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Photo: Maung Sun, used under CC BY-SA 4.0 licence

Three years ago today, on February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military junta seized power in a violent and deadly coup. Since then, the junta has escalated its attacks, both online and offline, perpetrating war crimes and crimes against humanity, violating human rights everyday. 

Despite thunderous silence and dwindling support from so-called global allies, the people of Myanmar are unwavering in their determination to courageously resist the military, and take back control of their country. 2024 is a critical turning point in their fight. The international community must urgently stand with the people of Myanmar, offering not only solidarity, but also concrete resources to help topple the military junta and consign this troubled chapter to the history books. 

The Myanmar people’s resistance to dictatorship needs international support to dismantle the digital “iron curtain” built by the junta to track and target the people of Myanmar. Otherwise these same people will continue to be crushed and terrorised by a surveillance state intent on destroying lives, livelihoods, and any resistance to their oppressive rule. Only when these oppressive structures fall can the people of Myanmar rebuild a new country that reflects their vision and courage.

A digital “iron curtain”

The military’s complete control of Myanmar’s telecommunications network allows it to use internet shutdowns and communications blackouts to facilitate vicious attacks and block humanitarian aid from reaching those who need it. In 2023, the military weaponised shutdowns and blackouts, especially in conflict zones where resistance is strong. Reports reveal that, before bombing towns and villages, the military frequently uses jamming devices installed on military scout aircraft to block all communication networks. 

This means that people seeking safe paths to flee the conflict are unable to communicate with each other, wounded people cannot seek medical assistance, and families are cut off from critical humanitarian support.

It is difficult to document the exact number of regular internet shutdowns imposed by the junta, but they likely number in the hundreds. According to a report by the Myanmar Internet Project, 11 out of 14 states have experienced shutdowns, with prolonged shutdowns common in areas of escalating conflict, including Bago, Kachin, Karenni, Kayin, Magywa, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan.

The rise of a surveillance state

Under the guise of creating e-government projects, Myanmar’s military is raising funds and collecting resources to strengthen its massive surveillance infrastructure, pushing forward with data collection projects like the national census, e-ID system, and the establishment of a “National Database”. 

In 2023, the military announced that it was developing an e-government masterplan to provide public services and sought support from international organisations, including the UNFPA, to do so. Despite no such support being provided, the military continues to seek support from other countries, including in the form of domestic and foreign technologies to run the projects.

The military needs to track and target those who oppose its reign of terror. So far, the military’s e-ID system contains the personal data of 52 million people (including six types of geographic data) and data from over 13 million households. It’s also thought that the military has collected biometric data from 2.1 million people in Myanmar — this includes fingerprints, facial features, and eye pupil scans. The military also surveils people in several other ways:

  • Checkpoints restrict people’s right to freedom of movement, with unlawful arrests occurring frequently.

  • Random security checks, including indiscriminate inspections of ID documents and phones and other devices, are conducted on the street.

  • Financial activities are monitored; Radio Free Asia reports that more than 700 mobile payment account were closed in the month of May 2023 alone.​​​

The international community must stop all forms of support that allow the military to strengthen its surveillance infrastructure against the people, even as they present them as “pro-people” propaganda projects.

An ongoing campaign of terror

The military is weaponising the law to violate fundamental human rights, including the right to information and freedom of expression, as part of efforts to legitimise its abusive acts: 

  • Failure to register a SIM can put you in prison for up to six months. The military is using section 72 of the Telecommunications Law to justify the SIM registration order.

  • The military has adopted extensive by-laws to the Anti-Terrorism Law, giving them the power to censor activities against the military, intercept electronic communication data, and obtain people’s location data. At the start of 2024, documentary filmmaker, Shin Daewe, was sentenced to life in prison under this law. 

  • The military is criminalising online expression, criticism, and journalism. Data for Myanmar shows that an average of 65 individuals per month were detained for criticising the junta and supporting anti-juta activities on social media platforms, with more than 1,300 arrested for their social media content. Sixty-four journalists are in detention, making Myanmar one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists, second only to China. In 2023, many artists, celebrities, and social influencers changed their Facebook profile pictures to black in solidarity with the victims of military atrocities. Many individuals who commented, liked, or shared posts or news reports about anti-coup movement activities were arrested. Byuhar, a hip-hop singer who criticised the military during a Facebook Live for its failure to provide a regular electricity supply was given a 20 year prison sentence. Meanwhile U Ye Htut, who served as Information Minister under the Thein Sein government in the early 2000s, was given a ten year jail sentence for his Facebook post criticising the military’s policies.​

To push back against the junta’s increasing campaign of repression against the people of Myanmar, the international community must:

  • Establish and commit resources for a coordinated action plan to provide the people of Myanmar with alternative access to telecommunication services. Local communities in Myanmar struggle to use satellite communications or other means to resist the military’s control and authoritarian grip over communication networks. With a coordinated action plan, people in Myanmar can push back against worsening digital authoritarianism.

  • In areas of crisis and conflict, recognize and fund alternative access to the internet and other communication channels as critical tools for protecting lives and fundamental human rights. 

  • Cut off or prevent financial, technical, and other forms of support that benefit the military’s massive surveillance infrastructure. In 2023, the military had difficulty securing funding from other countries or from international organisations for its e-government projects. This was a welcome step and must continue. The international community must deepen its efforts to stop the sale of dual-use surveillance technologies to Myanmar.

  • Push tech and telecom companies to uphold human rights and make them accountable when they fail to provide effective remedy for violations. Governments must not allow companies to profit from the suffering of Myanmar’s people.

  • Stand in solidarity with the people of Myanmar. The international community must provide support to the people of Myanmar so they can  resist the abuses of the military, while addressing the emerging challenges of building a new nation state.

Companies must:

  • Urgently explain how they conduct due diligence to ensure that their operations and products in Myanmar do not negatively or adversely impact human rights. Telcos must do this without delay, as their partnerships with the military significantly enable the military junta’s human rights abuses. Companies producing or selling other types of technologies, including dual-use surveillance technologies, must stop all transactions involving the military and its allies.

  • If leaving the market becomes the ultimate decision after a thorough human rights due diligence process, ensure that comprehensive remedies are in place to address the human rights impacts of the departure. Companies must be held accountable for irresponsible exits out of areas of crisis and conflict.

  • Conduct heightened due diligence to ensure that their products and services are not used in violation of human rights by the military or by military-controlled institutions, and  immediately remove these products or services from the market if they are being used to facilitate rights abuses. Invest significant resources to implement human rights-based content moderation practices, data protection policies, and privacy safeguards to resist increasing attempts to extend surveillance, censorship, and rights violations.

  • Pursue genuine public engagement in its decision-making process and implement effective remedies when human rights violations are committed.

  • Access Now

  • Association for Progressive Communications (APC)

  • Athan – Freedom of Expression Activist Organization

  • Burma Academy 

  • Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

  • DigiSec Lab

  • EngageMedia

  • Foundation for Media Alternatives

  • Heartland Initiative

  • Myanmar Internet Project 

  • Nyan Lynn Thit Analytica

  • OONI: Open Observatory of Network Interference

  • Open Net Korea

  • Partido Manggagawa

  • SAFEnet

  • Spring Revolution Security

  • Thai Netizen Network

  • The Red Flag

  • Spring Sprouts