EngageMedia is publishing English translations of the Myanmar Digital Coup Quarterly produced by the Myanmar Internet Project. This post covers updates between February to April 2023 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.
It is now the first quarter into the third year of the coup in Myanmar. The military council has been using several methods to oppress the digital space, and this has been researched and documented. Undeniable and reliable facts support this.
During this three-month period, the military council’s digital crackdown includes curtailing pro-democracy online activities through pro-military lobby channels, cutting mobile phone networks, arresting and threatening the students and parents who joined National Unity Government (NUG)-affiliated schools, enacting laws that allow surveillance of online communication alongside a law for counter-terrorism acts, and implementing the Electronic Identification (EID) system for citizens’ information. Digital oppression has worsened to the point that Myanmar was among the countries with the highest number of internet shutdowns in 2022, according to Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition.
This article summarises the digital oppression incidents that occurred between February to April 2023 (a three-month period).
Summary of digital oppression issues in February 2023
- Misuse of data retrieved from detainees’ mobile phones
- Cutting off phone networks
- Leaking FOEIM student lists
- Other related issues in the digital field
Misuse of data retrieved from detainees’ mobile phones
A military lobby channel named “PDF channel” released sexually explicit footage which seems to have been obtained from the phones of women arrested on February 1. That channel continues to search the social media accounts of women who support anti-junta activities and release their sexually oriented photos.
Cutting off phone networks
Phone lines were cut off in Shwe Pyi Aye town, Homalin township in the Sagaing region after air strikes were reported there on February 3, according to Khit Thit media. Since the coup, the junta council has used several methods to cut off internet and phone lines to halt information flow. On February 7, a fire broke out at the MPT exchange office in Mayangone township of Yangon, and MPT’s phone lines and internet connections were cut from 10 am until evening.
Leaking FOEIM student lists
The information of more than 300 students attending the “Free Online Educational Institution Myanmar-FOEIM”, which is affiliated with the NUG’s education ministry with the purpose of providing continuing education for students, was leaked on February 21.
Junta lobbyists claimed that they had the information of 300 students from FOEIM, such as their names, phone numbers, emails, Telegram numbers, and their father’s names; they threatened to leak them and asked for money. As a result of this incident, some parents were arrested, and their properties were confiscated. Previously in July 2022, some teachers were arrested after student lists from another NUG education ministry-affiliated school, Kaung For You (KFU), were leaked.
These actions of the military council are threats to the freedom of education of young people, violating their basic human rights.
Other related issues in the digital field
In addition to the above issues, the Facebook page of NUG’s acting president Duwa Lashi La was hacked; the junta council is implementing the electronic voting system; the Fifth Column announced that they obtained a military list of 200,000 individuals who have participated in civil disobedience movements (known as CDMers). The military is using this list to prevent those on it from leaving the country. The Fifth Column suggests people contact them to check if their names are on the list.
Summary of digital oppression issues in March 2023
- Electronic interception legalised along with the counter-terrorism act
- Myanmar tops list of countries with most internet shutdowns
- Arbitrary arrests via surveillance on social media networks
- Junta announces registration of SIM cards
Electronic interception legalised along with the counter-terrorism act
The military council released the counter-terrorism law on March 1. Section 14 of the law includes provisions on electronic interception, restrictions, and verification of location. It aims to provide a lawful framework for allowing interception and restricting public information along telecoms. (Check and read the related information of the law here.) On the same day that the law was promulgated, the military council threatened to take action against the parents and students enrolled in online schools run by the National Unity Government under the counter-terrorism law.
Myanmar tops list of countries with most internet shutdowns
Myanmar has been experiencing various forms of internet shutdowns since the coup. There were temporary internet blackouts and restrictions on popular social media platforms, which continue until today. Moreover, mobile phone lines are often shut down in conflict areas where fighting is active between the junta council and resistance forces. Phone lines have been cut in Matupi, Chin state, since January 7 this year, and local residents are experiencing information blackouts and difficulties to buy food, according to Myanmar Now. Although those incidents are happening, on March 15, military lobbyists are calling to cut off phone lines at the military operation areas.
Due to digital oppressions of the military council, Myanmar topped the list of countries with the most number of internet shutdowns in 2022, according to a report from Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition. Due to the military council’s human rights violations, the End-User Review Committee, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Export Administration, Bureau of Industry and Security, and Department of Commerce added FISCA Security & Communication Co., Ltd., Ministry of Transport and Communications, and Naung Yoe Technologies Co., Ltd. to its blacklist.
Myanmar has experienced internet shutdowns not only after the coup but also during the civilian government. The internet shutdown in Rakhine has also been recorded as the world’s longest internet shutdown.
Arbitrary arrests via surveillance on social media networks
Lately, the military council has not only shut down the internet and mobile networks but also led a crackdown on social media networks. Military lobbyists investigate social media users believed to be supporters of the anti-military regime and arrested them.
Several arrests happened within a week in the Tanintharyi region, a martial law area. According to a Thanintaryi news report on March 5, many people were arrested due to their relation and donation records to the resistance forces.
Ma Zin Moh Moh Phyu, who works at a retail shop, was arrested for sharing the posts of Khin U Local Guerrilla Force, according to a Chindwin news agency report on March 7.
A woman in Pyay, Bago region and another woman in Pathein was arrested for sharing anti-regime posts on Facebook, according to a Chindwin news agency report on March 9.
The editor-in-chief of Narinjara news outlet, who has been on the run in fear of arrest, has had a lawsuit against him filed under the telecommunication law. Additionally, some parents who enrolled their children at FOEIM were arrested.
Junta announces registration of SIM cards
The junta’s communication department announced on the evening of March 13 that phone SIM cards need to be registered, and if not done within 30 days, these SIM cards will be deactivated.
According to the announcement, the information on the registered SIM cards will be scrutinised by the junta’s immigration department, and incomplete registration will have to be re-registered within 30 days. If this is not done, those SIM cards will be permanently blocked after 90 days.
Mobile users have been receiving SMS notices for registration.
Summary of digital oppression issues in April 2023
- Junta’s threats and actions on online expression
- Surveillance and controlling people’s movements
- Shutting down network connections
Junta’s threats and actions on online expression
The military council has not only tried to intercept the public’s digital communications but has also tried to make arrests based on people’s online posts. They are installing fear in the public and have been systematically doing so since the coup.
The junta’s lobbyists have shared information and photos of the people to be arrested on social media networks. These include images of celebrities and influencers. By doing so, they spread fear among the public.
Within the month, the military-affiliated Telegram channels have also been spreading threats among the public by re-sharing people’s online expressions.
This month, 11 people, including media worker Kyaw Min Swe, singer May La Thansin, and actors May Pachi and Shwe Yi Thein Tan, were arrested and charged under section 505 for expressing their sorrow on social media networks regarding the air strikes on Pazi Gyi village last April 11 and 12. Five houses in Hinthada township were sealed off for allegedly supporting PDF, based on their social media posts. Fifteen people, including 13 women, were arrested for allegedly providing education support affiliated with the NUG, according to the military announcement.
In addition, the notorious military lobby Telegram channel Han Nyein Oo demanded on April 13 to restrict artists’ travel before the Myanmar film academy ceremony and to confiscate their properties. On April 17, military lobby channels threatened to seal off the houses of those doing a blackout strike to express their condolences to the victims of the airstrike attack on PaZi Gyi village.
The junta council announced via their newspaper on April 24 that legal actions will be taken against those who play the PDF games designed to collect funds for the resistance.
Surveillance and controlling people’s movements
While the military council is working to instil fear among the public using several methods, they have also started trying to monitor and control the people’s movements.
Since April 3, independent taxis are required to register at the Grab Company, which can monitor passenger trips, in order to run their services at the Yangon International Airport under the pretext of security.
An announcement regarding the collection of biometric data for electronic registration among the residents of townships within Nay Pyi Taw council was made on April 3.
Thailand’s Chiang Mai consular office announced on April 20 that Myanmar citizens residing in Thailand would need a police recommendation letter, an administrative recommendation letter, and also a civic officer’s recommendation letter along with a self-written detailed report in order to extend their passports.
Shutting down network connections
The wi-fi lines of Atom (the new name of Telenor after their exit from Myanmar) and MPT were temporarily down on April 17 in Hakah town of Chin state, according to Chinland News. It has been more than four months since the mobile networks of all four telecom operators MPT, Oredoo, Atom, and Mytel were shut down in Mindat, Matupi and Kanpatlat. Cable phone lines in Matupi town were also shut down since early March.