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  • Myanmar Internet Project

DIGITAL COUP QUARTERLY (August 2023 to October 2023)

During the coup period, the Military Council seized power and has been continuously implementing repressive measures against the democratic movements of revolutionary forces in the digital atmosphere and restricting the freedom of expression for civilians.

While studying the digital repression processes experienced between August and October 2023, we have observed a significant increase in biometric data collection. This data collection is aimed at surveilling civilians using high-tech software and solutions. Moreover, the Military Council has made efforts to install more CCTVs and arrested people expressing their opinions via social media, including conducting a number of mobile and internet shutdowns. According to Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Net” report, Myanmar has been described as the second worst country for internet freedom in the world. It has highlighted the deteriorating condition of Myanmar’s internet freedom space.

This article describes the phenomenon of digital repression and the related incidents that occurred between August and October 2023.

Summary of Digital Oppression Issues in August 2023

  • Enhancing biometric data collection of SAC

  • Arrests limiting freedom of expression

  • Shutting down network connections

Enhancing Biometric Data Collection of SAC

Within this month, we found that the State Administration Council (SAC) is accelerating biometric data collection. According to experts, such acts have aimed to control the movements of revolutionary forces and the public.

In Puang Township, located in Mon State, biometric data was collected by the SAC on August 3, 2023. The SAC is attempting to replace its subordinate staff and their family members’ National Identification Cards with Smart Cards. On August 10, more than 700,000 biometric data of the population had been collected, as revealed by the Ministry of Immigration and Population under the SAC.

In addition, U Myint Kyaing, Union Minister of the Ministry of Immigration and Population, said that it will get a concrete voter list for elections after embedding the data of over 14.8 million households within the e-ID Server. Furthermore, the SAC is pressuring National Identification Card holders to switch to Smart Cards and is threatening to take action against those who are unwilling to make the change.

Arrests Limiting Freedom of Expression

We found that the SAC has continued carrying out widespread arrests against individuals who post criticism against them.

The owner and three female staff members of Aung stationary shop, located on 30th Street between 80th and 81st Streets in East Aung Nan Avenue Quarter, Chan Aye Thar Zan Township, Mandalay, were arrested after being targeted by the Han Nyein Oo Telegram Channel, one of the propaganda channels of the SAC. They were arrested due to their social media posts, shares, and comments opposing the SAC. According to a report by BBC News, more than 29 individuals, including at least 7 women, who had posted against the SAC, expressed support for the People's Defense Force (PDF), and spoken out against the coup on social media, were arrested by the SAC in August. The news agency revealed that these women were arrested for their comments or posts on social media. In Mandalay, between August 9 and August 15 at least 16 people were arrested for incitement through SAC's Lobby channels.

Within this month, the Insein court sentenced hip-hope singer Byu-Har to 20 years in prison for criticizing the electric cut-offs in the country that occurred after the military coup.

These events highlight the complete loss of freedom of expression for Myanmar citizens in the digital sphere.

Shutting Down Network Connections

Since starting the coup until now, internet shutdowns have been used as a weapon by the SAC, depending on the situation.

On August 8, the SAC shut down internet and mobile phone connections during a raid in Ouk Kyar Inn Village, Phyu Township, Bago Region. At such times, when the internet network is decrepit, there has been an increase in online fraud cases targeting users who have weak digital security knowledge. It was found that the battles are intense along the Sittaung River Basin of Townships like Phyuu, Kayak Ta Gar, Mone, Kyauk Gyi and Yedashe located in the East Bago Region; the internet has been shut down by SAC.

Summary of Digital Oppression Issues in September 2023

  • Shutting down network connections

  • Preparation for mass surveillance by the SAC

  • SAC’s CCTV installation network extension

  • Arrests limiting freedom of expression

  • SAC’s attempts for media influence

Shutting Down Network Connections

It was found that SAC had undertaken a number of internet shutdowns in September 2023. From morning to evening on September 18, the SAC shut down the internet and electricity in the city areas of Myitkyina due to the fact that townsfolk feared that the war would spread to the city areas. This month, the SAC’s lobby channels advocated to cut the mobile connections related to the column area.

In a positive turn, mobile internet connections which had been cut off since 2021 were reactivated in MinDat Township, Chin State.

Preparation for Mass Surveillance by the SAC

Since seizing power, the SAC has chiefly employed internet shutdowns to control the online space. Lately, they have been imposing partial internet shutdowns for security concerns such as moving columns and military movements.

To control the digital space, the next modernised strategy of the SAC is to conduct reconnaissance over citizens using mass surveillance technology. This is key towards collecting the data of the public. For this reason, the SAC has prioritised gathering the personal data of residents.

This month, they collected the biometric data of the public in certain wards of Yangon to replace national identification cards with smart cards, requiring individuals to provide their personal information. U Myint Kyaing, Union Minister of the Ministry of Immigration and Population of the SAC, visited to Beijing HisignCo, Ltd to study biometric technology. Irrawaddy News Agency reported that SAC requested China for the implementation of a Census Data Collection and Electronic data analysis system. In certain wards of Yangon, incidents have been reported where individuals who have not registered a smart card are required to seek approval from the ward administrator and Immigration if they would like to travel. The SAC is planning a pre-census data collection test program in September for accurate population figures ahead of the nationwide census.

SAC noticed that action will be taken under Section (72) of the Telecommunications Law if the SIM cards are not registered for selling and are not registered for transfering.

SAC’s CCTV Installation Network Extension

While the SAC is urgently implementing biometric data collection, they are installing CCTVs for tracking and monitoring the movements and activities of the people.

The shops beside main roads in Mandalay have been pressured to install CCTVs. The SAC’s soldiers, police, and municipal staff delivered the notices to the shops located beside main roads in Aung Myay Thar Zan Township.

Arrests Limiting Freedom of Expression

The SAC has been conducting monthly arrests of individuals who post, share, and comment in opposition to their actions on various social media platforms. Between September 16 to September 22, more than 20 social media users who criticised the SAC were arrested.

U Sithu Aung, a 50-year-old resident of ManAung in Southern Rakhine, was arrested and charged with violation of 505 (a) for criticising the military council. Sai Zaw Thike, a photojournalist with Myanmar Now News agency, was arrested on May 28 while visiting and documenting the situation in the Rakhine Region following the devastation caused by the Mokha Cyclone. Within this month, he has been sentenced to 20 years in prison by the SAC. As a peculiar occurrence, it was discovered that SAC members requested the Telecom Office (Mytel) to track the locations of SIM card users in Ingapu.

Similar to many repression events, the Myanmar Military has been declared a terrorist organization by the ASEAN People's Forum.

SAC’s Attempts for Media Influence

Internet users in Myanmar are being oppressed by the SAC. They are also trying to spread their propaganda news on digital spaces. Last September 2, SAC’s lobby Telegram channels shared that the MRTV application can be downloaded from the Play Store for mobile phones.

The SAC implemented a strategy to spread their propaganda news by organising TikTok short movie creative contests among the troops. They reasoned that it was aimed to boost morale, motivation, and confidence while raising awareness among the soldiers.

During this month, Global New Light of Myanmar, one of the media under SAC’s control, and Russia's News Agency namely SPUTNIK made an agreement for informational coordination.

Summary of Digital Oppression Issues in October 2023

  • Shutting down network connections

  • Arrests limiting freedom of expression

  • Preparation for mass surveillance by the SAC

  • Shutting down network connections

Shutting Down Network Connections

In October 2023, several locations where the Internet had been shut down by SAC were restored, especially in Sagaing Region. According to a report by the Zalan News Agency, the internet was restored in Tedim Township, Chin State, on October 4. Residents stated that most of the areas where the internet was shut down, including Kanbalu, Kyaun Hla, and Ayartaw in Sagaing Region, had their internet restored primarily using ATOM SIM cards. Local people said that they are able to use the internet with MPT Sim in Tedim.

Meanwhile, in Kale Township located in Sagaing Division, the internet was shut down by SAC between evening of October 16 until morning of October 17. In Hseni, located in Northern Shan State, was mobile shutdown after the Brotherhood Alliance—a tripartite military alliance comprising the Arakan Army (AA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA)—launched simultaneous attacks on regime targets and bases in several towns in northern Shan State.

Arrests Limiting Freedom of Expression

It was found that SAC suppressed internet users who posted criticism against them on social media.

In Yegyi Township, Ayeyarwady Division, ten teachers who wrote posts on social media were detained by the SAC. They expressed their dissatisfaction related to the removal of their meter boxes on social media. In Bogalay Township, Ayeyarwady Division, two people were arrested because they posted texts that were against SAC, as reported by the Ayeyarwaddy Times News Agency.

According to the report from ThanLwin Times News Agency, over a hundred citizens were arrested and detained by SAC due to their social media posts within the last two months. Since the SAC seized power, over 1,300 have been arrested due to their social media posts. Additionally, between October 20 and 24, nine citizens who criticised SAC via online platforms were arrested. U Ye Htut, the former Minister of the Ministry of Information in the U Thein Sein Government, was arrested on October 29 due to social media posts he made. In addition, DMG News Agency based In Sittwe Township, Rakhin, was raided by SAC and arrested a reporter and a guard on October 29.

Freedom House's Freedom on the Net 2023 report described Myanmar as the second worst country in the world for Internet freedom.

Preparation for Mass Surveillance by the SAC

While the internet has been restored in some shutdown sites within this month, it seems that the mass surveillance program to control citizens are continuously being implemented.

On October 3, the SAC collected census data, including from Mawlamyine Township and over 20 other townships. The Ministry of Communications, under SAC, announced another round of SIM registration.

Additionally, SAC has been consistently collecting biographic and biometric data from individuals in Yangon, Mandalay, Tanintharyi Divisions, and Mon State.



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