As the lawless state of military rule continues in Myanmar, the nation is witnessing a strange technological phenomenon: the regression from smartphones to keypad phones.
Since the military’s seizure of power on February 1, people have relied heavily on social media to organize anti-coup protests, which have proved effective in circulating information about locations and times, and informing international audiences about the political situation on the ground. The prevalence of social media use can be partly attributed to the ubiquity of smartphones in Myanmar, which protestors have used to network and communicate among themselves, as well as capturing photos and videos that have been used to spread awareness about the atrocities being committed by the military junta.
For the past month, however, in recognition of the potential threat social media and smartphones have posed to the current regime, the military has implemented sweeping phone checks on the streets. Sometimes this takes the form of random spot-checks by individual soldiers, but most often it involves systematic checks at road junctions, where military personnel, often alongside two or three army trucks, demand that people hand over their smartphones for scrutiny.
For many, the symbolic implication of phone checks is a source of terror, and the presence of the military checkpoints is a physical manifestation of the oppressive grip that it has had over people’s everyday lives since the coup.
Heavily reliant upon smartphones for day-to-day functioning, young people find phone checks dreadfully frightening. “They will force you to open the photo albums, to share passwords, and to log into all the applications, like SMS and social media accounts,” said a young man from Yangon, who experienced the phone check. (All of the interviews cited in this article were conducted by a Myanmar collaborator, who cannot be named out of concern for their safety. For a similar reason, all of the interviewees have asked to remain anonymous.)
“Basically, fear is everywhere,” added a 22-year-old male university student from Mandalay, who lamented that his life was “in chains” under the current regime. “My world is becoming narrower and narrower, in a way it has never before.”
For those old enough to have experienced the democracy movement of 1988, which saw nationwide protests and civil disobedience against the military dictatorship, the intensified control under the current regime evoked the memories of the old days they had hoped to bury once and for all, by electing Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy by a landslide at elections in 2015.
“I was enveloped by the kind of darkness I haven’t felt for a long time,” said one 42-year-old female entrepreneur from Yangon.
Assuming that using smartphones is no longer safe, many people have reacted by hiding their smartphones, and rushing to purchase keypad phones that only serve the purpose of basic communication, such as texting and calling.
“I never carry my smartphone when I am out,” said a 37-year-old man from Mandalay, explaining why keypad phones have regained popularity after a decade in which smartphones had become ubiquitous in Myanmar. “There is no such a thing as privacy anymore,” he added. It is said that if the military finds anything even remotely suspicious during phone checks that has anything to do with the political demonstrations or anti-military sentiment, a person’s phone can be confiscated. They can also be detained.
“The whole thing is odd,” a 34-year-old protestor from Shan State said about his experience of switching back to the keypad phone after so many years. “I feel as if I am reliving the life 20 years ago… It is kind of like dark humor among us. While other countries move forward to acquire new technology, we are relearning how to use the phones that nobody bothers to use.”
Phone checks have also added an additional layer of inconvenience to many media professionals, choking off information flows and links with the outside world. Particularly, due to poor signals, keypad phones make some media people more vulnerable to potential arrest, especially given the military’s overt efforts to suppress the media and telecommunications industry, including by detaining critical journalists.
“I had to shout out the confidential information during my calls with the colleagues,” an anonymous journalist said, “but at the same time I am scared and I have to be cautious about what I say.”
There seems little doubt that the military is aware of this upsurge of the “keypad phone phenomenon.” As one middle-aged female protestor from Yangon said, the military is not stupid. “When you show them your keypad phone, they will say ‘not this one, I want to see the one you can swipe with,’” she said.
Partly as a result, many phone shops around her neighborhood have closed out of the fear that the military would simply barge in and confiscate their stock. “After I knocked on a door of one of the shops, a wary-looking shop owner opened the door slightly,” she said, describing the experience of her underground purchase. “The owner looked relieved after I explained [she just wanted to buy a phone]. He asked me to detour around to go in through another hidden door.”
When asked about their thoughts on phone checks, many young people interviewed, who have grown up in a relatively freer environment, regarded the increasingly stringent military rule as unfamiliar, upsetting, and slightly surreal.
A 16-year-old male high school student from Shan State expressed his disillusionment at the bleak future that now appears to face him. “It is completely unjust of the military to wipe out the government we democratically supported,” he said. “How can we have a bright future under such a corrupt regime? My future has been totally destroyed at the hands of the military.”
According to the 34-year-old male street protestor from Shan State, the prevalence of phone checks has further inflamed popular fury, and, in turn, served as a unifying force among not only demonstrators but also their loved ones. Saddened by the increasingly tightened control and unjustified shooting of civilians, his family members, who once admonished him for being involved in civil unrest, have become rather supportive of his participation in street demonstrations. “They told me that if you really want to do this, do it to the fullest,” he said.
Similarly, when asked what has motivated her to maintain the activist spirit during this difficult time, the 42-year old female entrepreneur said that her family has been supportive of her efforts, and comfortable with the risks she is running. “My parents said that they will be sad that they might lose me, but our love for each other will outlive that sadness,” she said. Similar remarks were also made by other interviewees.
In the midst of the growing fear and uncertainty under the current regime, a 55-year-old woman working in the telecommunications sector from Shan State said that “we lost the basic human rights we have just started to enjoy over the past five years.” She is frustrated but not entirely surprised, because “we failed to eradicate the dictatorship from its root.”
She has a rather pessimistic outlook about Myanmar’s future. “The inherently brutal and fascist nature of the Myanmar military cannot be readily changed,” she said.
“Phone checks are just the start of more brutality to come.”
This article would not be have been possible without the generous help of a contributor from Myanmar, who shall remain anonymous.