaw Ban Policy. Meta had previously taken down the presence of the Office of the Commander-in-Chief as part of an August 2018 enforcement.
Alphabet, which owns Google and YouTube, took some limited action on state-owned channels and blogspot sites it argued violated its community guidelines. These included the YouTube channels of the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Information and the Union Election Commission as well as the blogspot account of dsinfo, the website run by the communication unit of the Commander-in-Chief.
Twitter similarly cited broad violations of its rules when restricting the official accounts of the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
VK and Telegram do not appear to have restricted any official presence as of November 2022.
While the military junta showed clear, albeit inconsistent intent on retaining control over Myanmar’s original digital state assets, the National Unity Government (NUG), which was established on 16 April 2021 by the legitimate winners of the November 2020 elections, chose to establish its own distinct online presence. Though having to re-establish an official presence put it at a disadvantage, as it had to recreate an audience from scratch, the NUG was able to get many of its assets verified across various social media platforms, and now stands as a parallel digital state apparatus of its own.
The table below provides an overview of NUG official digital assets, as recorded in November 2022.
Rather than to recreate a digital presence, the Myanmar military junta sought to take over the assets that made up the pre-existing Myanmar digital state apparatus. While taking over control of official websites was relatively straightforward, gaining access to social media presences, which were heavily decentralized and hosted on the infrastructure of private corporations, proved much more complicated. Although it eventually managed to regain control over a number of ‘verified’ state assets and their existing audiences, the junta did not appear to have a formal strategy for transferring control of these assets and appears to have faced active resistance from civil servants, many of whom had joined the civil disobedience movement, as well as social media companies. In the cases where the junta was able to regain control, weeks or months after the coup, it remains unclear how the transfers took place and whether asset admins may have been actively targeted, and potentially tortured, to allow the junta renewed access. Myanmar’s experience carries important learnings, highlighting how digital assets can become actively contested in the context of a coup and raising important considerations as to what the role and responsibility of social media platforms should be in these contexts.