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  • Myanmar Internet Project

Examining the Situation of Digital Repression in Myanmar in 2023

Since the military coup in February 2021, the State Administration Council (SAC) has been continuously engaging in widespread surveillance and repression within the communication and information access sectors of the civilian population. To manipulate in those sectors, the online space that is the backbone of information flows of the new era has been tried to control by SAC.

In this article, we analyze and describe the instances of digital repression carried out by the SAC between January and December 2023.

In collecting information on digital repression cases and related incidents that occurred within a year, we gathered data from media outlets and trustworthy partner organizations for analysis.

This article analyzed and described the digital repression events that were conducted by SAC through January to December 2023, in four different sections. 


  1. Limitations and Repression of Freedom of Expression in Digital Space

  2. Surveillance the Digital activities of the Public 

  3. Internet Shutdown incidents

  4. Repression to online media freedom 


(1) Limitations and Repression of Freedom of Expression in Digital Space


Since the 2021 coup, a series of actions targeting freedom of expression in the digital space by the SAC has been identified. There had been surveillance and detained individuals who wrote their opinions against them online, supporting the revolutionary groups that are fighting for the restoration of democracy in the nation and criticizing their mismanagement and policies.


Social media-related arrests in 2023, as reported on MOI's Telegram channel


According to statements released from the Telegram Channel of the Ministry of Information by the SAC, it was found that more than 550 individuals were under surveillance and detained for their comments and posts on Facebook, the popular social media platform in the country.

It has been identified that individuals who expressed their condolences by changing their profile photos to black on social media for the civilians who passed away in Pazigyi Village due to the SAC’s air strikes, were arrested. Reputed people like journalist U Kyaw Min Swe, actor May PanChi, singers May La Than Zin and Shwe Yi Thein Tan also had been arrested in it. Hip Hop singer Byuhar who criticized the deteriorated issue of the regular electric outage was sentenced to 20 years in prison. U Ye Htut, in addition, who served as a Information Minister in the period of U Thein Government, was also sentenced to 10 years in prison because he denounced the SAC’s policy. 

It was found that individuals who commented on and shared content from media outlets they disliked, as well as those who commented on social media pages supporting revolutionary forces or shared announcements and news about the revolutions, have been arrested by the SAC while suppressing freedom of expression in the digital space.

For surveillance and disclosure of the activities of the civilian on the internet, SAC used stooge Telegram channels of SAC like Han Nyein Oo, Mine Wai, Kyaw Swar and so on. It happened here in this sort of case, after a person disclosed by stooge Telegram channel as an activist or confrontation to SAC, members of SAC found and detained him/her. In that situation, we observed that many civilians were located and detained by SAC members based on the descriptions provided about a person on these SAC’s stooge channels. As a consequence, being given a chance to use the Telegram Channel, SAC, is one of the main reasons for the silence of the freedom of expression in Myanmar.

Surveillance of social media and arrest scenarios overseen by the SAC


When we observe the four social media channels (Facebook, Tiktok, Instagram, Telegram), SAC and its supporters are mainly emphasizing Facebook activities. It was analyzed that 97.16% of arrested cases due to posting, sharing and commenting on social media occurred due to activities on Facebook. 2.66% of cases happened due to the Tiktok activities and others have less than 1 %. 

As a result of digital repression situations, Myanmar has been described in “Freedom on the Net Report(2023)” of Freedom House as the second worst country in internet freedom.


(2) Surveillance the Digital Activities of the Public 


Not only implements the SAC to monitor freedom of expression of the residents in the digital space, but also make the plans for mass surveillance. In 2023, 

Main implementation program for the mass surveillance of public’s activities is the E-ID system developed by SAC. In 2023, the main implementation program for mass surveillance of the public's activities by SAC is developing the E-ID system. If completed the Smart Card implementation process, SAC gets the whole biometric data set of the citizen. Using the collected data, it can surveillance including business and political affairs and also all of the activities of the individuals. Using the collected data, it can conduct surveillance on business and political affairs, as well as monitor all the activities of individuals.


2.1  SAC’s Biometric Data Collection and E-ID Implementation Footsteps

SAC began implementing Biometric Data Collection training in October 2022, launching it as a pilot project in Pathein, Irrawaddy Division, in March 2023. On 30 March 2023, SAC conducted Biometric Data Collection in Pyinmana, NayPyiDaw. Furthermore, SAC organized training sessions for Biometric Data Enrollment and UID Management System Application in different regions.


Photo from SAC's newspaper showcasing the biological data collection course held in the Bago Region

According to the report of MOI’s Telegram channel, several across townships located in Tanintharyi Division, Bago Division, Yangon Division, Irrawaddy Division, Mandalay Division, Naypyidaw, Rakhine State, Mon States and Southern Shan, the biometric data collection was conducted. SAC’s SAC's Minister U Myint Kyaing reported that over seven hundred thousand biometric data entries had been collected by August 10, 2023. 

In order to complete the biometric data collection process, SAC pressured the people who reside in some township of Yangon to request recommendation letters from ward administration offices and Immigration offices if they would like to travel.


Union Minister U Myint Kyaing visit to India highlighted in the SAC's newspaper for

discussions on the E-ID system implementation


It was found that SAC made efforts to get technological support from India and China for the collection and analysis of biometric data.


2.2 Actions of  SAC for SIM Re-Registration

SAC has implemented the SIM re-registration process since 2022, and it is ongoing through 2023. During the SIM card re-registration process, a substantial amount of personal data, including name, NRC number, photo, address, and more, is requested. Some telecom operators requested to add the personal social media account links. Consequently, the SIM registration process indirectly supports SAC’s mass surveillance mechanism.

SAC announced that SIM cards must be properly registered, and unregistered SIM cards will be deactivated in March, July, and October 2023. On September 26, 2023, SAC announced the sale of SIM cards after registration and the requirement to re-register SIM cards if they are transferred to another individual. The statement also indicated that if an individual fails to adhere to its announcement, action will be taken in accordance with Section (72) of the Telecommunications Law.


SAC’s announcement on the re-registration process for the sale and transfer of SIM cards.


On September 16, 2023, SAC members reportedly requested Sim card users’ location to disclose the Mytel office located in Ingapu Township, Irrawaddy Region, as per the news reported by Arrawaddy Time News Agency.


2.3 Events the Tracking, Surveillance and Privacy Violation of SAC

It was found that while SAC is implementing mass surveillance mechanisms to control citizens, it is using various methods to violate privacy, involve tracking, and surveil the citizens.

SAC members often conduct surprise checks of the mobile phones and bags of individuals traveling on the streets of Yangon and they check the mobile phones and purses of travelers in Toll Gates. In May 2023, SAC terminated 721 mobile payment accounts (Kbzpay, Wave Pay, AyA Pay, CB pay) within one month suspecting citizens who were supporting the revolution group. Although SAC is tracking citizens' money transactions and terminating suspected accounts, SAC and the banks dismissed to provide specific solutions to the users.

On March 1, 2023 , SAC enact the by-law under the Anti-Terrorism law, add “six articles in Chapter 14 provide authorities with sweeping new powers over digital information, including the ability to intercept, monitor, cut off and restrict communications, as well as to pinpoint the location of a suspect”.

On March 1, 2023, SAC pressured taxi drivers operating at the airport to integrate with Grab for security reasons. Users creating an account through the Grab application are required to provide a photo, phone number, and email. Subsequently, this application is capable of tracking users' routes, making it supportive of SAC's surveillance mechanism.

In Mandalay, SAC pressured street vendors to install CCTV. On August 24, SAC's soldiers, dressed as civilians and municipal staff, delivered notices to street shops that were opened beside the main road within Aung Myay Thar Zan Township. On September 20, they announced that The Thilawa Special Economic Zone Management Committee and the Myanmar Customs Department have initiated the implementation of a surveillance system known as the Logistic Surveillance System (E-Lock) to inspect containers and sealed vehicles.


(3) Internet Shutdown Incidents


As the SAC, which includes keeping military operations confidential, restricting information flows, and controlling information related to revolutionary forces, internet shutdowns have been employed as a weapon since the 2021 military coup.

While analyzing the internet shutdown events of 2023, we did not find any nationwide internet shutdown. Nevertheless, it is crystal clear that the SAC continues the internet shutdown in conflict areas. As a consequence of the SAC's internet shutdown, residents in the affected areas experienced delays in information flow and faced negative impacts on social and economic activities.

Due to the internet shutdown, people who live in Chin State were unable to receive timely information about the powerful Cyclone Mokha that struck in May 2023. As a result, residents who settled in Chin State were dismissed to protect against the risk of Cyclone. 

The purpose behind the SAC's decisions to shut down and reopen the internet can be challenging to predict and understand at times. On January 4, 2023, SAC reopened the internet with Atom Sims in the long-internet shutdown area of Hapakan located in Kachin state. This included areas such as Myinmu, Sarlingyi, Ayardaw, Yinmarbin, MinKin, Kanbalu, Kathar, Kawlin, Budalin, Ye-U, Debayin, KhinOo, Inn Daw, Kyunhla situated in Sagaing. After that, it was shut down again on January 5, according to the comments of residents who wrote under the BBC news. That situation occurred in Mindat, Chin State, with the Atom Sim Card.

When we observed the internet shutdown trends for this year, it was found that the SAC implemented internet shutdowns in the targeted conflict areas.

On April 17, there was a mobile phone and WiFi internet shutdown in Hakha, Chin State. IIn April 2023, there was a lot of confrontation between SAC and the revolutionary forces. SAC conducted more than 40 airstrikes, resulting in at least 19 civilian casualties. According to the report from RFA, many religious buildings and a significant number of civilian homes were destroyed.

On June 27, there was an internet shutdown in Loikaw, Karah (Karenni) State. Kayah (Kareni) State is also the area where the military forces of SAC and the Karenni Defense alliance force fought fiercely. The Free Burma Rangers (FBR) reported that 26 civilians were killed by SAC's weapons in MoeByal, located on the Karah (Karenni) border and Southern Shan State, between June 6th and 8th. From February 2021 to June 2023, Karah (Karenni) experienced 729 battles and was frequently subjected to internet shutdowns. On July 6, there was a mobile phone connection shutdown by SAC. 

It was found that on 28th June, Moebye in Southern Shan State was subjected to an offensive by the SAC after the mobile and internet connections were cut.

On September 2, the Ayarwaddy Times News Agency reported that townships along the Sittaung River basin, such as Phyu, KyaukTaga, Mone, KyaukKyi, and Yaytarshae located in East Bago, experienced fierce battles, leading to the shutdown of internet connections for about a month.

After the commencement of Operation 1027 by the Three Brotherhood Alliance (TLNA, MNDAA, and AA), areas of conflict emerged between the SAC and the ethnic alliance and revolutionary forces in Theinni, Laukkai, and Muse in Northern Shan State, Kawlin in Sagaing Division, Paletwa in Chin State, Pauktaw in Rakhine State, Kyarinnseikkyi in Kayin State, 18 townships including Myitkyina in Kachin State  and 20 villages in Kyaikmayaw, Mon State mobile phone connections and internet services have been shut down in these regions.

Throughout 2023, there were at least 72 instances of internet and/or mobile phone shutdowns across  the 62 townships in Myanmar. The shutdown affected townships span various regions, including 3 in Chin State, 4 in Bago Division, 18 in Kachin State, 7 in Kayah State, 1 in Kayin State, 1 in Mon State, 1 in Magway State, 5 in Shan State, 5 in Rakhine State and 17 in Sagaing Region.

Map for townships experiencing internet outages in 2023

The dynamics of conflict and military council influence from 2021 to 2023:

A map highlighting the prevalence of ethnic armed groups and revolutionary movements in the region (ISP Myanmar)


Comparing the map reported by ISP Myanmar depicting the nationwide conflict and the influence of SAC, ethnic armed groups, and revolutionary groups, it becomes evident that SAC enforces internet and mobile shutdowns in areas significantly influenced by ethnic armed groups. This includes conflicted areas involving SAC vs. Revolutionary forces and ethnic armed groups, as well as SAC vs. Revolutionary forces and SAC vs. ethnic armed groups.


(4) Repression to Online Media Freedom


After the 2021 coup, media outlets in Myanmar have been oppressed through various means, including revoking media licenses and arresting reporters. Most media outlets primarily relied on various social media platforms and websites to continue presenting the news.

As media outlets endeavor to present news to the public from digital platforms, the SAC is also making efforts to suppress news sources that disseminate information through online platforms.

On March 11, 2023, Chief editor of Rakhine-Base Narinjara News Agency who had been on the run and dodged to escape from SAC’s arrest, had had a lawsuit against him filed under the telecommunication law. On June 10, 2023, Ayeyarwaddy Times News Agency, one of the news outlets based in the Irrawaddy region, had its license revoked. On July 8, 2023, the Ministry of Information revealed that the SAC was preparing to file a lawsuit against the renowned media outlets, DVB and Mizzima news agencies, alleging that they were in arrears.

Sai Zaw Thike, a photojournalist with Myanmar Now News Agency, was arrested on May 23 while documenting the situation in the Rakhine Region following the devastation caused by the Mokha Cyclone. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison by the SAC on September 6. On October 29,2023, The headquarters of the Development Media Group (DMG) based in Sittwe was raided by military council forces and  reporter Htet Aung and an office guard Soe Win Aung were arrested. On December 5, 2023, the SAC released an announcement stating that individuals who liked and commented on news from Rakhine media outlets would be subject to arrest. Moreover, U Aung San Oo and U Myo Myint Oo, Myeik base reporters from Dawei Watch were arrested at their houses on December 12, 2013. Dewei Watch media outlet reported that they were detained because they are working as reporters, disclosed by SAC members to their family. On December 29th, the Ministry of Information (MoI) reported that the media license of Mekong News had been revoked, effective from December 24, 2023. After the coup, fifteen media outlets in Myanmar were revoked their media license. 

According to the World Press Freedom Index of RSF’s 2023 that was released on May 6, 2023, Myanmar ranked 173 th out of 180 countries and is one of the world's biggest jailers of journalists, second only to China.

The highlighted event above clearly underscores the limitations and control on media freedom imposed by the SAC.


Conclusion


Based on the digital repression events that occurred in 2023, we can clearly understand SAC's social media surveillance efforts and attempts to limit freedom of expression.In 2023, SAC is actively striving to implement a mass surveillance program to monitor citizens. In conflict areas, SAC consistently employs mobile and internet shutdowns as a form of weaponization and it is relentlessly oppressing the media to control the information that occurred.

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