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Artillery Row

The generals’ war on the internet

Myanmar’s new draft cybersecurity law could have grave consequences for civil rights and freedom of expression

Since Myanmar’s military took control of the country over two weeks ago, residents have been experiencing regular internet blackouts, particularly at night. Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp as well as other apps where Burmese netizens were voicing their criticism of the military have all been subject to periodic blocks.

Sent to all licensed telecommunication companies, a draft 36 page cybersecurity law proposed by the regime on 9 February indicates that curbs will not be temporary. The bill would effectively allow the generals to silence their online critics, block internet providers and access users’ data. The results could be arbitrary detention. The Myanmar Community Federation (MCF) and the Myanmar Computer Professional Association (MCPA) have voiced their disapproval of the proposed law. But what would it mean for netizens?

Anyone in Myanmar browsing a website will have all their activity logged for three years

“This law would mean that civilians could go to jail for accessing banned content through using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) app. Not even China sends people to jail for using a VPN. This is something you would expect to happen in North Korea, not here,” argues Maung An*, a cybersecurity expert in Yangon. He suggests that the Burmese regime “will primarily be using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology to inspect and monitor traffic for banned content, and will record netizens Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to run a DPI and keep access to those logs for up to three years”.

Anyone in Myanmar browsing a website – whether one that sells washing machines or promotes democracy, will have all their activity logged for three years and the military can access those logs via people’s ISPs (meaning they will directly tap into the ISPs). “There is also talk about whether they will use Artificial Intelligence to monitor encrypted traffic for certain patterns,” warns Maung An. “AI learning can be used to profile internet users and closely monitor dissidents’ activities and learn about their behaviour, but the data modelling alone will take a few more years.”

Like many other residents in Myanmar, Maung An is concerned that the the country’s military will be recruiting Chinese technicians to help them implement such tools because the Chinese Communist Party has a long history of collaborating with Myanmar’s generals.

Unfettered access to an unrestricted internet is what keeps Myanmar’s civil disobedience movement (CDM) against the coup going. They have learnt the lessons from similar recent, youthful, pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong and Thailand. They have also deployed some similar symbols of protest. The three-fingered salute is borrowed from the 2012 film, The Hunger Games, and the Milk Tea Alliance is a hashtag uniting protest movements in all three countries.

“There is a sense that the international community is not only watching but also engaging in what’s happening in Myanmar in ways that differentiate it from previous movements in the past such as in 1988 and 2007 when they just didn’t have that same kind of access to the outside world,” associate director of the Myanmar Research Centre, Dr Justine Chambers, told me from the Australian National University in Canberra.

The Biden administration needs to plant a marker that it will stand up for core democratic values internationally

“They’ve already started detaining people for social media posts and it’s not just a tactic from the military regime it was also a tactic – albeit not as extreme – that the National League for Democracy (NLD) also used over the last ten years to silence civil society and the media,” Dr Chambers adds. Two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, both Myanmar nationals, were jailed in 2017 for breaking the Official Secrets Act while reporting on a Rohingya massacre. They were only released in 2019. Such colonial-era crimes have been used by both the military and the NLD to suppress political opponents, journalists and activists who campaign against land confiscation and natural resource extractions, in particular, resulting in whoever is in power becoming the financial benefactor.

“Between 2016 and 2018 when the NLD were in power, there was an increase in the number of people that were detained under these laws and so there was a lot of criticism of the NLD at the time,” said Chambers.

“Safeguarding public life, property and public welfare are laudable aspirations constantly pursued by most nation-states in the face of a mostly unregulatable internet,” concedes Bill Higgins, a security specialist at Comparitech.com, but “the current ruling State Administrative Council in Myanmar have taken matters too far and their motives appear far from humanitarian. They overreach in terms of freedom of expression, in particular, the United Nations Human Rights Committee General Comment number 34, and also international standards on the right to privacy.”

“Myanmar’s proposed cyber law with its requirements for log retention, restrictions on anonymity and effectively criminalising information has grave implications for civil rights and freedom of expression” believes Prateek Waghre, a research analyst at The Takshashila Institution, a networked think tank and public policy school in India, “it is also, unfortunately, in keeping with the trend of countries seeking to clamp down on and control the internet through onerous legislation.”

Myanmar’s generals have most likely been studying Thailand’s military takeover in 2014. They have spotted the lack of consequences for that coup’s leaders – it is still business as usual in Bangkok and Thailand still largely maintains its relationship with foreign governments.

However, beyond imposing direct sanctions on Myanmar’s generals, the United States could yet have a role to play in reasserting its influence in Southeast Asia. The Biden administration needs to plant a marker that it will stand up for core democratic values internationally. It is up to Biden and other western leaders to make bold gestures in showing the world that democracies need to be defended, particularly in fragile countries threatened by dictatorships.

The vast aid budgets that are focused on Myanmar should be redirected to support the democracy movement

Beyond calling for the military to support and respect basic freedoms, rule of law and good governance, western governments need to use strategic methods to back the elected government and the civil disobedience movement. The vast aid budgets that are focused on Myanmar should be redirected to support the democracy movement via civil society organizations and the local media. The basic democratic principles of a free press, freedom of information and universal human rights are something that most of Myanmar’s citizens are afraid will completely vanish under this latest military takeover.

Despite this draft cybersecurity law, now is not the time for international investors in Myanmar’s communications sector to pull out. These companies include the Japanese conglomerate, Sumitomo Corporation, which has a minority investment in the state-owned MPT (Myanma Post and Telcommunications), Norway’s Telenor and Ooredoo from Qatar. Their withdrawal would not only hurt ordinary users; it would ensure the dominance of MyTel, a military-backed provider.

* a pseudonym to protect identity

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