The situation of digital repression in Myanmar in the year 2022
It is undeniable that since the February 2021 coup d’état, the military junta has continued to monitor and repress the public’s access to information and communications. The degree of harm caused by the actions of the military may vary depending on the individual digital behavior of Internet users, but it is certain that the general public has been more or less affected.
In this article, we are going to analyze the most prominent situations, and explore the ways in which the military council controlled the online environment and significant cases of digital repression, from February 2022 to January 2023, by the State Administration Council (SAC). suppressed the public’s use of the Internet by recounting. By understanding these conditions, the public, who cannot be alienated by the use of digital technology, will be able to assess the military council’s forms of digital oppression and establish more informed mitigation plans to improve their individual rights.
Patterns of digital repression of the SAC found between February and April 2022
At the beginning of February 2022, in Sint Kai and Myin Gyan townships, according to the press release of the SAC, 12 shopkeepers selling goods at Sanpya Market, were arrested with the reason of inciting to disrupt national peace and stability on their Facebook accounts and pages by the Military.
In February 2022, Myanmar Now reported that an investigation revealed that Telenor Myanmar (the sale of the company was still pending) had given phone calls and records of the users to the military. The military requested information for at least over 200 times, and in some cases, there were hundreds of phone numbers in each. Therefore, the report continued to state that it will affect thousands of Telenor Myanmar users.
On February 12, 2022, to commemorate the Union day, strike committees mobilized an anti-dictatorship strike online. In order to disrupt the mobilization, the junta shut down the internet in major cities such as Yangon, Mandalay and Bago. In Chin State, it was also discovered that the military council only opened the Internet for (2) hours a day through Mytel Telecom, which they own.
On March 2, 2022, due to surveillance and confiscation of the military on Wave Money’s financial transactions, the activities of groups that are helping to get funds for the revolution online, including groups such as ANTS, မြတ်နိုးရင်းလှူ and မူမနေနဲ့လာလှူ, had to be suspended.
On March 3, 2022, the military cut internet connection in Sagaing region except 4 townships: Monywa, Sagaing, Kalay and Shwe Bo. After the internet was cut off, the military council in Sagaing Region started to carry out more offensive operations.
The Military Council restricted the right of senior executives of Telenor Myanmar Telecom, which used to be the best in terms of consumer protection from a human rights perspective, to leave the country during the aforementioned crackdowns. “We have received a clear message from the authorities that company leaders are no longer allowed to travel abroad,” Telenor CEO Sigve Brekke told the newspaper ‘Dagens Næringsliv (DN).
In April 2022, the military confidentially directed telecom operators to take down websites of NUG, CRPH, Media outlets and other anti-junta organizations and threatened action against them if they did not do so. In addition, the military directed Telenor’s new owner to force users to re-registered SIM cards, and outgoing calls were blocked for unregistered SIM cards.
Between February and April 2022, in the beginning of the second year of the coup, the tactics of military’s repression emphasized on controlling the online space in order to cover their atrocities and to inject fear into the society. The internet was restricted and blocked by geographical locations, especially battle intensive areas, where their war crimes were committed. Moreover, the military also used repression tactics of surveilling civilians’ communications through telecoms, tracking financial transactions and confiscation and arresting people by their social media contents as well as announcing those arrests officially in order to petrify the public of joining the online pro-democracy movements.
Patterns of digital repression of the SAC found between May and July 2022
On May 11, 2022,. In the tax collection meeting held at the Ministry of Planning and Finance in Nay Pyi Taw Office No. 26, the SAC discussed collecting taxes through IMEIs and making tax collection registers.By registering the IMEI numbers of mobile phones used by the public, it will be possible to track the movements of mobile phone users in real time. The move is a major contribution to the implementation of the digital dictatorship of the SAC.
As May is the month when basic education schools in Myanmar enroll, NUG tried to implement an interim education program during the coup for those who do not want to participate in the military’s education program. The military-backed propaganda channels on Telegram such as Han Nyein Oo, Kyaw Swar, etc campaigned to arrest teachers and students who are participating in NUG’s interim education programs. Consequently, teachers who participated in the Kaung For You (KFU) online education program, which was part of NUG’s interim education program, were arrested in July. This incident is a violation of the right to freedom of education, which is a fundamental human right.
In July 2022, the military junta’s most crucial activities of repression happened including the first death sentence in over thirty years along with oppression upon the media and surveillance upon the public.
According to Reuters, the SAC was installing Chinese-made facial recognition cameras in cities all over Myanmar. In addition to what they did, they also cut phone lines and suppressed news media in areas where military operations were conducted. A clear proof of media suppression is the raid on the Sittwe-based Narinzara news agency. Also, a more significant case of what can be specifically referred to as digital repression is the follow up actions after the execution of politicians: Ko Jimmy. Ko Zayar Thaw, Ko Hla Myo Aung and Ko Aung Thu Zaw. People who changed their profile picture to express sympathy for them were arrested by the military.
From May to July 2022, efforts to control the use of mobile phones in the digital space; suppression of freedom of education; pressure on the news media; It has been found that the military council has implemented programs to monitor the public’s free movement and severely suppressed issues of freedom of writing and expression online.
Patterns of digital repression of the SAC found between August and October 2022
At the beginning of the coup, the public’s endeavor to restore democracy and oppose the coup through peaceful protests was severely suppressed by the military council and terrorized the public. Therefore, in order to revive the democracy of Myanmar, they were forced to take the path of counter-revolution against the military council.
In order to slow down the counter-revolutions, the military council cut off not only the Internet but also phone lines in Sagaing Region and Chin State, where there are many conflict areas. In order to cut off the flow of money to the pro-democracy forces, the military imposed rules that users of online money transfer applications such as Wave Money and Kpay must upgrade to Level 2, which can only be used after strict KYC (Know Your Customer) process which requires users to give up a large extent of their personal information. The junta also forced agent shops of the mobile money transfer services to collect their users’ personal information strictly.
In order to fully control communications through mobile phones, the Ministry of Transport and Communications under the SAC enforced re-registration of SimCards with real names and identity number and also announced suspension of service for the SIMs which are not registered with official identity.
In order to control and limit the social media that are not under the control of the Military Council, the junta encouraged people to use their locally developed platforms like “Mtube”. Another significant move of the military is that Ooredoo, one of the two foreign telecom companies, was planned to be sold to Singapore’s One Matrix Ventures (TOMV), owned by Myanmar businessman U Myo Myint Ohn who is affiliated with the military. Before the military coup, there were two telecom operators who came to invest in Myanmar with full foreign investment. Among them, Telenor left Myanmar in June 2022. Ooredoo’s departure made Myanmar’s entire communication network fall under the control of the Military and its affiliates.
From August to October 2022, the military junta continued to push for complete control over the use of mobile phones by monopolizing the telecom industry while Suppressing the public by cutting off the flow of information and the public’s financial flow.
Patterns of digital repression of the SAC found between November 2022 and January 2023
In this period, the military continued to enforce the re-registration of SIM cards while imposing other tactics of digital repression . A more peculiar situation is that the military restored the internet access in the Hpa-Kant region, where the internet has been cut off for a long time by using only MyTel wifi which is their own telecom operator, and by using it, the user’s information will be under the overall control of the military.
In addition, there were cases of social media users sued by the military under the Anti-Terrorism Act and the Electronic Communications Act. A secret meeting minute of the military has also been leaked, and the meeting minutes included points to ban or censor using applications such as Facebook, PDF Game and some other applications through the operators. In addition, the Department of Transportation and Communications under the SAC sent letters of complaint to Google and Facebook. Plus, their further activities in the meeting minutes included sending announcements of the Ministry of Home Affairs through text messages (SMS); Investigating revolutionaries while conducting overnight guestlist checks; hacking social media accounts of prominent pro-democracy leaders. By analyzing the leaked meeting minutes, it is clear that the military is trying to carefully monitor and control the public’s online activities. A few days after the meeting minutes leaked, “the CCCT (Central Committee for Combating Terrorism) would like to inform you that posts, shares, likes, and comments related to terrorism may be prosecuted by law.” “Supporting terrorist organizations can be prosecuted” texts were sent via mobile phone messaging system (SMS) and threatened social media users.
From November 2022 to January 2023, continue to push for full control of digital space suppression over mobile phone usage; Providing access to the MyTel Internet network in places where the Internet is cut off; The military council has been working to control the use of social media to criticize and attack against the military junta, and to use Anti-terrorism Law and Electronic Transaction Law to arrest and intimidate social media users.
To conclude, the digital repression tactics that the military junta utilized during the second year of the coup includes –
(1) Internet and mobile phone bans restricting freedom of information
(2) Surveillance through mobile services that threaten the public’s freedom of expression
(3) Monitoring and controls over online financial transactions
(4) Controlling and threatening freedom of education online
(5) Restrictive controls on the news media that hinder freedom of expression
(6) Controls against social media users using the Anti-Terrorism Act and the Electronic Transaction Law.
(7) Weaponization of social media
(8) Propaganda with false information.
By analyzing the above mentioned digital repression activities, there is no doubt that the military has high concern over the creative and subversive powers of the digital public. On the other hand, it can be seen that they were desperately trying to limit the public’s access to the Internet technologically, legally and economically.
It can also be clearly seen that the SAC is trying to upgrade their Surveillance capabilities and trying to inject fear into the public that they may be under constant surveillance.
Therefore, it is imperative for the public to combat this fear and protect their digital rights by focusing on security and practicing the most affordable and cost-effective digital security methods. The public also needs to stay alert of the military’s ever-changing laws surrounding the Internet. On the other hand, if we can continuously follow the accessible resistance technology, we will be able to withstand the digital oppression of the military.