Last month, the Myanmar military issued a slew of new by-laws pursuant to the country’s 2014 Counter Terrorism Act – all of which give the junta vast and unchecked powers to control, monitor, and target any resistance to their ongoing brutality on the ground. These rules are anything but legal, however, offering only a veneer of authority to the military’s authoritarian attacks against the people of Myanmar. The international community must denounce this latest in a long line of measures designed to censor, curtail, and control people’s online activities.
Since seizing power in 2021, Myanmar’s military has entrenched their digital dictatorship, throttling internet and mobile connections, seizing control of the telecommunications sector, expanding surveillance infrastructure, and inciting violence and hate speech across social media and messaging services. The regime has also set about dismantling press freedom and stifling any vestiges of civic space, including through indiscriminately restrictive laws.
The military amended the Broadcasting Law to criminalize media outlets, radio and television broadcasters, and social media platforms for any content it deems “unacceptable.” They updated the Electronic Transaction Law to criminalize “fake news” and facilitate access to people’s personal data. And they attempted to resurrect a widely-panned draft Cybersecurity Law with the intent to criminalize VPN use and force internet service providers and online platforms to hand over people’s personal data on demand. Then came the regulatory orders for mandatory registration of all mobile devices’ IMEI numbers and SIM cards, opening the door to unfettered tracking of people’s locations, communications, and personal contacts.
The introduction of these new “counter-terrorism” by-laws are the latest in this dystopian deluge. They were drafted by the Central Committee for Counter Terrorism (CCCT) – whose current members were appointed by the military after the 2021 coup – under the pretext of “preventing and stopping terrorism and terrorism financing.” Section 14 (articles 79 to 85) of the regulations empowers them to arbitrarily order the “interception, blocking, and restriction” of mobile and electronic communications or “location verification.” This effectively allows the military to not only order furnishing of personal data from network providers on people’s location, communications and networks, but also to actively intercept their communications, emails, browsing history or other activities online.
And who are deemed as “terrorists”? Apparently anyone trying to access education for their children. In 2021, the military designated representatives of the ousted Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) and National Unity Government (NUG), along with the affiliated People’s Defence Forces (PDF), as “terrorist groups.” In a country where more than 400,000 academic workers resigned in protest or were suspended by the military, and where the military continues to ruthlessly attack children and order airstrikes on schools, online education has been, for many, the only option out. Under the new by-laws, any online schools supported by the NUG are now deemed “terrorist” entities, and authorities are already persecuting those who are even vaguely associated with them.
In mid-March, a 72-year-old woman from Sagaing region was charged under the Counter Terrorism Act after she signed her grandchildren up to NUG-linked online education classes. Shortly after, 15 teachers from the Federal School of Aung Myay Thar Zan in Mandalay were arrested under the counter-terrorism law, with the military warning that they would be “punished severely” and that “parents and children would also be targeted.” Earlier this month, three public school teachers from Indaw township in Sagaing region, who participated in anti-military strike action, were charged under the same law, and sentenced to life imprisonment. And just last week, four 15-year-old students were found guilty under the law of accessing NUG-supporting online lessons, and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. Ten other students arrested with them are still awaiting sentencing.
Even before these news by-laws were introduced, the restrictive impact of the counter-terrorism law was clear. Access Now has seen reports showing that, between February 2021 and December 2022, more than 17,800 cases were filed under the law, with more than 7,000 of these leading to sentences. We expect these numbers to rise astronomically now that the new by-laws have been rolled out. This counter-terrorism law must be denounced for what it is: illegal. The terror that needs to be countered is that being waged by the military – not the Myanmar people.