Myanmar Junta Planning a Digital Coup

By The Irrawaddy 14 February 2023

Myanmar’s military regime is attempting to establish digital authoritarianism by imposing internet shutdowns and restrictions on internet access including increased data charges, state surveillance, online censorship and information control.

The Irrawaddy recently talked to Ma Wai Phyo Myint, the head of the Myanmar office of Access Now, an advocacy group for digital rights around the world, about how effective the regime’s information control is, and how the Myanmar people can overcome the regime’s online restrictions.

The junta has started arresting people for sharing not very politically sensitive posts on social media. What is your view on that?

The regime started to target people over their social media posts early last year. But there were either few arrests or the arrests were not known about. [Pro-junta] telegram accounts share screenshots of Facebook posts [critical of the regime] and call for the arrest of the authors. The way those telegram accounts operate is…they say those screenshots are sent to them by members of the public. But they have a network backing them. For example, most well-known [pro-junta] Telegram accounts like Han Nyein Oo and Kyaw Swa are linked to the Myanmar military, police and [ultra-nationalist group] Ma Ba Tha.

It is not members of the public sharing information with them. Instead, the information comes from the military, police, Ma Ba Tha and the [military’s proxy] Union Solidarity and Development Party. But they say the information comes from the public and the police and military make arrests in response. This is the way they have operated over the past year.

What other threats has the regime made online?

Over the past year the junta has also focused on gathering intelligence on the network supplying the revolutionary forces, the National Unity Government, [its parliamentary body] the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, and the People’s Defense Forces. They use technology to track them. It is obvious because since last year the regime has required people to register SIM cards, and it checks if they use the same SIM for registering their mobile wallets like KBZ Pay.

The junta has also announced that they are building a national database, which according to our understanding includes ID numbers, household registration certificates, address, fingerprints and photos of individuals. The regime will check the data against the SIM card registration database. This database will enable the junta to find out a person’s address, phone number and their mobile wallet just by checking their fingerprint.

The regime has been building the database since last year, and the database is making certain progress although it might not be complete yet. It has also installed intercept spyware in the telecommunications network. We just don’t know how many people the regime can intercept at any one time. Our view is that the junta might monitor people more strictly using those technologies. The surveillance can be more effective, and revolutionary forces must exercise proper caution.

Recently, the regime sent SMS messages to cellphone subscribers warning that supplying terrorist organizations is punishable under the Counter-Terrorism Law. What is the intention behind that?

At the recent meeting of the Counter-Terrorism Committee, junta officials said that there is a need to educate the people about this [supplying the resistance forces]. In our understanding, by ‘educating people’ the regime means that there is a need to threaten the people. So the messages are being sent to dissuade people from supplying the resistance. All the telecom operators are under military regime control now, so the messages go to all the 46 million active SIM cards in Myanmar. By doing that, the junta wants to threaten people and instill fear in them.

People are concerned that there will be more arrests regarding social media posts this year. What is your view?

Yes, there will be more arrests because the junta wants to instill fear in people. People still criticize the regime on their Facebook posts, even after some stopped supplying the resistance out of fear of arrest. But now the regime has criminalized writing just Ma Ah La [the initials for junta chief Min Aung Hlaing and also for the curse word mother******].

The junta may impose tighter restrictions to force people to self-censor so they avoid writing a single word critical of the regime.

Is a digital coup happening in Myanmar on top of the military coup?

Yes it is. In terms of administrative power, the military has arrested National League for Democracy government members and dissolved parliament in Naypyitaw. And to control civic space, it has taken measures to control the flow of information. Those measures include crackdowns on protests, arresting members of civil society organizations and internet shutdowns.

The junta traces our digital footprints. And it has been building a database that enables it to find out all the information about individuals within a few seconds. Although it hasn’t happened yet, the digital coup it aims for is taking shape, and [resistance] forces must continue to work to prevent the regime from getting the technologies they need to make it happen.

What can the people do?

There must be freedom of expression in any circumstances. Organizations from outside Myanmar have to highlight how badly the regime is violating the right to freedom of expression. We want the people to focus more on how they can support the revolution safely. And people who can [help provide digital security] must also give a hand. I want people to think about how they communicate with each other more securely, for example, using fake IDs or riddles to disguise what they are saying.

For instance, people can also lock their profiles in Facebook if they are involved in the revolution in any way. And people don’t need to stop expressing themselves because of threats. They can continue to do it incognito.

I suggest using separate IDs. We need to focus more this year on how we can continue to participate in the revolution safely. Because all the telecom operators are now under the control of the regime and we have no safe telecom channel now. We have to help each other.

We should push together to cut off the technologies that the regime has acquired, and to have other telecom services for us to choose to bypass the regime’s spy network. These should be our priorities in 2023.

Telegram has been the main application used by the regime to incite arrests and violence against civilians. Should Telegram take responsibility for that?

The regime has switched social media platforms. The Myanmar military was removed from Facebook even before the coup. And pro-military pages were also removed after the coup. So most of the lobbyists for the Myanmar military switched to Telegram. And many people were arrested over the past year because of that.

We have seen many consequences of Telegram failing to act as a responsible and accountable platform. We have talked to Telegram about this situation since February 2022 by mail. But they have not yet made any response to any group that has complained.

But after the BBC reported about this last month, Telegram responded that it would take more action. It has only responded to media, and has not yet talked to civil society organizations about the problems created by Telegram in Myanmar.

Telegram has to take responsibility. Last year, it took down the pro-junta Han Nyein Oo channel three or four times. But those guys immediately opened another channel under the same name and, in no time, they attracted tens of thousands of followers. Telegram has not been able to stop them from repeatedly abusing the platform.

We don’t want Telegram to shut down. Our view is that the more social media platform options there are, the better it is for the people. So we don’t oppose social media platforms in principle. In fact, we want to have more social media platforms, except those set up by the regime.

We want Telegram to take effective action against channels that are causing trouble. We will continue to push Telegram to take real-time action against channels that are causing serious danger to Myanmar civilians.