Internet ‘Whitelist’ Highlights Myanmar Military’s Wishful Economic Thinking

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Internet ‘Whitelist’ Highlights Myanmar Military’s Wishful Economic Thinking

Facebook and Twitter are out. A suite of business applications and messaging services are in.

Internet ‘Whitelist’ Highlights Myanmar Military’s Wishful Economic Thinking
Credit: Depositphotos

Myanmar’s military junta has drawn up a list of more than 1,200 online services and domain names to which it plans to grant the public access under its embryonic system of internet controls. A copy of this “whitelist,” which was given recently to local internet service providers and telecoms companies, was obtained by Nikkei Asia and published yesterday.

Since seizing power on February 1, Myanmar’s military has drastically tightened its controls over the internet in a bid to quash the rising protests against its coup. It has ordered the blocking of websites and the virtual private networks that are used to circumvent such blocks. It has also instituted nightly internet blackouts and cut off mobile data.

As its name suggests, the whitelist is part of the junta’s plans to establish a crude national “intranet” that allows access only to approved apps, services, and domain names.

According to Nikkei Asia, the whitelist was sent out by the Ministry of Transport and Communications under the junta to ISPs and telecoms firms along with the order that they “reconnect the education and [small and medium-size enterprise] sectors,” and “follow the order to set the whitelist internet access to the user as soon as possible.”

The list of approved sites offers some interesting insights into the junta’s priorities. Obviously, Facebook and Twitter are out, given their importance to those organizing protests against the military government. But Instagram, YouTube, and Netflix made the cut, as did the dating app Tinder, perhaps in a vain hope that Myanmar’s youthful protesters might be amenable to distraction.

WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Viber, and Zoom have all been whitelisted, as “social media used by many customers for business purposes,” as have messaging services including China’s WeChat, Japan’s Line, South Korea’s Kakao Talk, and Russia’s VK. The list also includes more than 20 delivery services, such as Grab and Foodpanda.

The junta has also approved the domains of The New York Times and CNN, which undertook a controversial reporting trip to Myanmar in March at the military government’s invitation – or more precisely, that of Ari Ben-Menashe, the Israeli-Canadian lobbyist hired by the junta to buff up its international reputation.

Most importantly, nearly 50 companies in the banking and financial sector have been approved, in addition to more than 300 business-oriented applications, including apps from Google and Microsoft.

The focus on business apps hints at the military’s urgent need to restore some semblance of economic stability. Nearly four months of protests, civil disobedience walkouts, and constant internet blackouts have been hugely damaging to Myanmar’s economy.

Fitch Solutions, an affiliate of the global rating agency Fitch Ratings, has predicted that Myanmar’s economy could shrink by as much as 20 percent this year. A recent survey of Myanmar-based businesses conducted jointly by 10 foreign chambers of commerce found that the first two months of the crisis had wrought more damage to Myanmar’s economy than a year of COVID-19.

The survey found that just 5 percent of respondents reported that the crisis had had no impact on their business activities. Nearly 13 percent of the companies surveyed have ceased all activities since the coup. Everyone else interviewed reported sharp declines amid the post-coup turmoil. Of those surveyed, 70 percent cited internet disruptions as a reason for the drop-off in business.

Yet the junta’s whitelist plan is itself a serious liability. In a report earlier this month, the International Crisis Group noted that the junta’s “intranet” plan reflected both its desire for tight control over the internet, and its lack of financial and human resources to develop a local version of China’s “great firewall,” in which “access to the global internet is heavily restricted and local content actively censored.”

For a government desiring a short-cut to “internet sovereignty,” it may be easier to block everything and then approve what sites will be permitted rather than the reverse. Yet such a system is also much more tightly restrictive and disruptive to basic economic activity. As ICG phrased it, the junta’s planned whitelist regime “will inevitably limit its ability to offer anything more than the most basic services, with a major impact on the economy.”

The military’s internet plans point the way not to a return to normal economic activity, but rather to a straitened and anemic future.