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Surveillance regime and threats to privacy: Digital authoritarianism in Myanmar

This post is also available in: Myanmar

Digital technologies, policies, and other measures of control were enacted during the pandemic. The justification was to increase public safety and guard a so-called ‘new normal’ of mandatory vaccinations, mask-wearing, and physical distancing. Today, the majority of the Asia Pacific has returned to the ‘old normal’, but the surveillance mechanisms – technological, regulatory, and ideological – remain.

This second compilation of the Pandemic of Control series focuses on the lasting impact of the COVID-19 crisis on digital rights and tells the continuing story of digital authoritarianism in the Asia Pacific.


The COVID-19 pandemic in Myanmar ushered in new practices and the quick adoption of digital tools. Messages to wash hands often, avoid crowded places, and wear face masks were all too frequent, both in offline and online campaigns. To cope with limited contact with friends and family, people turned to technology: online shopping and live streaming quickly became popular, and people sent food deliveries and donations to each other to show love and concern.

Technology helped the people of Myanmar cope with the pandemic. But the February 2021 coup saw the military junta take advantage of these same tools and technologies to curb dissent and support for revolutionary forces. To this day, the junta continues to strengthen its grip over the people of Myanmar through various tools and practices of surveillance that had been deployed concurrently with the health crisis.

Risks to personal data

February 1, 2021, marked the day Myanmar again lost its independence. In response, people began protests to restore public power and civil rights and resist the military junta’s attempts to control people and stifle free expression through violent suppression.

These efforts, however, were met with restrictions on online speech and threats to privacy and security. Two weeks after the coup, the Electronic Transactions Law was amended, creating vaguely-defined crimes related to online speech and expanding government agencies’ access to personal data. Since the coup, people have been persecuted for attempting to spread critical information on social media pages to expose the junta’s rights abuses. In one case, a man who uploaded photos about airstrikes got arrested. News of other such arrests and issuance of warrants rapidly spread among the people. There were reports that people’s personal information was breached, with the junta able to access phone data and social media comments to identify critics.

In September 2020, there were reports about cyberattacks targeting Myanmar’s COVID-19 QR pass system, which was used by essential workers for travel during a nationwide lockdown. Security experts say the system was not designed with security in mind and left the personal data of thousands of Burmese citizens at risk. One concerned citizen said he was “quite shocked to see the travel records of people who returned from abroad without our knowledge.”

Targeting the financial system

Due to the pandemic, online payments and banking became ubiquitous. Almost everyone in Myanmar was using e-banking or mobile banking applications and programs such as Wave Money and KBZPay. These were used not just to pay for daily expenses and receive salaries, but also to help other people in need through online donations.

For example, many people completed donations and offerings through online banking at a festival at Thadingyut, Tan Saung Taing, and other full moon festivals. Thousands of Lakhs were collected and sent online as part of the cultural tradition. Ko Kyaw Kyaw, who mostly used KBZPay for his online shop, said, “Some people give only one kyat. We know that one kyat can not do much but we are happy to receive it. People open mobile bank accounts with their phone numbers and wait the whole night without sleeping [to find out who remembered them].”

As the Spring Revolution gained momentum, people started fundraising for the armed resistance group People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) and disaster relief programs to cover food, medical needs, and other necessities. In response, the regime’s military council started taking action to halt the flow of money transfers and arrest supporters of the resistance movement.

According to a report from The Irrawaddy, the junta ordered banks and mobile money service providers to keep records of the people using their services to transfer or receive money. New users were required to provide personal details, such as photos of their citizenship ID card, to open an account. Banks were also ordered to increase surveillance by “installing CCTV or secretly taking pictures” of their customers.

There are fears that this information could be used to monitor, trace and arrest critics. According to a senior bank employee who is still working in Myanmar, “The banks and its processes are under the control of the government. So when the military council asks for information, it is given.”

In the case of Hanny (pseudonym), his personal data provided to banks ended up on Telegram, where pro-junta supporters dox and circulate the information of those suspected to be supporting the revolutionary forces.

“You can’t trust people even if they say they are bank employees. I ran away from home after someone told me that my name was on the Telegram channel, which supporters of the army reported as suspicious. I can’t get arrested now. I still want to do everything I can for the revolution,” Hanny said.

Over 700 mobile bank accounts have been closed for allegedly funding anti-junta forces, according to Radio Free Asia. Some accounts were taken over by the military while others were under investigation. A lawyer who helps political prisoners in Insein Prison in Yangon said, “The Kpay accounts of revolutionaries are traced. The names and numbers that appear on the phones of revolutionaries are in danger. If someone is using his or her phone number for a long time, he or she should be more careful because the attacks of the military council can come to us very easily.”

Even money transfer agents who were not actively involved in political movements were affected. In Sanchaung Township, Yangon, a woman who works as a money transfer agent initially went to the police station to report a client who did not pay a loan. But the client allegedly told the police that the woman was a supporter of the PDF, according to a district lawyer. Instead of arresting the person who did not pay the loan, the money transfer agent was arrested.

In Myanmar, if someone supports a terrorist group, he or she will be charged with “financing terrorism” under Clause (J), of Article (50) in the Counter-Terrorism Law enacted in June 2014. A person who is merely suspected of violating this law cannot be released on bail. The minimum punishment is 10 years and the maximum is a life sentence.

The mandatory registration of SIM cards and access to databases has also been instrumental for the junta in tracking down the people that received transferred money. In September 2022, the Department of Post and Telecommunications, under the junta’s Ministry of Transport and Communications, announced that SIM cards must be registered with a national ID card or risk cancellation. It added that authorities will check the registration data against the National Database of the Ministry of Immigration and Population.

SIM card registration data connected to mobile banking, and a push to register mobile phones’ International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) codes, allow for greater surveillance and tracking of individuals, according to Htaike Htaike Aung, executive director of Myanmar ICT for Development Organization.

Foundations for future surveillance

Since the coup, the people of Myanmar have had to live under constant surveillance – not just from the military, but also its supporters. Ma Phyo (pseudonym) used to share information in an online chat group, but she didn’t realise the dangers of her personal information being revealed in such groups. Ma Phyo was arrested and imprisoned by military troops over a Facebook post where she wrote that she would “not go and enjoy the Thingyan” (Myanmar Water Festival). The person who reported her was from a pro-military Telegram channel organised by Burmese influencer Han Nyein Oo, notorious for doxing junta critics on Telegram. This incident, among others, poses a concern to people as they believed Telegram was a more secure option than alternatives like WhatsApp.

As the use of digital technologies flourished during the pandemic, so too did the junta’s authoritarian practices. It has emboldened the government to expand its digital dictatorship, such as by reintroducing a draconian cybersecurity law. The military regime is also exploring the creation of its own social media applications to further control digital spaces. One such app is OKPar, which is described as the “official social application in Myanmar.” Designed to be a copy of Facebook, the app has a news feed and messaging features. While the app claims to be secure, an analysis from a Sweden-based digital forensics group Qurium warns of the potential for “serious data leaks that will allow anyone with access to the network infrastructure to track the location of any identity”. Considering the regime’s track record of surveillance, it is also likely that personal information provided by users signing up on the app will be collected and conversations monitored.

Conclusion

The people of Myanmar like Ma Phyo spend their whole day under surveillance. They live with the fear that constant surveillance brings. This describes the nature of life under the junta.

Technology is often described as a liberating tool for the oppressed who need a tool to spread information and organise like-minded people. But the situation in Myanmar shows that it can be a double-edged sword, enabling the military to track and collect details on those that resist or critique their rule. Furthermore, an entire legal apparatus exists that supports and encourages the violation of rights related to the military’s regulation of technology. Therefore, it is incumbent on any revolutionary movement to develop protocols and procedures around engaging with technology.

Mi-Kun (pseudonym) is a Myanmar journalist who fled his home country because of his work as an independent journalist.