Shona Loong summarises the views of three commentators on Myanmar’s post-coup digital culture.
Since the 1 February 2021 coup, Myanmar’s military has clamped down on internet use in the country. What repressive tactics did the coup regime use, and did they succeed? How can tech companies and donors respond to emerging digital cultures in post-coup Myanmar? This commentary sums up arguments made by three panellists at RightsCon 2021 on the coup regime’s use of the Internet and key areas of civil society resistance. The panel was hosted by the SecDev Foundation, a Canadian non-profit that supports digital safety research, training, and outreach in support of better digital futures for all.
‘The military knew perfectly well that the Internet is vital to their struggle for legitimacy,’ said Alex Aung Khant, a researcher and independent consultant. Alex was speaking alongside Myo Min Aung, a digital rights activist and a former programme manager of the Myanmar ICT [Information and Communication Technology] for Development Organisation (MIDO), and Saijai Liangpunsakul, a tech organizer who worked at a Yangon-based technology hub before the coup.
The three panelists gathered online on 9 June 2021 at RightsCon, an annual global conference on human rights in the digital age. They discussed the ways in which the State Administration Council (SAC, the title assumed by the military coup party), protesters, and the private sector are dealing with Myanmar’s evolving digital landscape following the 1st February coup. The panel made clear that Myanmar has developed a vibrant, post-coup digital culture that contests the SAC’s repressive tactics. However, the anti-coup movement remains constrained by knowledge gaps pertaining to the military’s surveillance capacity. The panellists also called on tech companies and donors to consider their role in maintaining citizens’ access to the internet.
Internet shutdowns are the best-known of the SAC’s digital repression strategies. Shortly after the coup, the military blocked access to the Internet. Thereafter, nightly internet blackouts occurred for at least seventy consecutive nights. By April 2021, the SAC had blocked all means of accessing the internet apart from those using fiber optic cable. This means that most of Myanmar’s population—who rely on less costly mobile networks and broadband connections—can no longer access the Internet. Fiber optic cables have also been working at greatly reduced speeds.
While panellists called attention to the internet shutdowns, they nuanced the narrative that the SAC had gained sudden and complete control over Myanmar’s cyberspace. For one, Myo highlighted that internet blackouts did not begin with the coup. Between June 2019 and February 2021, the NLD government imposed them in nine townships in Rakhine and Chin State amid intense armed conflict. MIDO and Phandeeyar, among other organisations, lobbied for an end to the shutdown, which only ceased a day after the coup. It was likely that the military had been ‘practising’ for the coup in Rakhine State, Myo said. In November 2020, Phyu Phyu Kyaw, an Information Controls Fellow of the Open Technology Fund, had already unveiled substantial levels of online censorship and surveillance during NLD rule. Repression strategies documented in this research prefigure numerous strategies used en masse in the post-coup period, such as the seizure of digital devices and targeted website blocks.
Panellists also highlighted the substantial resources that had been poured into digital repression before the coup. Alex discussed the Tatmadaw’s investments in surveillance technologies, likely to have been imported from China, Europe, and the US. He was particularly concerned about the installation of Chinese facial recognition technologoy in public spaces, which were to be rolled out in Mandalay, Naypyidaw, and Yangon between 2020 and 2021—the three cities associated with the most vibrant protests and the harshest crackdowns. Citing the aforementioned research by Phyu Phyu Kyaw, Myo also stated that the NLD government had spent USD 4.6 million on social media monitoring tools in 2017. He also stated that despite approximately USD 4 million allocated to implement a lawful interception system between 2019-2020, such a system still does not exist. Lawful interception refers to legal frameworks that delimit the extent to which governments have access to private communications between citizens, usually to solve criminal cases. In Myanmar, the absence of such safeguards gives the SAC free rein to spy on citizens without any legal repercussions. In all, there was little doubt among the panellists that the SAC’s anxieties over the Internet were practiced and premeditated.
However, Myo added that a narrow focus on Internet shutdowns diverts attention from other kinds of digital repression. At checkpoints, SAC officials check peoples’ digital devices to identify whether they pose a threat to the coup regime. ‘The first thing they check is Facebook, then [photo] galleries and Messenger,’ Myo said, ‘they search every possible kind of content. If these officials see anything offensive to the military coup, they arrest [the device’s owner].’ Youths travelling in groups through checkpoints are at particular risk of being harassed in this way, as the SAC presumes that younger people are protesters. Saijai added that phone checks conducted by the SAC are one of the key concerns of activists and journalists. ‘This technique has created fear among the people,’ she said—not only among high-level protesters, but also for regular civilians who are concerned that their phones may incriminate them.
The panellists concurred that digital repression in Myanmar was incomplete, highlighting two challenges that the military faces in imposing complete controls over the internet. Firstly, the SAC is caught in what Stephen Feldstein calls the “dictator’s digital dilemma”: an authoritarian regime’s trade-off between the gains derived from repression and a loss of benefits they accrue from free access to the Internet. Alex pointed out that contrary to popular belief, the internet was not shut down in the early hours of 1 February, while the putsch was taking place, as the military used the internet to coordinate between coup-makers. The internet was only cut at about 7.30 am to stem immediate public outcry. The nightly internet blackouts instituted from 6 February, between approximately 1 am and 9 am, were also a response to the SAC’s digital dilemma. According to Alex, these too were a result of the junta’s struggle to maintain a business-friendly image, by allowing businesses to use the internet during regular working hours, while pursuing a countervailing desire to propagate fear, terrorize civilians, and disrupt protest coordination at night.
In addition, military operations require the internet. A blanket internet shutdown would make it impossible for troops to communicate, and would hamper the morale of foot soldiers. ‘We’ve all seen soldiers taking rest, on their phones, going through TikTok videos,’ Alex said. These videos are not innocuous: photos and death threats posted on social media have allowed the military to spread a culture of impunity within its ranks. The SAC’s economic interests and legitimacy among its troops depends on some measure of access to the internet, making a complete shutdown unlikely.
The question is whether the SAC can implement sophisticated controls which maximize forms of internet usage that serve business and military interests, while minimizing the internet’s capacity for engendering resistance. The panellists pointed out a second challenge that the SAC faces: namely, that it currently lacks the means to formulate an overarching surveillance strategy. According to Myo, even though a full picture of the military’s surveillance capacities remains unavailable, ‘one thing is for sure: [the SAC] are very keen to buy hardware and to install software. But the team’s capacity to direct and utilize those resources is very questionable… They lack a strategy.’ Myo implied that the SAC appears to be throwing money at the problem, rather than coming up with a forward-thinking strategy. As a result, they consistently underestimate the population’s adaptability and resilience.
The SAC’s lack of overarching strategy is evident in the scattershot manner in which it has implemented digital repression in the five months since the coup. First, they blocked all internet access at specific times. Then, they brought the internet back online while blacklisting specific websites, most notably Facebook and Twitter. More recently, since May 2021 the military has shifted to a “whitelisting” strategy, enabling access to specific apps such as Zoom, LinkedIn, and various mobile banking applications, via mobile data. Other forms of internet use still require fibre connection, while the aforementioned blacklisted websites, like Facebook and Twitter, remain inaccessible without a Virtual Private Network (VPN). This ‘whitelisting’ of apps for mobile data usage is likely being practiced in the hopes of staving off an impending economic crisis. However, more crude tactics are still at work. During the National Unity Government’s first press conference on 4 June 2021, the SAC blocked internet access throughout the country. Myo expressed the need to better understand these haphazard tactics and the anti-coup movement’s hopes of circumventing them: ‘this is an area for us, activists and revolutionaries, to study more.’
In Myo’s words, ‘to answer the question: did the military succeed? I would say no.’ This is partly due to the SAC’s inability to navigate Feldstein’s “dictator’s digital dilemma”, but it can also be attributed to civilians’ ability to circumvent repression. In the face of repression, internet users across Myanmar have developed a thriving anti-coup digital culture through which they experiment with new protest tactics, engender community, and keep one another safe.
The creativity of Myanmar’s protesters has been widely remarked, and extends into the digital realm. Saijai provided three observations on this matter. Firstly, civilians use the Internet to keep safe and to circumvent blocks. For instance, civilians shifted to Signal, which allows for end-to-end encrypted communications, amid rising fears of surveillance. Secondly, civilians have formulated protest tactics based on the unique capacities of various apps. Saijai showed that Twitter has become particularly significant during the coup because its interface allows protesters to communicate effectively with the outside world. Amid the closure of media outlets, civilians use Twitter to obtain news—both from formal outlets and from each other. Trending hashtags, such as #whatshappeninginmyanmar, are testament to the groundswell of anti-coup sentiment in Myanmar. Protesters also use Twitter to tag specific, well-known journalists, thereby using Twitter to ‘gather international attention to Myanmar.’ Protesters thus use both the one-to-one and many-to-many communicative functions of Twitter to great effect. Thirdly, Saijai discussed how protesters were supporting one another through the internet. Protesters have used OpenStreetMap to track the location of police forces in big cities, while the app Way Way Nay provides users with a list of military-linked individuals and businesses, making boycotts easy and accessible. Their use of these apps shows how online engagements feed into the offline activities of protesters. They also show how protesters foment community online, amidst brutal offline crackdowns. ‘I see young people translating frustration and anger into innovation,’ Saijai said, ‘it touches my heart to see them supporting each other.’
Widespread smartphone ownership in big cities also allows citizens to assist journalists in a hostile media landscape, in which journalists—working for both local and foreign media outlets—face arrest, torture, and detention. Citizens take photos and videos of crackdowns, which are then uploaded and shared on social media. Alex explained that this has shifted journalists’ relationships with media users. Since journalists face immense risks when identifying themselves in public, they increasingly rely on information provided by civilians, rather than the other way around. On their part, civilians have adapted quickly. The videos that civilians provide to journalists are generally clearer than what they provided in the early days after the coup, and are accompanied by information that journalists need, such as dates, times, and locations. That said, these videos—while important—expose citizens to several risks. For instance, videos of protests could provoke crackdowns in particular areas, when videos include geotags and place-specific imagery. Such risks make clear that knowledge of digital safety is paramount in post-coup Myanmar.
The Internet is a conduit for another form of post-coup resistance: leaked documents. Alex used Total, the French oil and gas company, as an example of the potency of this tactic. In early May, the activist group Justice for Myanmar used leaked financial reports to show how Total has profiteered from its links with the military. Under pressure, Total has since suspended cash dividends to the junta. In Alex’s words, ‘this is information that we would not have without people being willing to leak it, securely and anonymously, through social media.’ Alex also called on international listeners to leave behind presumptions of a free (if privatized) media sector, which are based on the experiences of Western democracies. In Myanmar, where citizens cannot expect to access critical information from the mainstream media, the need for citizens to document ongoing events cannot be underestimated.
Finally, civilians have managed to remain online in spite of the SAC’s haphazard internet blocks. VPNs, for instance, have been used to access Facebook and other banned websites since the first week of the coup, while mesh networks have been used to communicate at shorter distances. Days after the coup, digital rights activists were advocating the use of the app Bridgefy, a mesh-messenger that relies on short-range Bluetooth technology rather than mobile data. The success of civilians efforts at staying online, Alex maintained, was evident in the themed protests held across the country from February to April, during which street protesters demonstrated their solidarity through coordinated tactics and symbols. These included watermelons, Easter eggs, and shoes. Such extensive coordination would not have been possible without civilians staying online. Myo also highlighted the widespread use of burner phones and the Android app Second Space to hide all or part of one’s digital engagements during home raids or at military checkpoints. Moreover, activists are exploring more imaginative solutions to internet restrictions. ‘I think StarLink will be the best alternative,’ Myo said, referring to the satellite internet system pioneered by SpaceX. There has already been a Twitter campaign pushing the provision of StarLink to Myanmar’s civilians.
For Myo, who has been working in this space for a decade, a silver lining amid the present crisis has been civilians’ heightened and pervasive awareness of digital safety. For years, the rate of smartphone penetration in Myanmar outpaced the population’s digital literacy. ‘After the coup,’ he said, digital safety ‘became a survival skill. If you don’t know about digital safety, you can’t go out.’ That said, all panellists warned against romanticizing the protests. As Alex put it, in Myanmar, ‘digital literacy is borne out of necessity, not just innovation.’ Furthermore, Myo highlighted that more knowledge about the SAC’s surveillance capacity is necessary for protesters to formulate more permanent means of staying online. Only then will this anti-coup digital culture prevail.
While references to the international community tend to focus on state governments and international bodies, the panellists emphasised that the private sector can play a significant role in shifting Myanmar’s political trajectory. ‘We have to keep in mind that tech companies are almost as large, if not larger, than actual governments,’ said Alex ‘so accountability for these businesses should be on the same level as governments. We have seen how staying neutral is effectively giving way to the evils conducted by the military.’
Some tech companies have founders who have travelled to Myanmar. In 2018, when Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey went to Myanmar for a meditation retreat, he was criticised on his own platform for glossing over the role of social media in stoking anti-Rohingya sentiment. Twitter continues to be largely silent about the coup, while TikTok struggles to manage the flow of military propaganda on the platform. ‘When times were good, we were loyal customers, and everyone was happy about it,’ Alex said. ‘Myanmar supported these businesses, we were on these platforms; they made lots of profit, and they had a foothold in Myanmar, without knowing, or caring much, that it was a digitally vulnerable country. Now that things are the other way around, we need [these platforms] on our side. So the question is: where will they stand?’
Facebook, Myanmar’s social media stalwart, is in a more complex position than other social media giants. Although observers sounded the alarm on anti-Rohingya sentiment on Facebook in 2013, they were not taken seriously. By early 2015, Facebook had seven million Burmese users, but only two Burmese-speaking content moderators. Facebook’s automated systems for detecting dangerous content did not work with the Burmese language. The needle only began to move in 2018, after 700,000 Rohingya had fled Rakhine State, when a UN fact-finding mission reported that Facebook was ‘a useful instrument for seeking to spread hate.’ Min Aung Hlaing, now the leader of the SAC, was removed from Facebook thereafter, the first time Facebook banned a country’s military or political leader. Saijai and Myo were cautiously optimistic that Facebook had learned from its mistakes. Saijai spoke positively of three approaches taken by Facebook: taking down posts advocating military violence; barring Facebook accounts associated with military personnel and military-owned businesses; and creating a new “locked profile” feature that prevents non-friends from accessing one’s posts and photos. Myo was likewise glad that Facebook had been consulting with digital rights organisations in the country.
However, a week after the panel, Global Witness released a report showing how Facebook’s algorithms continue to amplify harmful content in Myanmar. Global Witness documented the extreme ease by which Facebook users can access content that conveys support for Myanmar’s junta and death threats against protesters, some of whose names and photographs circulate on the site. This content violates the community standards that Facebook professes to uphold. Such complexities speak to how difficult it is for anyone, including those in the digital rights sector and Facebook itself, to obtain a comprehensive picture of the platform’s impact on society. It is entirely possible that despite the targeted strategies highlighted by Saijai and Myo, Facebook remains betrayed by its own algorithm. Moreover, the panel did not have time to consider the relationship between ethnic conflict and Facebook, which is beset by even more complexities. There is a dearth of information in this respect, too. Many pre-coup observers zeroed in on the Rohingya crisis, overlooking how social media and the internet affect other embattled ethnic groups. Therefore, Alex’s point to consider how tech leaders can redress massive power inequalities between themselves and their clientele remains salient. Tech companies should take their role in perpetuating power inequalities seriously, and ensure that they can listen to their users. Some first steps could be to hire sufficient staff conversant in Myanmar’s numerous ethnic languages and to engage with digital rights groups across the country.
Finally, Saijai called for donors not to be let off the hook. The preceding discussion has shown how Myanmar’s anti-coup digital culture has not evolved in isolation; rather, it has responded to the coup regime’s control of print media, its desire to remain “open for business”, and the tenacity of Myanmar’s protesters. Similarly, the endurance of an anti-coup digital culture depends on the extent to which people remain healthy and retain their livelihoods outside of the virtual realm. For instance, people’s access to alternatives to the SAC’s education system, such as the newly developed Virtual Federal University and the Spring University Myanmar, depend on their ability to pay for smartphones and VPNs. The panellists also foregrounded the need to plug existing knowledge gaps. They called for donors to fund investigations into the state’s surveillance capacity and the role that tech companies play in Myanmar’s post-coup society and economy.
Donors should adapt, not leave, and remain flexible in response to the changing political situation, including difficulties in obtaining cash. ‘There are many organisations on the ground doing good work,’ said Saijai. The question is whether these organisations can remain connected to one another and to the people reaching out to them.
Shona Loong recently completed her DPhil at the University of Oxford; an ethnographic study of civil society and post-conflict development in Karen State. Her research interests span migration, peace, and ethnic conflict. Shona is currently a research advisor with the SecDev Foundation. She thanks the three panellists for sharing their views in an extremely risky and difficult environment.