Myanmar’s Digital Dictatorship
On February 1, 2021, the military besieged Myanmar and took control of the nation through a violent coup, initiating a series of brutal crackdowns, serious human rights violations, and escalating digital control over the nation.
The junta is continuing to pillage online spaces, crushing the last remnants of the long-razed rights to privacy, freedom of expression and association, access to information, and security.
Access Now and civil society from across the globe are working to stop the Myanmar military from consolidating absolute control of digital spaces, and helping ensure the future of Myanmar’s internet is free, open, and accessible for all.
Civil society actions
Myanmar’s online space has been shrinking since the coup. The military junta has systematically been attacking online spaces through:
- Targeted internet shutdowns that cut access to information and stifle dissent, while creating communications blackholes that shelter the proliferation of human rights violations by the military.
- Legal tools like the notorious draft Cybersecurity Law that are being abused to stifle individuals’ access to rights to expression, information, and privacy online.
- Infiltrating the local telecommunications industry, selling to military-linked companies, and ordering internet service providers like Norway’s Telenor to jeopardize the rights of people across the country by activating intercept equipment and technologies to spy on millions of customers.
- Ordering significant price hikes for data usage and phone calls, and implementing onerous SIM card registration requirements — significantly impacting a population already struggling through the devastation caused by COVID-19 and the banking crisis triggered by the coup.
- Freezing mobile banking services — including thousands of accounts — under the suspicion they could facilitate or support revolutionary movements.
- Fortifying its surveillance tools — such as surveillance drones and iPhone cracking devices.
In 2021, people in Myanmar faced constant internet shutdowns. When the coup began, the shutdowns affected internet and voice connectivity, as well as non-military television and radio channels, across the country, and systematically evolved over time. Now, shutdowns take many forms, including curfew-style blackouts that disrupt connectivity through the nights, and the targeted shutting down of mobile internet services. Notably, there are reports of shutdowns constantly implemented in regions where armed conflict and military violence are most severe.
To find out more about internet shutdowns, visit Access Now’s #KeepItOn page.
Other tools to censor expression and dissent include the draft Cybersecurity Law that threatens to criminalize legitimate online expression and provides “legal” scope for surveillance of activists, take downs of online content on vague and overbroad grounds, suppression of free media, and criminalisation of Virtual Private Network (VPN) usage — which is vital for most people to navigate the throttled internet.
How is the junta infiltrating and manipulating the telecommunications sector to censor people in Myanmar?
Price hikes and onerous SIM card registration requirements have made it even more difficult for people to access the internet — returning Myanmar to the closed-off communications of previous decades — and phone seizures and hacking have been abused by the military to monitor and target not just individuals deemed to oppose the regime, but anyone in their family and friend networks.
The military junta also plans to implement a mandatory registration scheme of all International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI)numbers for mobile devices in Myanmar. With IMEI registration in place, the military can gather information on the devices people use, including its location. In Saudi Arabia, the government reportedly used spy-grade tracking equipment and IMEI data to track women fleeing from the country, gaining access to their precise location within a few feet.
It was recently reported that Ooredoo, the last remaining telco operating in Myanmar that is not owned or connected to the military junta, has announced its decision to exit Myanmar and sell its local operations to Nine Communications, a Singapore-based subsidiary of LInk Family Office and military-linked Nyan Win. In the past, Ooredoo, has likely complied with orders from the Myanmar military to activate intercept technology — though not verified.
Norway’s Telenor sold off it local operations to the M1 group, which bought Telenor Myanmar through its Singapore-registered entity, Investcom Pte Ltd – the majority of which is owned by military-linked Shwe Byain Phyu Group.
With the remaining two players already linked to the military and these recent developments, the telecommunications sector in Myanmar is now fully controlled by the junta.
- Engage in continuous and transparent dialogue with civil society based on international human rights standards, so that companies can effectively identify and address the human rights challenges and risks to the people that may arise from their decisions about their operations in Myanmar.
- Conduct heightened due diligence when exiting Myanmar and selling operations to determine and mitigate the effect that leaving would have on individuals in the country and to ensure that buyers are in no way linked to the military junta.
- Immediately implement safeguards to protect users at risk, including immediately implementing data protection and privacy safeguards to resist increasing attempts to extend surveillance, censorship, and abuse of rights.
- Cooperate amongst online platforms to establish and invest in collective mechanisms to meet rights obligations and combat hate speech and incitement to violence online.
For more information, see Access Now’s Telco Action Plan: Respecting Human Rights: Ten Steps and Implementation Objectives for Telecommunications Companies.
In the decade preceding the coup, while online civic space was open for many, the internet — and the rights exercised through its use — was not accessible for all. With a predominantly Rohingya population, Rakhine and Chin states suffered through lengthy internet shutdowns and slowdowns since June 2019, and saw millions of SIM cards deactivated in 2020 in a manner that disproportionately impacted minority communities.
During this time, over 1,000 human rights activists and journalists were arrested for exercizing their human right to freedom of opinion and expression online.