Yesterday, Reuters published an exclusive report revealing that Myanmar’s military junta was in the process of equipping a number of key urban centers with Chinese-built cameras capable of facial recognition.
Citing three people with direct knowledge of the matter, Reuters reporter Fanny Potkin stated that local authorities had initiated new camera surveillance projects in at least five cities since seizing power in a coup in February 2021. Among these were Mawlamyine, the country’s fourth-largest city and capital of Mon State; Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State; and Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State.
Potkin’s sources said that the tenders for the procurement and installation of the security systems described them as “safe city” projects aimed, in the article’s words, at “maintaining security and, in some cases, preserving civil peace.” The cameras and some related technologies have been sourced from the Chinese surveillance giants Zhejiang Dahua Technology, Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, and Hikvision. The report further states that up to 200 Dahua cameras have now been installed in Mawlamyine, and that there are plans to extend such systems to all 14 of the country’s divisions and states.
As the article points out, the use of this technology in Myanmar is not new, and security camera systems were “either installed or planned” in five cities – including Yangon, Mandalay, Naypyidaw, and Sittwe, the capital of restive Rakhine State – under the ousted civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
But the line between “smart city” techno-boosterism and the Orwellian digital panopticon is one of intent as well as capacity, and it is clear that the current military administration will use this technology for the purposes of strengthening its hold on power and smashing the networks of those opposing its rule.
Indeed, the effort to expand CCTV systems is consistent with the military junta’s wider attempts to increase its power of surveillance over the country’s population, by leveraging the country’s internet and telecoms systems. (Reuters has previously done a lot of good reporting on this issue.)
Yesterday’s report lends some credence to the common claim that while China may not be seeking to export its authoritarian political system as such, its export of repressive technology, including facial recognition systems, will have much the same effect in practice.
In general, the real impact of China’s technology exports is likely to be a good deal more complex. The first thing to note is that China is not the only nation exporting technologies with these capacities. It is also important to recognize that many of these technologies do not have purely repressive functions, and that their acquisition is not confined to authoritarian governments. For instance, among the top 2o cities with the densest concentrations of CCTV cameras are New Delhi (1st), London (2nd), Chennai (3rd), Seoul (11th), New York (14th), Mumbai (18th), and Mexico City (19th).
But perhaps the most important factor is the domestic political context. As Jessica Chen Weiss argued in a 2019 article in Foreign Affairs, China’s heavy investments in digital surveillance technologies have clearly “made it cheaper for other authoritarian and would-be authoritarian regimes to monitor their citizens.” At the same time, how these systems are used “depends on local politics.”
In Myanmar’s case, the particular domestic conditions will ensure that such systems, once they are up and running, will have a uniformly negative impact. The use of facial recognition technology will have very real impacts on the safety of anyone opposing the coup government, and vastly facilitate the military’s ability to unpick the country’s intricate networks of resistance.
The Myanmar military has always found ways of surveilling the population through intricate networks of informers (dalan) and neighborhood stool pigeons. But the nearly universal illegitimacy of the military administration, and the frequent assassination of dalan, whether real or suspected, by the anti-junta resistance, has presumably shrunk the pool of willing informants, and perhaps made a technological fix more appealing.
That said, even state-of-the-art facial recognition technology offers no political salve for the metastasizing crises and challenges that the military administration faces, nor its near-total lack of popular support. Such security systems also have to be maintained and guarded against sabotage attacks. While these Chinese firms cannot claim ignorance about the use to which their camera systems will be put in military-ruled Myanmar, their ultimate success remains uncertain.