EngageMedia is publishing English translations of the Myanmar Digital Coup Quarterly produced by the Myanmar Internet Project. This post covers updates between February 2021 to April 2021 and highlights digital oppression incidents documented during that period. Read the original post in Burmese here, and learn more about EngageMedia’s broader work to support digital rights in Myanmar on EngageMedia.org/Myanmar.
Read the other editions of the report.
Since the coup on February 1, 2021, the military council launched its digital oppression of internet users and online communities in Myanmar. Within a year, the military council had imposed numerous restrictions, such as blocking the flow of news and information, curtailing individuals’ right to freedom of speech, oppressing those protesting the military coup, enacting new laws to carry out internet oppression, deliberate internet shutdowns, banning social media platforms, introducing tight restrictions on internet service providers, and raising the cost of internet fees. Such acts of digital rights violations have been documented and can be seen here month by month.
Summary of digital oppression issues in February 2021
- Start of restrictions on social media users
- Increased restrictions on internet usage
- Targeted banning of IP addresses and URLs
- Addition of nightly internet curfews
On February 1, the day the military coup began, internet speed remained notably slow from 1:00 AM to 1:00 PM. This event was unmistakably witnessed by internet users in Myanmar.
After 1 PM, internet connectivity returned to normal. On February 2, most of the public, who could not accept the coup, began protesting by honking their car horns. On the same day, an online campaign emerged using the hashtags #voiceoutfordemocracy and #myanmarcoup urging people to bang pots and pans at 8:00 PM, in a symbolic protest against the coup.
From the second day of the coup, the people of Myanmar were able to effectively utilise the swift efficiency and wide circulation power of online communication to coordinate nationwide campaigns such as the pots and pans banging campaign. This fact became a major concern for the military dictatorship.
Start of social media restrictions
The military council soon began attempts to limit the growing momentum of online-based anti-military dictatorship movements. On February 3, Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications, under the control of the military council, sent directives to Myanmar’s international internet gateway operators and internet service providers to block off access to Facebook, which is the most popular and widely used social media website in Myanmar.
On that day, the internet blackouts in Rakhine and Chin States which started in June 2019 were finally lifted. However, February 3 was also the day when the nationwide blocks of news flow began. Based on the concurrence of these two events, it can be determined that the lifting of internet shutdowns in Rakhine and Chin State were not simple acts carried out by the military council.
Afterwards, on February 5, Telenor Myanmar announced that Twitter and Instagram were added to the block list, following directives sent to the country’s international internet gateway operators and internet service providers from Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications.
Hoping to prevent further swift restrictions, Myanmar civil society organisations sent an open letter to telecommunication companies, asking them to adhere to international human rights law and protect the freedom of expression and access to information of the Myanmar people. However, for telecoms operating in Myanmar, it seemed that they were under the tight grip of the military council and too restricted to be able to create a better situation for the Myanmar public. Hence no improvements were observed.
Increased restrictions on internet usage
On the same day that civil society organisations sent the open letter to telecom operators, the military council further decided to commence a 30-hour-long internet shutdown. This consecutive restriction of internet usage occurred at a time when public protest had immensely grown in the streets, and the military council sought ways to hem in the growing waves of the people’s pro-democratic movement.
Targeted banning of IP addresses and URLs
From February 9 to 10, the military council sent directives to internet service providers to block certain IP addresses. This was reported by Bangkok Post and confirmed by a post on Telenor Myanmar’s website.
At the same time as the military council sought to control the flow of news and information on the internet, they were also increasing violent crackdowns against protestors on the ground. On February 9, a 19-year-old woman named Mya Thwé Thwé Khaing became the first martyr in the struggle for democracy when she was shot in Nay Pyi Taw, the seat of Myanmar’s government.
Due to the military council’s consecutive internet restrictions, the United Nations Human Rights Council called its 29th meeting and released a resolution calling for “the immediate lifting of restrictions on the internet, telecommunication and social media, in accordance with international human rights law”. The military council ignored these demands, showing their complete disregard for international human rights law.
Among the IP addresses blocked from February 9 to 14 were the addresses of websites sharing data and information regarding human rights and websites that were sharing information regarding COVID-19. This was just before the third wave occurred in the country. It was a time when up-to-date health information was crucial for the people of Myanmar.
Addition of nightly internet curfews
On February 15, the military council unleashed its third internet restriction method. This came in the form of nightly internet shutdowns from 12:00 AM to 9:00 AM. During that time, internet users nationwide were unable to access the internet.
On February 22, the whole city of Yangon was cut off from internet access until around 12:00 PM. Although such internet restrictions were conducted by the military council, the people’s resistance movement against the military dictatorship continued to grow and gain momentum, with anti-military dictatorship movements simultaneously emerging all around the country.
Summary of digital oppression issues in March 2021
- Military council’s use of surveillance technology
- Increased restrictions on internet usage (24-hour cut-offs of mobile internet usage)
- Military council postpones State Councilor’s court hearing due to “internet shutdown”
Soon after seizing power by force in the country, the military council began restrictions on internet usage and attempted to block the flow of news and information. These attempts continued well into the second month after the military coup.
Military council’s use of surveillance technology
While restrictions on freedom of expression and the free flow of news and information were happening, the New York Times published an article on their website on March 1, exposing the military council’s possession of Israeli-made surveillance drones, European hardware that could break into iPhones, and American software that could vacuum data from mobile phones and computers. This news became a reason for more concern amongst Myanmar’s internet users. According to the article, critics argued that these powerful surveillance tools were purchased as defence technologies and security equipment for the sake of “democracy” by the quasi-civilian government before the coup.
Increased restrictions on internet usage (24-hour cut-offs of mobile internet usage)
March 15 marked the introduction of an even more severe internet restriction. This came in the form of a 24-hour mobile internet shutdown applied on top of the pre-existing internet curfew from 12:00 AM to 9:00 AM.
Military council postpones State Councilor’s court hearing due to “internet shutdown”
While the military council purposefully conducted internet shutdowns, it also announced the postponement of State Councilor Daw Aung San Su Kyi’s court hearing, citing internet shutdowns from March 15 to 31.
Summary of digital oppression issues in April 2021
- Shutdown of all internet services except fibre optic internet services
- Internet shutdowns cause chaos in the financial services sector
As the military council continued its repression of digital space, it carried out even more oppressive restrictions in the third month of the military coup.
Shutdown of all internet services except for fibre optic internet services
On April 1, the military council, which had previously restricted mobile internet access from March 15, ordered a nationwide shutdown of all wireless internet services except for fibre internet. As a result, users of wireless internet services provided by companies such as Telenor, Ooredoo, and Ananda were unable to access the internet. Moreover, in areas where fibre internet was unavailable, locals suffered an indefinite internet outage as both wireless internet connections and mobile internet services were shut down. Consequently, people were unable to acquire up-to-date news and information and lost their right to freedom of access to information, which is a fundamental right every human deserves according to the universal declaration of human rights.
Beyond disrupting the flow of news and information, the internet shutdowns and restrictions adversely affected businesses and cash flow in the country. With the complete halt of online banking services, public distrust in the banking system drastically increased.
To deal with this issue, on April 28 the military council enabled users to access and use online banking and mobile financial services applications during mobile internet shutdowns. By reopening mobile financial services, the military council seemed to be taking a step towards restoring business operations. Additionally, on April 27, it lifted the midnight to 9:00 AM “internet curfew”. However, the ban on broadband and mobile internet remained.
Internet shutdowns cause chaos in the financial services sector
These restorations by the military council had little effect in remote areas that lack access to fibre internet. Public trust towards banking services has yet to be re-established to this day.
In addition, these financial service applications required users to turn off their virtual private networks (VPNs). According to technical experts, these services were restored in such a way that they functioned only within a regional intranet that connected users to banks and local services. By function, they were still cut off from the internet. Such measures only worked to increase public distrust towards banking services.
While such communications restrictions accelerated, on April 17 the Karen National Union (KNU) announced its support for the democratic forces that established the National Unity Government (NUG), the actions of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) and Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) members. Thus, amidst numerous restrictions and oppression by the military council, pro-democratic movements have managed to remain strong.