EngageMedia is publishing English translations of the Myanmar Digital Coup Quarterly produced by the Myanmar Internet Project. This post covers updates between November 2021 to January 2022 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.
Summary of digital oppression issues in November 2021
- Internet cut off in Rakhine state
- Military-affiliated cronies eye Telenor Myanmar
- YESC orders internet cables to be removed from utility poles
Internet cut off in Rakhine state
Tension and armed conflict de-escalated in Rakhine state following the military coup, but now fighting has once again broken out between the military council and the Arakan Army (AA) on November 9.
Military-affiliated cronies eye Telenor Myanmar
It is interesting to note that media outlets are reporting on Telenor Myanmar changing ownership during a time when digital oppression is being carried out by the military council. News of Telenor’s uncertain plans for divestment first surfaced in September and two months later, in November, there were reports that cronies close to the military are attempting to buy Telenor Myanmar.
According to the Irrawaddy news agency, among those trying to buy the telco was a subsidiary of IGE Group called Amara Communication which is owned by Nay Aung, brother of the commander-in-chief of the Navy – Admiral Moe Aung. Aung Pyae Sone, the son of regime leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and The KT Group which is owned by Jonathan Kyaw Thaung, a close affiliate of the military, are also said to be planning to acquire Telenor Myanmar.
Should an entity close to the military be successful in acquiring Telenor Myanmar, Ooredoo will be the only telecom provider in Myanmar with no direct investment from the military or its affiliates. It will also worsen press freedom in the country.
YESC orders internet cables to be removed from utility poles
On November 19, the Yangon Electric Supply Corporation (YESC) announced through its official Facebook page that all internet cables must be removed from the utility poles in the Yangon region by November 30, 2021. The corporation will remove the cables themselves should relevant companies fail to comply and it will also take legal action against them.
On social media, netizens shared their opinion that this action is possibly intended to disrupt mobile phone communications and halt donations to revolution forces such as ‘Click to Donate’.
Summary of digital oppression issues in December 2021
- Changes to mobile phone internet fees
- Lay Kay Kaw faces mobile network outages and internet cut-offs
The military council has been continuously imposing restrictions or shutting down internet connections and carrying out digital oppression since the coup. It has taken oppressive actions which affected internet users nationwide in December.
Changes to mobile phone internet fees
On December 3, the telcos currently operating in Myanmar started sending text messages to inform users that the prices of phone calls and internet plans will soon be updated under instructions from the Ministry of Transport and Communications. Telcos then raised prices on mobile data usage on December 8, which were at least twice as high as previous prices.
Myanmar is currently facing numerous crises including the COVID-19 pandemic, a terrible military coup, and severe inflation. At a time when the country is relying on the internet and network connectivity for business, education and communications, this action by the military council is an act that does not consider the development of the people.
It seems that the military council intends to limit the flow of money from Click To Donate programs to the revolutionary forces. Such frivolous actions will only lead to negative consequences for the military council rather than the beneficial results it has expected.
On December 21, 2021, the state-owned MRTV website uploaded a news story which said the minimum wage in Myanmar is only 4,800 kyats per day and that no changes will be made to it.
According to the agreement approved by the UN Broadband Commission, developing countries’ broadband services should not exceed 2% of their gross national income (GNI).
The World Bank has calculated Myanmar’s GNI in 2020 at US$1,350. According to A4AI’s policy recommendation, the cost of 5G internet access should not exceed 2% of GNI. It will cost up to 2,000 kyats to use 1GB according to the newly set mobile broadband prices and around 10,000 kyats per month to use 5G internet connections.
According to the newly-set mobile broadband prices, it will cost up to 2,000 Myanmar baht to use 1G internet. Around 10,000 Myanmar kyats (10,000) must be used monthly for 5G internet usage. Should one calculate the current prices for internet usage based on the 2020 GNI indicated by the World Bank and the current exchange rate between the US dollar and the Myanmar currency, about 5% must be utilised to access 5G internet (calculated using the Central Bank of Myanmar’s reference rate of 1,788 kyats per USD on January 1, 2022).
According to a December 21, 2021 news story uploaded by the state-owned MRTV on its website, the minimum wage in Myanmar will remain unchanged at 4,800 kyats per day.
The rate of economic growth has plummeted following the military coup; thus the GNI in 2021 is expected to be worse than that in 2020. Therefore, if calculated based on the 2021 GNI of Myanmar citizens, then only utilising more than 5% will give access to 5G internet.
If we add the aforementioned minimum wage into the calculation, then at least 7% must be used to access 5G mobile broadband monthly. Inflation has led to high commodity prices and the coup is expected to create more conflict. Hence, the flow of goods has been delayed and transportation charges are higher. With no increase to the minimum wage, it is evident that access to the internet will fall drastically in the aftermath of the coup.
Lay Kay Kaw faces mobile network outages and internet cut-offs
Phone services were cut off in Lay Kay Kaw after the military council suffered high casualties against the KNU on December 19.
Just as the military council is trying to restrict internet usage through various means, on one hand, it continues to employ old methods, such as cutting off internet connections in areas where fighting and conflict are increasing.
Summary of digital oppression issues in January 2022
- SIM card tax increased to 13 times the SIM’s value and income tax for internet service providers raised to 15%
- Phone services cut off in Sagaing region
- Internet and phone services cut off in Hpapun, Kayin state
- Mobile data prices further raised
- Military-backed company Shwe Byain Phyu and M1 Group approved for the joint acquisition of Telenor Myanmar
It is the New Year for countries around the world in January 2022 and the month for hope and shaping the future through innovation and creativity. However, for Myanmar, this means the country is closer to the anniversary of the military coup when each citizen’s hope, dreams, and future were destroyed by inhumane military leaders.
SIM card tax increased to 13 times the SIM’s value and income tax for internet service providers raised to 15%
On January 6, 2022, the law that amends the Union Tax Law (UTL) stated that “SIM card sales and SIM card activation services shall be subject to a one-time commercial tax at the rate of 20,000 kyats per SIM card.” The tax is more than thirteen times the original value of the SIM card.
It has not been found before that the tax law currently in use in Myanmar stipulates a charge that is more than ten times the value of a commodity (should you wish to review the tax law). In addition, the new UTL raised the income tax for internet service providers (ISPs) to 15%.
The military council enacted the UTL on September 30, 2021, following the coup. The recent supplementary amendment also includes a table of relaxations related to tax collection on undisclosed sources of income. Therefore, it is obvious that this amendment aims to limit the use of SIM cards and internet usage.
The military council’s press release on the increased tax for ISPs gives absurd reasons for the increase. It said this action will raise the state’s income and reduce the harmful effects of extreme internet usage which can affect a person’s livelihood and hamper the physical and mental health of young students. According to the findings of the report “Exploring the Relationship Between Broadband and Economic Growth” published on the World Bank’s website, a 10 percentage point increase in broadband penetration would increase GDP by 1.21% in developed countries and 1.38% in developing countries. Therefore, it can be seen that the current reasoning of the military council is quite detached from practical logic.
Phone services cut off in Sagaing region
Phone services were cut off in Kani, Pale, Budalin, Yinmarbin, Ayadaw, and Pinlebu townships of Sagaing region on September 7 and local residents told Khit Thit Media that they are unable to even send an SMS. There is heightened tension between the military council and revolutionary forces in Sagaing.
There have been incidents of mobile internet services being cut off in the past but in recent activities, we can see that phone and SMS services are being cut off as well.
Internet and phone services cut off in Hpapun, Kayin state
In previous cases, it was common to see that only mobile phone internet lines were cut, but in recent operations, phone calls and text (SMS) services are also being cut.
Mobile data prices further raised
The military council amended the Union Tax Law on December 8, 2021, and raised the income tax of ISPs to 15% in order to further oppress mobile internet users who are facing difficulties due to the doubling of mobile data prices. This prompted ISPs to message customers informing them that mobile phone internet service prices will increase again in the coming days, starting around January 16.
After the text messages were sent, the mobile internet prices were changed by various telcos with new prices and revised services. If you compare the mobile internet prices recorded on January 18, you can see that Ooredoo users used to pay only 899 kyats for “450 MB” but now it costs 999 kyats. For Telenor users, they were able to buy 500 MB for 945 kyats but now they can only purchase 425 MB. Customers could spend 1,999 kyats to purchase 1050 MB previously but that has been lowered to 965 MB.
According to the revised internet data prices, the minimum wage earners in Myanmar will only be able to spend around 8.6% of their income to use the 5G amount of internet each month. Before the military takeover, 1GB of Internet cost 1000 kyats, and it has now more than doubled.
Military-backed company Shwe Byain Phyu and M1 Group approved for the joint acquisition of Telenor Myanmar
Reuters news agency reported that the military council has allowed the joint purchase of Telenor Myanmar by the military-backed Shwe Byain Phyu company and the Lebanese-owned M1 Group. Various news outlets referred to the Reuters article on the uncertain fate of Telenor Myanmar.
News that cronies with close ties to the military are interested in acquiring Telenor first surfaced in November and Reuters reported on January 21 that Shwe Byain Phyu and M1 Group were given the green light to purchase the telco.
According to Reuters, “U Thein Win Zaw, Chairman of Shwe Byain Phyu Company, is also a director of Maha Yoma Public Company, which invested in the military-owned Mytel company.” Shwe Byain Phyu is a company backed by General Tin Aung San, the Minister of Transport and Communications under the military council. A news report from the Irrawaddy news agency earlier this month revealed that there is competition between the two chiefs of the Navy regarding the purchase of Telenor Myanmar, according to a Myanmar Now news story about the sale of Telenor.
Should this sale go through, Myanmar’s telecommunications sector will be monopolised by the military and its affiliates, with the exception of Ooredoo.