8 Minutes To Read

Sousveillance Against Surveillance: How Civilian Networks of Resistance are Fighting Myanmar’s Military Dictatorship

8 Minutes To Read
  • English
  • Naing Min Khant argues that civilians defy military surveillance, and empower resistance through sousveillance in post-coup Myanmar.

    "You can also participate in the revolution by gathering information about the military." -Mizzima TV, 2022

    On May 20, 2022, Mizzima TV, an independent media outlet in Myanmar, published a short video on its YouTube channel, titled with the quotation above. In the video, a network of activists who had knowledge on advanced geographic information systems (GIS) invited the whole population of Myanmar to send information about the bases, garrisons, and movements of military battalions through an online form. After obtaining the information, they put this information on a map using technology. Then, they share the map and information with resistance fighters, especially the People’s Defense Forces (PDF), which are emerging security actors who have taken up arms to fight the military dictatorship after the coup. This action is one example of how the public has participated in sousveillance activities to fight against dictatorship. Before the coup, the military enjoyed a monopoly in terms of capabilities to spy on its own citizens. However, after the coup, the arena of intelligence has dramatically shifted, with the public gaining the capability to pursue counterintelligence activities with the help of information technology and experts in the technology field who have joined the resistance movements. This article explores how the intelligence landscape after the coup has shifted and how networks of civilians gather information about the military, thereby amplifying immense intelligence power to support civil and armed resistance movements in Myanmar.

    In the case of Myanmar’s resistance movement, two important concepts, surveillance and sousveillance, emerge. The origin of surveillance derives from Bentham’s Panopticon. A panoptic structure is a type of institutional building designed to allow a single guard at the central tower to observe all inmates without them knowing whether they are being watched or not. Foucault (1977) argues that a panoptic structure must have two principles: visible and unverifiable. The permanent visibility creates a consciousness of being watched and hinders all inmates from committing crimes and conspiracy. Moreover, the panoptic structure is arranged in a situation where all inmates cannot know how and when they are being scrutinized. In that way, the functioning of the panoptic structure continues even though there is no guard at the central tower. Many states around the world have modified those panoptic principles and built surveillance systems with the help of advanced technology, such as intercept spyware and CCTVs. China is an example of a surveillance state that installs CCTVs in all public areas with facial recognition technology. Every day, the citizens of China are closely monitored by the state. Myanmar’s military has also accelerated its panoptic surveillance with the sophisticated spyware technology it received from China, Russia, and Iran after the coup. Citizens in Myanmar are now aware that they are being watched, but they cannot verify how and when they are being watched due to digital technology. The junta tries to manage citizens as “objects of information, not as a subject of communication.”

    However, Ünver (2018) points out that citizens are not the only subjects of advanced digital surveillance; governments and militaries are too. The public’s access to advanced technology, including high-detail consumer satellite imagery and social media, enables citizens to locate and monitor military bases and the movements of troops. Moreover, the access and availability of advanced technology for the public gives them the ability to scrutinize government officials. Scrutiny from below is a different concept from surveillance. According to Ganascia (2010), surveillance is scrutiny by persons who are socially above or have more control over the people being watched. In contrast, reversing the surveillance, i.e., recording the recorder, is sousveillance. The concept of sousveillance can be traced back to Mann’s (1998) idea of the Wearcam reflections to counter the surveillance of the state. Sousveillance can also be understood as reverse surveillance towards the surveillance state. In French, ‘sous’ means (below), and ‘veiller’ means ‘to watch (Mann, 1998)‘. Therefore, sousveillance can be understood as surveillance from below. In the Myanmar resistance movement, sousveillance has been a common phenomenon since the beginning of the coup.

    On February 1, 2021, the military led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing overthrew the democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Tens of thousands of civilians took to the streets to peacefully protest the military dictatorship. The police forces and military brutally cracked down on those peaceful protestors As of December 13, 2023, the military has killed 4,254 civilians, and 25,547 civilians have been imprisoned. After those brutal crackdowns, most peaceful protestors fled to the border areas controlled by ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and learned how to use guns and explosive devices. They organized people’s defense forces and local defense forces to fight back against the military. Up to November 26, 2023, there have been 12,238 armed clashes between the military and resistance groups since the coup. The resistance movement is powerful, with resistance forces occupying at least 43 towns throughout Myanmar, especially Northern Shan State, Rakhine State and Chin State. While the junta uses every means to suppress the resistance movement with advanced and widespread surveillance, the Myanmar general public also uses technological experts and advanced information technology, or sousveillance, to spy on the military and counter its suppression.

    Surveillance of the military even before the coup was powerful enough to attain intelligence about their opposition because Myanmar’s military has invested in strengthening digital surveillance to spy on its own people since the 1990s. The military advanced its doctrine from the ‘People’s War Strategy’ to the ‘People’s War Strategy under modern conditions’ to meet the requirements of the modern technological age. In August 2000, General Maung Aye’s speech to fellow soldiers pointed out the rapid development of information technology and the urgent necessity to keep up with developments in modern science and technology for national security and defense. In response to this urgent call, the military built their surveillance capacity with an intelligence database and Global Positioning System (GPS) and the Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence (DDSI), led by General Khin Nyunt, established a powerful surveillance capability with and without modern technology, such as advanced intercept spyware. The DDSI planted large numbers of spies among the public to gather information and suppress political opposition. Although Myanmar was on the path towards a democratic transition, the DDSI’s surveillance efforts and actions did not decline. After the coup in 2021, the junta accelerated its panoptic surveillance with sophisticated spyware technology that it bought from China, Russia, and Iran. By setting up this advanced spyware, the junta hopes to scrutinize the activities of each citizen closely and crush the resistance movements.

    After the coup, pro-junta Telegram channels served as one of the driving forces for the military’s panoptic mechanism. With Facebook banning pro-military pages on their platform, 120 pro-junta Telegram channels have emerged since the coup. These Telegram channels operate as a network for propaganda and, most importantly, for gathering information about the anti-junta movement from social media and calling for the arrest of civilians for a range of alleged offenses. The channels invite people to report anti-junta movements, thereby leading pro-junta civilians or former military officers to report any person who creates anti-junta posts and comments on social media. Moreover, the channels serve as hunters for civil servants who joined “the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and their supporters, PDF members and supporters, National Unity Government (NUG) supporters, anti-junta philanthropists, business owners, and ordinary civilians who post and share information about anti-junta movements and participate in anti-junta strikes online.” This wide network of intelligence is one of the important pillars of panoptic surveillance.

    The junta has also scrutinized money transactions via bank accounts and digital wallets (such as KBZ pay, CB pay, and Aya pay) which are owned and run by military-affiliated cronies. All major banks have digital wallets to make money transfers convenient and fast. After the coup, the association of peaceful protesters, civil disobedience movements, and resistant fighters used digital wallets to collect funds from the public—thereby enabling the resistance movement to make their fundraising networks powerful and widespread. In response, the junta set up surveillance in the financial and money transactions sector. After building a surveillance network with major banks under the command of the central bank of Myanmar, they began freezing assets in digital wallet accounts that made multiple transactions within a week to suspected accounts affiliated with the resistance movement.

    However, the surveillance of the junta could not dominate the intelligence landscape after the coup. The intelligence landscape after the coup shifted from domination of junta surveillance to competition between junta surveillance and public surveillance. Specifically, networks of civilians gathered information about military inspection checkpoints and shared that information with the public through Telegram channels, which have increased information gathering on military inspection checkpoints and shared this information with the public to help them avoid checkpoints for security purposes. Moreover, these intelligence networks upgraded their operation by creating public-sourced digital forms to collect information about garrisons, bases, and movements of the military. Afterwards, they included this information on the interactive map, sharing these maps and locations with alliance ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and resistance groups. Moreover, certain youth-led and other resistance organizations have also gathered information on pro-military businesses and in turn, shared this information with the public to encourage citizens not to financially support and engage with these businesses. As illustrated, the sousveillance network of civilians is very powerful and possesses the ability to counter the junta’s surveillance efforts.

    For example, the Fifth Column-Myanmar (TFC) is one sousveillance network that has gathered considerable intelligence on the military’s garrisons, checkpoints, and movements. Specifically, the TFC created MapOpMM, a digital form to gather intelligence. Through this form and various advanced tools, the public can identify and report the military’s exact movements and locations with photos and Google coordinates. According to the TFC’s announcement on Facebook, all information that was attained by the public were shared with the NUG which is composed of ousted members of parliament in alliance with EAOs and PDFs. They informed the resistance groups about the arrest efforts of the military in advance, the locations of the military, potential operations and airstrikes, and potential targets of the attack. Please see Figure 1 below for a sample of TFC’s work, which identifies the location of military bases.T

    Figure 1: Sample location of a military base from TFC’s Facebook page

    Another prominent sousveillance organization is the Rangoon Scout Network (RSN). Operating primarily in the Yangon region, the RSN gathers information with support from the public via Telegram and they gather information about important events for public access and information, such as bomb explosions in the wards. When the junta conducted unannounced inspections in the townships of Yangon, for example, the RSN requested the public to report these inspections and their location as soon as possible. Using this information, RSN then posts inspection locations on their Telegram channels to inform urban guerilla fighters and the public in advance to avoid those places. The general public follows their Telegram channels and checks for updates regularly. In that way, they can avoid the unlawful inspection of the military and can reduce security risk.

    In addition to RSN, the Spring Economic Circle, a non-profit organization of like-minded university students seeking to eliminate the junta-dominated business sector, is also another prominent sousveillance organization that supports the civil resistance movement. They collect information on military-affiliated restaurants, bars, supermarkets, shops, and other businesses. Then, using A Myit Phyat (Elimination), a mobile application that they created with technology they put all this information on the application. Citizens can then find restaurants, bars, and shopping centers on the app and decide whether they are affiliated with the military. The app also has a reporting function in which the public can report the military-affiliated business to the organizing team.

    The emergence and evolution of sousveillance in post-coup Myanmar represents a significant shift in the dynamics of the resistance movement. The traditional surveillance mechanisms possessed by the military have been countered by a resilient and technologically advanced civilian population. Through the strategic use of advanced geographic information systems, social media, and other digital tools, networks such as The Fifth Column-Myanmar and the Rangoon Scout Network have effectively turned the gaze back on to the military. These acts of sousveillance have disrupted the monopolistic surveillance capabilities of the military and fostered a sense of empowerment and solidarity among the citizens. This on the ground intelligence-gathering serves a dual purpose: it supports the armed resistance in their strategic operations, and it strengthens the civil resistance movements, thereby sustaining the momentum of opposition against the military dictatorship. The role of technology in this context is particularly important, as it has allowed ordinary citizens to contribute significantly to the resistance efforts. Therefore, post-coup sousveillance has become powerful enough to challenge the dominant status of the military in intelligence gathering.

    Naing Min Khant is a former political science student at the University of Yangon who joined the civil resistance movement. He is now a sophomore at PARAMI University, specializing in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). He is also working as a program associate at the research department of the Institute for Strategy and Policy – Myanmar (ISP-Myanmar). The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of ISP-Myanmar and PARAMI University.

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