DIGITAL COUP QUARTERLY ( February 2022 to April 2022)
Updated: Aug 1
Myanmar’s military coup will be a year old in February 2022 and thus will be entering its second year. The military council has been oppressing digital media since the takeover and continues to do so in the three months from February to April in 2022.
This article summarises incidents of digital oppression which occurred in the three-month period from February 2022 to April 2022.
Summary of Digital Oppression Issues in February 2022
Lawless oppression of VPN users
Crackdown on freedom of expression
Partial Internet shutdowns
Chin state residents only allowed two hours of Internet per day with Mytel SIM cards
Lawless Oppression of VPN Users
A draft version of a Cyber Law which contained provisions to arrest people for using virtual private networks (VPNs) began circulating on February 21, 2022. Following this, local media reported that the military council has been using this particular provision to check the phones of travelling citizens for VPN applications. The Cyber Law has not been enacted during this period of oppression by military council members.
Crackdown on Freedom of Expression
Since the coup, the military council has been continuously suppressing any and all opinions and thoughts against it. In this regard, it has focused more on greatly suppressing free speech on social media.
The regime has reportedly taken legal action against its critics on social media, including 12 vendors at the Sintgaing Township market and Sanpya market in Myingyan. The arrests were made because of “instigation to destroy the peace and stability of the nation ”, according to the regime’s information team. The announcement also showed that similar actions were taken against social media accounts used in Naypyitaw, Mandalay region, Bago region, Yangon region, Shan state, and Kayin state. This is clear evidence of suppression of freedom of expression and the military council’s aggressive oppression of anyone which it dislikes or who has spoken out against them, especially on social media.
In another concerning event, the military council has asked telecom operators for information on mobile phone users at least 200 times in the two weeks from the February 1, 2021 coup and now, according to a February 7 story by Myanmar Now. Hundreds of phone numbers were given in some of these requests and thus the information of thousands of Myanmar citizens was handed over to the military council. The news article reported that these requests included a user’s call log and location. This request was not just made to Telenor but to all active operators in the country.
This incident highlights not just the oppression of free speech after the coup but also the invasion of the personal privacy of each citizen.
Partial Internet Shutdowns
Internet connections were cut off from the early morning to evening on February 12, 2022, which marked Myanmar’s 75th Union Day. Connections were cut off in Yangon, Mandalay, and Bago regions, Kayin and Rakhine states and other towns across Myanmar.
Online calls for social movement campaigns on 12 February
Revolution forces called on the people to protest against the military council with the notice: “Listen for the flag and sound, raise three fingers and proclaim together on the streets, honk your car or motorcycle wherever you are.” It called for everyone to follow this action simultaneously at 5 PM on February 12.
The regime cut off Internet connections to stifle this sort of social movement and other communications. Since the coup, the regime has cut off Internet connections through various methods, but it is only focused on preserving its authority and has not once considered the negative consequences of cutting off Internet connections.
Similarly, the military council frequently restricts the use of digital technology by the people where they conduct military operations. In a February 22 story by Thanlwin Khet, the outlet notes an incident in February where regime forces confiscated the mobile phones of residents in Anpalay village, Kawkareik township, Kayin State.
Chin State Residents only Allowed Two Hours of Internet per Day with Mytel SIM Cards
Residents of Chin state are able to use SIM cards issued by Mytel, the telecom operator under the control of the military, to access the Internet for two hours a day, according to a February 26 story by DVB.
This situation illustrates the unfair competition in the telco market, but more concerningly, users are at risk of having their privacy and personal information breached as Mytel is wholly owned by the military.
Summary of Digital Oppression Issues in March 2022
Online cash transactions monitored and tracked
Internet connections cut off in Sagaing region
Telenor accused of installing surveillance system
Approving Telenor’s divestment
Online Cash Transactions Monitored and Tracked
The military council has been monitoring online cash transactions for monetary support given to revolution funds and donations since early March and there has been a noticeable increase in arrests made from this form of monitoring and tracking. There are reports of the regime tracking transfers made through the mobile wallet Wave Money and making arrests. Due to the regime’s monitoring, online groups raising funds for the revolution temporarily halted their activities on 2 March.
Groups which announced the suspension of fundraising activities include ANTS, To Comrades, Yell Baw, Hlu Kya Mel + De Ga Kyi, Dogs Fighter, and Myat Noe Yinn Hluu – Naing Chin Yin Hluu. Some fundraising groups were forced to deactivate their Facebook pages.
Internet Connections Cut Off in Sagaing Region
Starting from the evening of March 3, the military council cut off Internet connections in Sagaing region once more with the exception of Monywa, Sagaing, Kalay and Shwebo.
Sagaing region is facing high levels of conflict between revolutionary forces and the military council. The regime increased their brutal attacks and destruction of the livelihoods of local residents in Sagaing following the Internet cutoff, according to local media.
Telenor Accused of Installing Surveillance System
On March 5, Justice for Myanmar reported that the Telenor Group bought a Lawful Interception Gateway (LIG) from the German company Utimaco and that the Chinese company Huawei brokered the purchase of the LIG and imported it into Myanmar. The LIG was then connected to a state monitoring centre in mid-2020, with remote support from Utimaco, according to the German company.
Gry Rohde Nordhus, Head of Telenor Group Communications, responded in a call with DVB that this was the reason for Telenor’s divestment from Myanmar. He said Telenor did not wish to comply with the regime’s orders to all telecom operators to install surveillance systems. The full news article published on 16 March can be viewed on DVB’s website.
This incident makes it clear that telecom operators in Myanmar have begrudgingly accepted the military council’s pressure to install interception technology.
Approving Telenor’s Divestment
On March 18, Telenor officially announced that the Myanmar Investment Commission under the Military Council approved the sale of Telenor Myanmar to “M1 Group”.
Telenor said that the sale was only made to M1 Group and was not related to the interests of the military. However, the company which will continue to operate the business is called Investcom PTE Ltd and is a joint venture between M1 Group and Shwe Byain Phyu, a company which is extremely close to the military. Shwe Byain Phyu will acquire up to 80% of the shares according to close sources.
The Irrawaddy news agency reported on March 24 that Khin Thiri Thetmon, the daughter of coup leader Min Aung Hlaing, owns shares in Investcom PTE Ltd.
With this information, it is clear that Telenor ignored the potential harm to users when it decided to divest from Myanmar.
Summary of Digital Oppression Issues in April 2022
Internet connection cut off in Dawei district
Military council pressures telecom operators and ISPs to take down websites
Internet connection restored in Khamti and Homalin
Internet access available through Mytel SIM cards for half a month around Hpakant
Re-registering Telenor SIM cards
Internet Connection Cut Off in Dawei District
Internet connections were cut off in Taung Pyauk village of Thayetchaung township, Dawei district, Tanintharyi region. Connections were first cut off in the evening of March 31 and were restored at 9 AM on April 1 before it was cut off again at 1 PM on the same day, according to Mizzima. There is also high tension in the area after a military column arrived on March 31.
Military Council Pressures Telecom Operators and ISPs to Take Down Websites
The military council has instructed telecom operators and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) currently operating in Myanmar to prevent access to websites used by the NUG, CRPH, media and anti-military organisations, according to a leaked secret directive viewed by Khit Thit Media.
The directive, dated April 8, threatens action for non-compliance and also requests regular progress reports.
Since the coup, the military council has been employing various methods to prevent the spread of online content against them and to prevent social movements from being organised and campaigned online. However, it has been unable to maintain its own secret directives from leaking which have been found circulating online.
The leaked secret directive viewed by Khit Thit Media
Internet Connection Restored in Khamti and Homalin
From the first week of March, the military council cut off the Internet in almost the entire Sagaing region. Two of the townships that were affected by the cut, Khamti and Homalin, regained access to the internet on April 17.
The townships of Sagaing, Monywa, Shwebo, Kalay, Khamti and Homalin currently have Internet access but 31 other townships in the region are still disconnected from the Internet.
Internet Access Available through Mytel SIM Cards for Half a Month around Hpakant
Internet connections were cut off for eight months in Hpakant but residents were able to access the Internet with Mytel SIM cards from April 4 to 18 before connections were cut off again.
In both this incident and a similar one which occurred in Chin state in February, the Internet could be accessed using Mytel SIM cards. This illustrates unfair competition in the telecom sector.
Furthermore, the Mytel SIM cards were allowed to access the internet for security and information collection purposes so users should exercise caution.
Re-registering Telenor SIM Cards
Shwe Byain Phyu, which has close ties to the military, and M1 Group have asked users to re-register their Telenor SIM cards following their acquisition of the telco. There have also been incidents where unregistered SIM cards were unable to make outgoing calls.
There were reports that the Norwegian company Telenor decided to leave because it was unwilling to comply with the military council’s pressure to install interception devices. There is no doubt that the companies acquiring Telenor will comply with this request given their close relations with the military. Given current conditions, mobile phone users should make a habit of using secure online platforms such as Signal and Telegram for important communications instead of using the typical services, such as making phone calls and sending SMS offered by mobile operators including Telenor.
In the first three months of the second year of the coup, we have seen various forms of digital oppression perpetrated by the military council such as restricting Internet access, actions that infringe on freedom of expression, efforts to monitor and track online users, and efforts to control online websites.
EngageMedia is publishing English translations of the Myanmar Digital Coup Quarterly produced by the Myanmar Internet Project. This post covers updates between February to April 2022 and highlights digital oppression incidents documented during that period. Read the original post in Burmese here, and learn more about EngageMedia’s broader work to support digital rights in Myanmar on EngageMedia.org/Myanmar.
Read the other editions of the report.