Myanmar VPN Ban

Worse than China or Iran? Myanmar’s dangerous VPN ban

The Myanmar junta is cutting millions of people off from the world by banning the use of many Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) –  the last remaining tool for accessing blocked social media apps, messaging platforms, and thousands of websites. In parts of Myanmar, people continue to suffer from one of the world’s longest, most widespread, and pervasive internet shutdowns — already an enormous barrier to getting access to vital information or reporting serious human rights violations. If the global community continues to be silent, Myanmar will soon be behind a digital iron curtain just as severe as China’s or Iran’s.

Who’s behind the digital iron curtain project?

According to local media reports, the project to intercept VPN traffic on internet gateways coming to Myanmar is led by Brigadier General Lu Mon, the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Transport and Communications (MOTC). The departments responsible are MOTC’s Information Technology and Cyber Security Department and the military’s Directorate of Signals. 

A company called Mascots Technologies and Telecommunications Company Limited is involved in implementing the ban, according to information shared in a military-run Telegram channel called Sit Thadin Military News. 

Justice for Myanmar (JFM) reports that the junta began using a new web surveillance and censorship system at the end of May 2024. The system reportedly allows the military to “intercept and decrypt web traffic and block applications and websites, including the widespread use of virtual private networks (VPNs).” According to JFM, the system uses technology from Jizhi (Hainan) Information Technology Company Limited, also known as Geedge Networks. Notably, one of Geedge Networks’ founders, and its chief scientist, is Fang Binxing, known as the “father of China’s Great Firewall.”   

The military has previously ordered licensed telecommunications and internet service providers to block websites. To ensure compliance, they would often do unannounced checks.

Impact of the VPN ban: what we know so far

Internet traffic volume to many sites, including Facebook, has significantly dropped since the ban was imposed on May 30. Using a VPN to access the internet securely and privately has become increasingly risky. Police have been doing random phone checks, arresting people under anti-terrorism laws if they catch them with Facebook or VPN apps on their phone.

Since the coup started in 2021, the military has been building a massive surveillance infrastructure. It has activated intercept technologies in telecommunications infrastructure, installed a network of CCTVs all over the country, and enacted surveillance-enabling regulations on SIM and IMEI registration. With this recent VPN ban, the people have lost secure communication channels and their ability to hide their online footprints. 

The junta has banned many  VPNs, including popular ones such as Psiphon and Nord. It is clear that the military will block more in the near future. Local digital rights groups report that VPN access varies from one platform to another, paid and free alike. It is extremely difficult to track what is working and what is not, as conditions shift every day. Since most of the free VPNs are no longer working, millions who cannot pay for premium accounts have already lost secure, private access to the internet.

The international community must act now! 

To push back against this recent authoritarian move from the Myanmar junta, the international community must:

  • Make a collective public call for the military to stop banning VPNs and cease all other internet restrictions in Myanmar so that people can continue to securely access the internet as part of their ability to exercise fundamental rights and freedoms.
  • Coordinate with global tech companies, VPN providers, social media companies, and other companies in the telecom industry to deploy options/ possible technology that can be made available to those who are facing challenges connecting safely to the internet as a result of the ban.
  • Develop a coordinated action plan to cut off or prevent financial, technical, and other forms of support that benefit the military’s massive digital surveillance and censorship infrastructure. 
  • Deepen its efforts to stop the sale/technical transfer of dual-use surveillance technologies, censorship tools, and mass data-collecting infrastructure to Myanmar. 
  • Through regular engagement with local CSOs, collect data and evidence against companies involved in providing tools and services to the Myanmar military that are being used to violate people’s rights – and hold them to account using various measures and before all available remedy mechanisms.