A woman uses her mobile phone to check Facebook and other mobile apps in Yangon on February 4, 2021 as Myanmar's generals ordered internet providers to restrict access to Facebook, days after they seized power. (AFP)

Digital warfare: Myanmar’s cyber crackdown explained

Tech experts, rights groups, and citizens worry the junta’s lightning-quick moves to shutdown and censor the internet will make Myanmar as cut-off as during the previous military regime. No one knows the military’s endgame.

By AFP

Since a military coup earlier this month, Myanmar has endured internet blackouts and blocks on some social media sites, while a draft cybersecurity bill has been floated.

These lightning-quick moves by the new junta have tech experts, rights groups, and citizens worried that internet-hungry Myanmar will soon be as cut-off as during the previous military regime.

What has happened since the coup?

The military has so far ordered four temporary internet shutdowns, starting on February 1 – the day of the putsch – when civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi was detained.

In recent days, information has twice been throttled for eight hours overnight, which monitoring group NetBlocks said brought internet connectivity down to 15 percent of normal levels.

Also blocked are social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, where an online campaign to oppose the coup was gaining steam.

The blackouts bring back memories for Myo Naing, 46, who remembers the pre-internet days under the junta.

“People had to gather on the street and share the information,” the car rental salesman told AFP.

Myanmar did not have easily available internet until about 2013, when international communication companies entered the market, offering affordable sim cards.

Why the internet shutdowns?

That is unclear. 

One possible explanation is that the regime is using the time to analyse data to track down targets for arrest, Australian cybersecurity expert Damien Manuel from Deakin University told AFP.

But Matt Warren of Melbourne’s RMIT University said the regime could be borrowing from China’s playbook on creating a state-monitored firewall to control information flows.

“The Chinese model is an example of how a (government) can control a population online,” he told AFP, adding that Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Vietnam have similar but less sophisticated measures.

Whatever the reason, the military’s internet shutdowns could be characterised as “ad hoc”.

“They’re reacting to the situation. They didn’t have a plan to control the internet as soon as the (coup) happened,” he told AFP.

Is it working?

It has certainly been successful in striking fear into people’s hearts. 

“They can do anything they want (during the shutdown) so we have to protect our streets,” said Yangon resident Win Tun, 44.

But in terms of getting online, Myanmar netizens have managed to skirt the social media blocks by using virtual private networks. 

Top10VPN, a UK-based digital security advocacy group, reported a 7,200pc increase in local demand for VPNs in the immediate aftermath of Facebook being banned on February 4.

“As VPNs provide a means for citizens to bypass restrictions, authorities will often restrict them to ensure their internet shutdowns are effective,” Samuel Woodhams of Top10VPN told AFP.

He added that there had been reports of VPN services being blocked in Myanmar, although it was unclear exactly how many had been affected.

“It shows the determination of the government to restrict citizens’ access to information and freedom of expression,” he said. 

What else?

The military junta has proposed draconian new laws that give it sweeping powers to block websites, order internet shutdowns, and restrict the dissemination of what it deems to be false news.

It has also called for all internet service providers to keep users’ data for up to three years, and provide it “for the sake of national security”.

Norway-based Telenor – which in recent weeks has had to comply with temporary internet shutdowns at the regime’s direction – expressed alarm over the draft law’s “broad scope”.

Myanmar-based civil society groups, private companies and even its manufacturing and industrial association have denounced the bill.

Their concerns range from human rights to worries that it could stifle a business-friendly environment. 

What is the international reaction?

“Myanmar’s proposed cybersecurity law is the dream of despots everywhere,” said Human Rights Watch’s legal advisor Linda Lakhdhir.

“It would consolidate the junta’s ability to conduct pervasive surveillance, curtail online expression, and cut off access to essential services.”

Asia Internet Coalition – a group of the world’s largest internet companies, including Facebook, Twitter and Apple – says the law grants leaders unprecedented power to censor citizens. 

“This would significantly undermine freedom of expression and represents a regressive step after years of progress,” the coalition said.

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