Myanmar Is the Leading Edge of Digital Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia

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Myanmar Is the Leading Edge of Digital Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia

The military junta is introducing Southeast Asia to the Chinese model of state surveillance and information control.

Myanmar Is the Leading Edge of Digital Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia

People march to protest against the February military takeover, in Yangon, Myanmar, on April 11, 2021. The banner reads, “Absolutely no dictatorship.”

Credit: AP Photo, File

Soon after the military coup in Myanmar on February 1, 2021, the newly installed junta released a draft of its planned Cyber Security Law. An updated draft was published in early 2022, which has since received widespread criticism and condemnation from both local civil society activists and foreign NGOs. After numerous other worrying developments concerning the military’s interference in Myanmar’s digital realm in the years leading up to the coup, the 2022 draft has offered the clearest sign that the military-run State Administration Council (SAC) is attempting to introduce Southeast Asia to something akin to the Chinese model of state surveillance and information control, providing the junta with a “golden firewall” modeled on China’s “great firewall” or Russia’s “digital iron curtain.”

A report published this month claims that digital rights in Myanmar have hit an all-time low and that the level of digital repression in the country is now on par with that of China.

This lurch toward digital repression began immediately after the coup. With the aim of bringing Myanmar’s telecommunications sector under its control, the SAC ordered the two companies operating in the country, the Norwegian firm Telenor and Qatar-based Ooredoo, to hand over all their customer data to the junta. This led Telenor to withdraw from Myanmar, given that the junta’s new regulations breached European law.

Telenor subsequently sold its operations to the controversial Lebanese M1 Group, which later sold its shares to the military-linked firm Shwe Byain Phyu. Part of the acquisition included the illegal transfer to this firm of a German-made Utimaco lawful interception gateway (LIG). The LIG provides the Myanmar junta with the capability to monitor all calls and SMS text messages made through the former Telenor network in real-time. The realm of conventional telecommunications is thus already nearly completely under the military’s control.

The military junta also promptly banned Facebook and WhatsApp, which were being used to organize demonstrations against the junta. The coup administration instructed providers to block Instagram and Twitter shortly after this. Later, it blocked over 200 websites under Section 77 of the Telecommunications Law as part of the military’s campaign against “misinformation.” This campaign of censorship intensified over the following months.

Another key element in the military’s strategy to silence opposition has been the use of internet shutdowns. This tactic, like many of the junta’s repressive tactics, was carried out before the coup. Rakhine and Chin states experienced extended periods without internet access during 2019 and again in 2020, a period that has been described as “the world’s longest internet shut down.” Since the military takeover, internet shutdowns have increased in scale and duration.

In August of this year, junta spokesperson Maj.-Gen. Zaw Min Tun blamed Facebook for the unrest in Myanmar and announced that the regime would work towards completely removing the app from use within the country. He also announced that the regime is currently building a new military-run social media platform that would replace Facebook. The military’s evolving system of surveillance and the introduction of repressive legislation has led to the mass exodus of civil society since the coup. Additionally, Myanmar now ranks as the second-worst jailer of journalists in the world.

Partners in Repression

In the years preceding the coup, the military employed two infamous private surveillance firms to monitor regime opponents: the German firm Finfisher in 2019 and Israel’s Cellebrite between 2016 and 2018. The military has reportedly continued to use Cellebrite’s surveillance technologies since 2018. However, a more important source of technology and surveillance methods for the military’s emerging digital panopticon has come from the patron states of digital authoritarianism: China and Russia. The junta has also, since the coup, received different forms of assistance from Iran, which has also received surveillance technologies from China in the recent past.

In March 2021, the month following the coup, rumors spread that China had delivered sophisticated surveillance equipment to the new junta and that technical experts had been sent to Myanmar to create a new firewall, in order to suppress online dissent and control the narrative surrounding the coup and the protests that followed. That December, Asia Times confirmed that the junta had approached China for assistance in creating systems for controlling information flows and spying on dissidents. As long-time Myanmar-watcher Bertil Linter wrote in the article, “Chinese technicians are now secretly building a social media network for use only within Myanmar, which is being designed to replace the use of Western social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. That mirrors China’s situation, where both popular U.S. platforms are banned and where local companies that state authorities can closely monitor and tap for data dominate the market.” The planned firewall will make it possible to identify who is using a VPN and where they are located.

The highly sophisticated nature and far-reaching capabilities of China’s surveillance state, its well-trained and highly-motivated troll army, and the effectiveness of “the great firewall” together comprise a system of advanced digital authoritarianism that is as impressive as it is terrifying. Considering the capabilities of China’s surveillance state, as outlined in Josh Chin and Liza Lin’s recently published book, it would seem warranted to pay attention to China’s export of its surveillance technologies and methods.

In 2018, the South China Morning Post reported that the Chinese Communist Party was training foreign diplomats in surveillance methods at the Baise Executive Leadership Academy in Guangxi region in southern China. In 2017 and 2018 alone, nearly 500 senior government delegates from Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos were trained at the academy. Another recently published book by Alex Joske has highlighted how effective China has been in the field of espionage and data acquisition internationally. Overall, it seems apparent that the Chinese government is actively exporting surveillance technologies and spying techniques to their client states in Southeast Asia and beyond, and that the export of this model is carried out in a somewhat systematic manner.

Then there is Russia. Since the military coup, Moscow has provided the new regime in Myanmar with weapons. The Russian government has also exported surveillance and filtering technologies to the junta in neighboring Thailand and to regimes in its near abroad in the recent past. It is assumed by many analysts that Russia is assisting the junta with the development of its “golden firewall,” as Russia’s own “digital iron curtain” has proven to be relatively effective in controlling the media coverage of the Ukraine conflict. The Russian state agency for monitoring and controlling the media, Roskomnadzor, has also cooperated with Chinese firewall technicians in the past, indicating that the Putin regime is open to sharing technology and methods with its allies.

This support from fellow authoritarians has helped Myanmar’s military junta engage in all of the practices of what is commonly referred to as “digital authoritarianism”: the use of the judiciary to introduce repressive legislation in the digital realm; censorship and the promotion of elite narratives; the creation and dissemination of misinformation; the surveillance of opponents and dissidents; and the use of internet shut-downs to control the flow of information and stifle digital expression.

Many of the junta’s tactics have built on developments that took place in the years leading up to the military’s seizure of power. The years preceding the coup saw Myanmar’s government introduce numerous pieces of legislation aimed at bringing the digital realm under the closer supervision of the military, such as the 2013 Telecommunications Law of which section 66(d) was used to shut down dissent. Article 505(b) of the Penal Code outlaws any communication “causing fear” and spreading “false news” and carries a three-year prison sentence. After the coup, the junta repealed the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens that had been introduced by the National League for Democracy government.

During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state was provided with a novel opportunity for the mass collection of data concerning its citizens and their movements. The app, Saw Saw Shar, was initially criticized for acquiring unnecessary access to GPS location, photos, videos, files, and other data. The application was maintained by a number of state ministries and critics of the app argued that regulations for how the data would be managed were never made public.

The aforementioned 2022 cyber bill is the most oppressive piece of legislation related to digital rights that has been proposed in Southeast Asia. The second draft of the law received widespread condemnation and criticism upon its publication in January of this year. According to Adam Simpson, “the proposed law breached virtually all internationally recognized digital rights with no right to privacy and arbitrary and ad hoc decisions and penalties built into the system. The law would allow the SAC to access user data, block websites, order internet shutdowns and prosecute critics who would have little legal recourse… Key new provisions in the updated draft criminalized the use of VPNs, abolished the need for objective proof during trials and effectively required online service providers to block or remove online criticism of the SAC, its leaders and members of the military.”

Notably, promoting the use of VPNs, or teaching a person how to use a VPN, is an offense under the proposed law. The bill also includes punishments for those spreading “misinformation.” Civil society opposition to the “digital coup” has been widespread since early 2022.

Repressive legislation, mass surveillance, censorship, misinformation campaigns, the incitement of hatred through social media, internet shut-downs, and the mass incarceration of journalists and dissidents – all these are tactics that the new junta in Myanmar has used in a way more extreme than the other authoritarian states of Southeast Asia. The level of digital repression observable in Myanmar since the coup is more akin to leading authoritarian states like China or Russia than it is to the country’s Southeast Asian neighbors. Yet, as discussed, all of these forms of digital repression were already taking place long before the February 2021 coup that brought the current regime to power.

With external support from powerful allies like Russia and China, the new regime in Myanmar has found role models and patrons for their digital authoritarian designs. The private surveillance industry has also been useful for the development of the military’s system of surveillance.

Taken together, complete control over traditional telecommunications, the introduction of the new cyber bill earlier this year, and the building of the “golden firewall” are an indication that Myanmar’s military government is attempting to introduce Southeast Asia to something akin to the Chinese model of state surveillance and information control.

Yet the junta faces many obstacles in emulating China’s system. It lacks China’s homegrown technical abilities and its functional and extensive state bureaucracy. Additionally, the junta is not in control of all of the territory within its borders and large swathes of territory have been outside of central control for decades. Despite these hindrances, developments since last year’s coup clearly indicate that Myanmar is leading Southeast Asia at digital authoritarianism and that elements of the system that it is creating could be easily emulated by other authoritarian regimes in the region, such as those in Thailand, Cambodia, or Vietnam.