This article is written by Phyo as part of EngageMedia’s Youth Advocacy and Communications for Internet Freedom project, which aims to expand awareness and engagement with digital rights issues among youth advocates in the Asia-Pacific.
Phyo, a dedicated young professional with a Bachelor’s degree in Public Administration, has been actively involved in various capacities within youth-related projects. Her engagement has notably impacted both the local community and the larger Southeast Asia and Asia Pacific regions especially related to Internet issues, digital well-being, and digital security. Through a series of diverse roles, including crafting influential articles, the author has consistently strived to positively influence the youth community. Notably, her involvement in a youth fact-checking group in 2021 stands as a testament to her commitment to supporting the local community through her youth-owned platform. She is actively involved in the ASEAN youth community amplifying Myanmar’s Internet issues representing Myanmar’s youth community.
Myanmar has been embroiled in a multifaceted crisis since February 2021, grappling with a dictatorship that pervades both physical and digital realms. Amid escalating civil conflicts in various regions and violent suppression of protests, the situation remains dire over two years into the military takeover.
On March 13, 2023, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a press release highlighting concerns regarding the military junta orchestrating an online campaign of terror and exploiting social media to suppress democratic opposition. It has also been noted that pro-junta accounts use hateful and discriminatory rhetoric that especially targets women activists and human rights defenders.
Despite this, art, music, and cultural expressions have become vital tools in depicting and advocating for democratic values and human rights, with young individuals such as Dr. Tay Zar San taking a prominent role in advocacy and using various mediums to rally for democracy since the onset of the military coup.
Cyber Warfare: Myanmar’s Junta Exploits Social Media to Silence Dissent
The military junta has employed various tactics to control the digital space, clamp down on free speech, and arrest people expressing themselves online.
In 2023, Freedom House reported that the Myanmar military’s control over major service providers allows them to enforce strict rules on user registration, engage in widespread censorship, and conduct surveillance. It has also made concerted efforts to undermine internet access, leading to a rare global decline in internet penetration. After foreign-owned companies sold their operations, the military gained control over telecommunication providers, and the junta frequently employed localized shutdowns to hinder opposition activities. This control allowed for widespread surveillance without safeguards, restricting most users to a limited list of military-approved websites, with only a few able to bypass the extensive blocking.
In terms of internet freedom, Myanmar is No. 2 in the world for violations of internet freedom. This shows that the digital space is under a digital dictatorship. Two examples showed the repression of digital activism and restrictions on freedom of expression. In one case, a 38-year-old hip-hop artist based in Yangon live-streamed on Facebook complaints against the Ministry of Electricity and Energy regarding nationwide power outages. Three months later, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for incitement to overthrow the state. Another case features Ye Htut, the former information minister and presidential spokesperson of Myanmar’s previous military-supported administration, who was detained on October 28, 2023, after posting messages that indirectly criticised the military regime and its leadership, prompting calls from pro-junta groups for his arrest, as reported by Irrawaddy.
Aside from arresting people over their social media comments, the military junta has also employed tactics such as impersonating activists on social media to locate them. In February 2022, security forces in Yangon detained at least 85 young protesters using such tactics, according to Radio Free Asia. This marked a significant increase in the number of protesters arrested in a single month in Yangon. While a few individuals have been released, the majority remain in detention at various police stations, and some have been sent to military interrogation camps. Most of those arrested had participated in the “Six Twos Revolution” strike, a form of resistance against the junta despite its harsh crackdown on dissent.
Targeted Harassment: Doxxing of Women Activists
Telegram, a popular messaging platform, has become a hotbed of pro-military activity due to its lax content moderation, enabling the spread of violent and misogynistic content. Women are often victims of “doxxing,” where private information is published without consent, accompanied by calls for violence or arrest.
In September 2023, a young female activist, a close friend of the author, was featured in the Han Nyein Oo Telegram Channel. She had been studying abroad since before the COVID-19 pandemic and the military coup in Myanmar. With a background in journalism, she is also a writer, translator, and a key figure in the Spring Revolution Movement. Due to her family’s history of political activism for democracy, they were compelled to flee Myanmar during the turbulent times of the military coup. Since the onset of the coup, she has actively engaged in various advocacy initiatives against the military regime, such as running campaigns on social media, supporting fellow activists, and initiating art-based fundraisers for democracy.
Unfortunately, in response to a post she shared on Facebook, her personal information – including contact details, full name, and a brief biography – was disclosed on the Han Nyein Oo military propaganda channel. This compelled her to deactivate her Facebook account and urge her close friends to monitor news about her on the platform. This incident had significant repercussions. One of her business partners, who also has local ties, was forced to flee due to the associated risks.
Preceding this case, another friend of the author had been reported in a military council propaganda Telegram channel. Her personal information, such as full name, phone number, and home address, along with the photo of her involvement in the protests at the coup’s onset in February 2021, were disclosed. Due to this, she was temporarily detained.
These incidents vividly underscore the danger and vulnerability that activists face in the digital realm, where personal information can swiftly become a tool for targeted harassment. The exposure of private details not only compromises individual safety but also imperils those connected to the activists.
Despite the military council’s attempts to regulate the dissemination of information through internet shutdowns and social media bans, activists have found ways to circumvent these restrictions, such as using virtual private networks to bypass censorship and relying on encrypted messaging platforms like Signal and Telegram to ensure secure communication. However, these measures are not completely fool-proof. In the face of severe digital repression and increasing dangers faced by activists, urgent measures must be taken to safeguard digital spaces and the individuals navigating them. Comprehensive and robust digital protection measures are imperative, especially considering the vulnerability of activists whose personal information is being exploited to incite targeted harassment.
Social Media and Digital Activism Amid Legal Restrictions
Another weapon in the junta’s arsenal is using law amendments and policies to criminalise activism and dissent. On February 15, 2021, the “Amendment” to the Electronic Transactions Law (ETL) of Myanmar was publicly announced via state television by the State Administrative Council of Myanmar. Under Section 38C of the Electronic Transactions Law, it is considered an offence to spread false or misleading information in cyberspace with the intention of inciting public fear, eroding trust, or fostering social discord.
This legal restriction affects the estimated 29 million social media users in Myanmar. It also impacts Myanmar’s political landscape, as social media platforms like Facebook are the main source of information and communication for many in the country. Activists and citizens used social media to share information and videos about protests, repression, and human rights abuses. It helped draw global attention to the situation in Myanmar. Civil society groups and independent news outlets have used digital platforms to counter state-controlled media and propaganda. Crowdsourcing platforms and mapping applications have also been used to monitor protests and human rights violations. Online petitions and social media campaigns have been launched to garner international support and pressure governments and organisations to take action against the military.
One such example of a prominent digital movement arose from the case of Kyal Zin, who was shot on the spot by security forces during the riot in Mandalay in 2021. The phrase on the teen’s T-shirt, “Everything will be ok,” went viral on social media and even the We Click YouTube Channel uploaded a song named “Star, Kyal in Burmese” which was produced as a tribute to the fallen heroes of the 2021 Spring Revolution.
We Click is a YouTube Channel that creates video content to raise funds for Myanmar’s revolutionary movements. Student unions and some student groups also responded to the coup by issuing and publishing statements on social media. The hashtag campaigns such as #WhatsHappeninginMyanmar were also effective in calling international attention to the situation in the country using social media platforms at that time.
Youth Action against the Dictatorship
Since the coup, Myanmar youth have been active in resistance movements, awareness campaigns, and other forms of protest and dissent against the junta.
Several young individuals operate anonymously, disseminating information about the current situation in Myanmar to the international community via articles. Simultaneously, others engage in collaborative initiatives with youth organisations or individuals to bolster educational support and aid activists in addressing digital security concerns. For instance, the Burma Academy, an all-encompassing, not-for-profit educational platform established by Myanmar students, provides complimentary online educational resources for students within Myanmar. Additionally, various youth-led digital security helplines and platforms focusing on capacity building extend support not only to local youth activists but also to the broader youth community, aiming to mitigate potential risks in the digital sphere concurrent with their activism.
In conclusion, despite facing immense dangers and navigating through a digital landscape fraught with challenges, these young activists remain unwavering in their commitment to safeguarding human and digital rights. Their tenacity in mobilising against the dictatorship, coupled with their innovative use of technology for advocacy, emphasises the critical role that international support plays in bolstering their cause. It is imperative that the global community stands in solidarity with Myanmar’s youth, offering both moral and practical support, to ensure their voices resonate across borders and that the struggle for democracy prevails.
- United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2023, March). Myanmar: Social media companies must stand up to Junta’s online terror campaign, say [Press release]. OHCHR. https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/03/myanmar-social-media-companies-must-stand-juntas-online-terror-campaign-say [Accessed 27 October 2023].
- The Irrawaddy. (2023, October 30). Myanmar Junta Arrests Ex-Information Minister in Previous Military-Backed Govt. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-junta-arrests-ex-information-minister-in-previous-military-backed-govt.html [Accessed 30 October 2023].
- Radio Free Asia. (2022, March 3). Authorities in Yangon Posing as Activists Online Arrest Dozens. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/myanmar/arrests-03022022185117.html [Accessed 23 October 2023].
- State Administration Council. (2021). Law amending the Electronic Transaction Law (State Administration Council Law No. 07/2021). Myanmar Law Library. https://myanmar-law-library.org/law-library/laws-and-regulations/laws/myanmar-laws-1988-until-now/state-administration-council-2021/myanmar-laws-2021/state-administration-council-law-no-07-2021-law-amending-the-electronic.html [Accessed 20 October 2023].
- Freedom House. (2023). Myanmar: Freedom on the Net 2023 Country Report. https://freedomhouse.org/country/myanmar/freedom-net/2023 [Accessed 20 October 2023].
- Kemp, S. (2021, February 12). Digital in Myanmar: All the Statistics You Need in 2021 – DataReportal – Global Digital Insights. DataReportal. https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2021-myanmar [Accessed 2 November 2023].
- YouTube. (2021, August 20). Star. https://youtu.be/JQcTolwptt8?si=my9g1x3iosHKZoFk [Accessed 2 November 2023].