The coup in Myanmar will reach two years in the next three months. As the coup continues, the responses of revolutionary forces are accelerating, and military forces are using various ways to slow down the revolution. Among other actions, the military is desperately trying to cut down the financial streams of the revolution.
As the revolutionary forces are chiefly dependent on online campaigns for fundraising, military efforts to cut down these resources are more apparent in this August to October 2022 update on digital oppression issues.
As mentioned above, the military has been working to cut down the financial streams and monitor online information flows and create an atmosphere of unsafe situations for internet users.
This article summarises the digital oppression incidents that occurred between August 2022 to October 2022 (a three-month period).
After the coup, the military has been continuously shutting down the internet and phone lines to limit and control information and communication. During this month, there have been additional internet and phone line cut-off issues:
(1) Internet and phone lines cut in Indaw Township
It has been five months since the internet and mobile phone lines were cut off in Indaw township, Sagaing region. It started on August 1, 2022. During the internet shutdown, battles between the military council and the local defence forces occurred in the western part of the Indaw region, as the RFA news agency reported.
(2) Frequent cutoff of phone lines in Ayadaw Township, Sagaing Region
In Ayadaw township, Sagaing Region, there have been frequent outages of ATOM phone lines. MPT phone lines are in a situation where incoming calls are difficult, as mentioned in People’s Spring, citing the source of local news outlet Ayadaw. According to the news, there had been intense battles between the military and local PDF a few days before these issues.
Ayadaw is one of the townships in Sagaing Region that was cut off from the internet in September 2021. Phone lines have been cut off in the southern part of Myaing township since August 21.
(3) Countrywide internet slowdown and cutoff
From 11PM on August 10 until the evening of August 11, the internet dramatically slowed down and was not accessible for some users in Myanmar. According to BBC News, the submarine cable (Sea-Me-We-5) damage caused these disruptions.
(4) Phone lines cut off in the northern part of Maungdaw, Rakhine State
Since August 19, phone lines have been cut off in 30 villages in the upper part of Kyeinchaung, Maungdaw Township in Rakhine State, including Taung Pyo, Kha Maung Seik, Bandula villages. During the cutoff, there were fierce battles between the Arakan Army and the military council in the Khamaungseik hill of the northern Maungdaw area.
(5) Fibre internet lines cut off
The military’s subordinate Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) and Yangon Electricity Supply Corporation (YESC) collaborated to remove the fibre internet cables connected to pylons within the Yangon region on August 28. Consequently, there has been no access to fibre internet in some of the Yangon areas including Insein, Hlaing and Hlaing Thar Yar townships. Yangon Electricity Supply Corporation did this after the announcement to remove the fibre cables of private companies on November 18 last year. Reflecting upon the above issues, it is clear that the military’s efforts to continue cutting mobile phone and internet connections in various ways have not diminished.
The military arrested models Thin Zar Wint Kyaw and Nang Mwe San for publishing “sexually explicit” photos and videos online in violation of Article 33(a) of Myanmar’s Electronic Communications Act and for tarnishing the country’s cultural image. The definition of Article 33(a) of the law includes “doing any act detrimental to the security of the State or prevalence of law and order or community peace and tranquillity or national solidarity or national economy or national culture”. On September 27, the military court sentenced Nang Mwe San to six years in prison by weaponising Article 33(a) of the law.
Before the establishment of the “Communication Law”, the “Electronic Transaction Law” was used to suppress communication and the voices of activists on the internet. Blogger Nay Phone Latt (when he was detained, he was a blogger and not the parliamentary representative yet) and most activists including U Zar Ga Nar, U Ko Ko Gyi of 88 Generation were sentenced. Now, the military council is weaponising this law again.
The Central Bank released a letter on August 15 ordering financial service companies to conduct stricter verification processes. In this statement, the agents were ordered to record the name, address, phone number, and NRC number of senders and receivers, plus instructions to photocopy the front and back of the NRC card. To monitor the information of mobile application users, the military council issuing the verification of user identity (level upgrade) has to be mandatory. Moreover, the statement includes setting up CCTV cameras for agents to take photos of who sends and receives money secretly. This shows that the right to privacy has been violated under the military’s control.
After the coup, the difficulty of controlling information flow online and lack of control over different online fundraising activities for revolutionary funding has been a blow to the military.
In response, the military council used various tactics including shutting down the internet, restricting popular social media, and checking the mobile phones of pedestrians, but so far there have been no significant results. On the contrary, the pro-military media pages have been taken down from social media platforms.
To overcome this crisis, the military council started the dream of having its own social media platforms to replace current social media. Having their own social media means they can have absolute control over it. On August 17, the military council mentioned at a press conference in Naypyidaw that they had been creating a social media platform to replace Facebook with the cooperation of relevant ministries and professionals.
The military council’s spokesperson General Zaw Min Tun was enraged about Facebook’s policies toward pro-military pages on the platform. He questioned Facebook’s community standard by pointing out the removal of the video portraying the Myanmar army teams receiving awards in a military exercise held in Russia.
In a press conference on August 17, the military council announced that they had created a social media platform to replace Facebook with the cooperation of relevant ministries and professionals. In a September 2 press conference, the military council added that they have been creating Mtube to substitute for YouTube. Pilot testing was released on September 4.
Pro-military media pages find it difficult to operate on popular social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube as they cannot control information and activities on these platforms. The military’s dream of creating its own social media platforms is an attempt to attain total surveillance.
Qatari telecommunications company Ooredoo plans to sell its Myanmar operations to The One Matrix Ventures (TOMV), owned by Myanmar businessman Myo Myint Ohn. Ooredoo is the last majority foreign-owned telecoms company in Myanmar since a rush to exit the country after last year’s military coup.
In Myanmar, there were two foreign-owned companies in the telecoms sector. On January 21 early this year, Myanmar military’s regime permitted joint-venture partners Shwe Byain Phyu, a local conglomerate, and M1 Group of Lebanon to take over Norwegian telecom company Telenor. After the complete exit of Ooredoo from Myanmar, the whole telecoms sector will be under the hands of the Myanmar military’s regime or business groups close to them.
According to official announcements, Telenor decided to leave Myanmar after the military coup because their continued presence would require them to activate interception equipment for the use of Myanmar authorities.
A look at the digital oppression incidents during this quarter highlighted military attempts to control social media usage, and since August they have attempted to monitor and restrict financial transactions. On August 15, the Central Bank ordered financial organisations to limit and monitor currency transactions. On September 7, the Wave Money Facebook page announced that users must bring their NRC card to send or receive transactions.
On September 16, the Central Bank announced the confiscation of mobile wallets that do not correspond with data from the “e-ID database” of the Ministry of Immigration and Population and “SIM registration database” of the Ministry of Transport and Communication. Moreover, the announcement has also mentioned that mobile payment users have to upgrade the verification of user identity to Level 2.
On September 19, three days after the above announcement, the Ministry of Transport and Communication announced the revocation of SIM cards that do not match the name and NRC number from the “e-ID database” of the Ministry of Immigration and Population and “SIM registration database” of the Ministry of Transport and Communication.
On September 20, at the 20th press conference of the military council, the spokesman General Zaw Min Tun stated that “clicking a like or sharing a post, photo or videos of NUG, CRPH, PDF and their affiliates on Facebook conflicts with the Penal Code 124 (B)”.
Penal Code 124 (B) is a law prepared by the military council. The updated version states that sabotage or hindering the performance of the Defence Services of the Union or law enforcement agencies can result in a sentence of 3 to 10 years of imprisonment.
Zaw Min Tun also added that donating 100 Kyat or 10 Million Kyat and supporting the revolution could result in a sentence of 3 to 7 years of imprisonment according to the Counter Terrorism Law, Section 52.
Starting September 21, there have been incidents of shutting down users’ Kpay accounts without reason. After the coup, the military council confiscated Kpay accounts suspected of providing financial support to revolutionary forces. But in this September incident, many confiscated accounts are unrelated to the revolution.
Confiscated Kpay users reached out to KBZ Bank. The bank said it was not under its control and redirected users to the Central Bank.
A leaked list of Kpay and Wave Money users who contributed to NUG fundraising campaigns and buying Spring Revolution tickets resulted in the arrest of the contributors, according to Khit Thit News Media’s report on September 23.
On September 21, the military council announced the ban of mobile games created to support revolutionary forces (called PDF mobile games) financially and to arrest those who put ads on those games. According to the Myanmar Now News Agency’s post, government officers within Sagaing region were ordered to arrest those playing PDF mobile games. The Minister of Border Affairs, General Win Tin Soe signed the order.
By reflecting on these incidents, it is evident that the military council is trying its best to block all means of making financial contributions to revolutionary forces.
To spread propaganda within their pro-military community, the military council is creating a “PCT” application, led by the Information Sheet and Counter-Affairs. A leaked letter dated September 23 from the ministry of transport and communications indicated that there are negotiations with Mytel/MECTEL to avoid incurring mobile data charges for using the Junta Propaganda app. Mytel/MECTE are used mainly by the pro-military community.
The military council is attempting various strategies to control the information flow, including creating their own application such as Mtube, Ok Par, and PCT, over which they can have total control.
Giving free access to the Myanmar Junta Propaganda App PCT without incurring mobile data charges destroys the balance of competition in the free market. It also pushes all the users on their platform under surveillance. The military’s actions of inhibiting the information flow of other platforms, endorsing their own platforms, and imposing internet restrictions are destroying Net Neutrality.
The military council cut off the internet and phone lines throughout the coup. This tactic has been exercised frequently and has been ongoing.
Among the nine townships in Chin State, eight (except Hakha) are experiencing internet shutdown. Since the beginning of October, Tedim and Falam townships in Chin State and Kalay, Mawlaik, and Homalin townships in Sagaing Region have had phone lines cut off, according to Zalen Media’s post. On the morning of October 9, Matupi township in Chin State started experiencing phone lines being down. On the evening of October 9, Paletwa township in Chin State started experiencing the same. These phone lines were cut after rumours surfaced of five soldiers escaping from the Matupi military-based “Kha La Ra 304”, according to Matupi locals.
On October 7, phone lines were again cut off in Kawlin of Sagaing Region. On the morning of October 27, the military cut down the phone lines in Pale township of Sagaing Region to prepare for the offensive attack, according to the news report in Witness Diary Telegram channel.
On October 4, both internet and phone lines were cut in Banmauk township, Kachin State. This comes after KIA and PDF joint forces attacked the police station of Banmauk township. On October 10, the military council cut down the phone lines in Chipwi town, Kachin State. After the KIA and PDF apprehended the military council’s vehicles carrying weapons and artillery, the military council cut down the phone lines in Chipwi.
By reflecting on these incidents, the military council uses the shutdown of internet and phone lines to block information flow during military activities. This tactic has been used since the beginning of the coup and is still ongoing.
Throughout the coup, the military has been tightening its control of cyberspace by cutting down the internet, criminalising anti-regime speech online, and using surveillance technology.
According to a 2022 internet freedom survey from Freedom House and Free Expression Myanmar, Myanmar scored only 12 points out of 100, a drop of five points from 2021. Under the “Obstacles to Access” category, Myanmar scored two points out of 25. Under the “Limits on Content” category, Myanmar scored six points out of 35. Under the “Violations of User Rights” category, Myanmar scored four points out of 40. In conclusion, internet freedom in Myanmar is in a very bad situation.
EngageMedia is publishing English translations of the Myanmar Digital Coup Quarterly produced by the Myanmar Internet Project. This post covers updates between August to October 2022 and highlights digital oppression incidents documented during that period. Read the original post in Burmese here, and learn more about EngageMedia’s broader work to support digital rights in Myanmar on EngageMedia.org/Myanmar.
Read previous updates: May-July 2022