This article was written 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.
Note: All names and sources, including the author’s, have been changed, withheld, or kept anonymous due to security concerns. The information cited here is from October 2023.
Thumbnail photo: Barricades in downtown Yangon in 2021. Photo by Maung Sun, used via Wikimedia Commons.
Data only as of October 2023
Since the February 2021 coup d’etat, police stations and military buildings are now protected by ramshackle palisades – sharp bamboo spikes imposed over the original fences and boundaries. The occupants of these buildings claimed to protect the population in former times, a bold façade supported by the discomfiting “MAY I HELP YOU” emblazoned across public entrances. Yet in the thousand days since the coup, nearly 5,000 citizens have died at their hands, as reported by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma (AAPP).
Shoddy concrete structures have become a common and menacing sight in Myanmar. Cropping up along the sides of roads, some of these structures are formidable forts, supported by sandbags and bordered by barbed wire. Others are far smaller, held together shabbily by recycled green shade cloth. They have small, rectangular openings from which firearms can protrude. The military is using these pillboxes as watchtowers and strongholds from which they can erratically impose checkpoints on civilians, subjecting them to bullying, intimidation, and arbitrary arrest.
Ordinary people put themselves at risk every time they pass through a checkpoint. At every crossing, the military can arrest you just for having a certain number on your national ID card. The procedure at checkpoints is unpredictable but typically includes the scrutiny of national ID cards, followed by demands to see a person’s phone, whereby security forces will trawl through the person’s photos and Facebook. In the early days of the coup, it was commonplace for people to post photos of the demonstrations taking place in the streets. Security forces stop civilians for interrogation, and grounds for arrest can be simply when soldiers perceive a lack of respect.
In producing this article, the writers interviewed civilians, activists, lawyers, and other rights advocates to share their personal experiences with these checkpoints, and how their rights were violated due to these military measures.
Firsthand accounts from Burmese civilians
According to an express bus driver interviewed for this article, youths are the main targets at the checkpoints. If a young person leaves for a trip without their national ID, they will be screened and scrutinized for longer than usual. Even if found innocent, these youth would be asked for payment to pass, ranging from 10,000 to 100,000 kyats.
According to the lawyer of one U Naing*, his client “was taken to the interrogation centre for talking arrogantly to the police while they searched his phone. Everyone has been involved in the revolution at some point after the coup, and the police discovered from his phone that U Naing had once spoken out about it. It didn’t matter that he had deleted the posts – everything he had deleted was restored when the police checked his phone with a special app”.
Ko Myo*, who often travels to and from Sagaing Region and Chin State for work, reported that if the security forces found posts of participation in protests, or even pictures of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the ousted democratic leader, he would be beaten and arrested at once. Every time he travels, he lies awake at night, afraid of his smartphone being checked at the security gates. Once, he was asked for his personal history check one day and he couldn’t sleep well that night worrying that they would come to his house and arrest him.
A friend of his was also once beaten, arrested, and sentenced to two years in prison because of a photo on their phone. “At checkpoints from the mountains, a female was once investigated and she was unmarried. It was known later that the security forces made her stay at the gate. At a checkpoint in Myaing, the forces made a female kiss them. Then they asked for her number and interrupted her at nighttime”, Ko Myo said.
Discrimination against certain regions
Military checkpoints of this nature can be traced back to the COVID-19 pandemic; travellers during the pandemic lockdowns had to pass their COVID tests at the city gates to prevent local transmission. Every checkpoint has five to ten security personnel on average. Interrogation gates can be found at the entrance of a city, beside the highway roads, and famous places. Sometimes, security forces just casually stopped the people for the interrogation. Many civilians have since been arrested during the interrogation at the checkpoints with the issue of talking or treating them back arrogantly.
The main things the military forces ask from those who pass through the gates are National ID cards and smartphones. Security is more likely to investigate those whose National IDs begin with 5/ (which means they are from the Sagaing region of Myanmar) or 8/ (from the Magway region). Both these regions are currently putting up the strongest resistance to the military.
“Investigations are stricter in the small towns such as Yaw, Saw, and Pakokku where the resistance to the Junta is so strong compared to urban areas. It’s a problem if you have your phone in hand at a checkpoint. You have to put the phone in a luggage or something. There are some cases where smartphones were confiscated”, said Ko Phyo Aung, a marketer who have to travel around the country.
Many civilians from Sagaing or Magway have been jailed under different sections of the law after being detained at a checkpoint, according to lawyer Daw Thiri. “Delete all the things related to political issues in your phone because it can harm your life. Buy a new phone if it’s possible. Do not use all your previous accounts”, Daw Thiri advised.
A firsthand experience of the ordeal of checkpoints
Our team interviewed a Burmese woman who recently traveled to Myawaddy for work, and who experienced all of these difficulties and rights violations.
Before the coup, she was not aware of digital security and didn’t care about giving away her birthdate or home address. But after the coup, she had learned a lot about digital security. She now follows news about the revolution closely. Every time she travels, she has to delete some applications: Facebook, Signal, Telegram. Some applications allow her to back up data, but some applications like Signal don’t, so she loses data every time she travels. This is not to mention the burden of backing up the data ahead of the trip which she had to use the internet. Many parts of Myanmar face internet cuts.
“It was really tiring for me to go on a trip these days”, she said. “Sometimes I stay up the whole night before the trip to clear my devices. Also, I lose my data every time I travel.”
She has at least five SIM cards to change for different functions such as one SIM for online payment and another SIM card for other issues. But this could be more convenient. She said it would be safer and more convenient if she had two mobile phones so she could take ‘the clean’ one for the trip and another one to use and follow the revolution.
And that is just the beginning. The bus ride from Yangon to Myawaddy takes nine hours and the bus with 40 passengers was stopped for checkpoints four to five times. The passengers had to show their ID cards and their mobile phones. The officers checked them very closely, especially at Hpa-An. One time, she and the passengers got off the bus and went into the tent.
Six officers checked each passenger’s phone gallery and Facebook account. “If you have photos related to politics, the spring revolution, or even a shared Facebook post, you will be in trouble and cannot leave the place”, they said.
How to stay safe during checkpoints
Daw Thiri, who assists those charged by the military, advises civilians to know the law: The cases that can be prosecuted by the military under the Anti-Terrorism Law include:
- Participation in the revolution
- Possession of explosive weapons
- Being associated with the People’s Defense Forces
- Withholding information related to the People’s Defense Forces
- Provision of temporary accommodation for the People’s Defense Forces
- Donating money to the People’s Defense Forces,
If you have helped a person who has been issued a warrant and that person is later arrested and comes up with your name during the interrogation, you can be arrested and charged at any time.
“Someone can tell your name during an interrogation at some point. If that happens, your house will be sealed. Almost everyone has done something to resist the military, and there might be some evidence of you having done it. So do not leave evidence in your phone. Delete everything related”, they said. “During the coup d’état, there were people who had to find a way out by pretending to be politically connected. “There are people who have changed their lives and grown up because they got everything they gave during the inspection”.
A reporter from Yangon who travels around Myanmar offers more advice: “When I travel, I prepare as much as I can. I take two phones. One is a keypad phone. Because it’s a keypad, they can’t find anything. If there’s no keypad phone, there’s another way. I kind of deleted everything about the revolution from my current phone”, they said. “If I’m going to travel back, I save the data on the internet like cloud storage. I download it again when I get to where I want to go. There are other ways. It’s not convenient to tell, because if I tell, the army will find out and easily arrest me”.