When the Myanmar military seized power on February 1, 2021, more than a decade’s worth of democratization efforts evaporated into thin air. Whereas the older generations experienced a return to life as they knew it before 2008, the younger generations brought up in an increasingly open society saw their futures turning darker by the minute. When their peaceful protests were met with violence and the international community did little to change the course of events, many lost faith in the idea of a values-based international society where compassion, accountability, and responsibility to protect were more than words.
The public’s repeated – and unanswered – calls for U.N. intervention during the first months of the coup illustrate both a deeply founded (and unfortunately naïve) trust in the international community and a shock over the brutality the military brought into the heart of the country’s urban centers. When no one came, many felt forced to take matters into their own hands.
Democracy With a Twist
Since the country’s independence in 1948, the military has enjoyed a strong position in Myanmar. With its own schools, companies, banks, and even media houses, the military constitutes its own closed society within the country. Even during the democratic years, the military never transferred all power. Instead, the constitution that it drafted and passed in a flawed plebiscite in 2008 allowed it to maintain control of the ministries of Home Affairs, Defense, and Border Affairs, and provided it with a fixed number of seats in parliament (25 percent of parliamentary seats were automatically reserved for military legislators). While the generals might have appeared to hand over power to a democratically elected government, they were never willing to give the people full control. It was democracy, but on the military’s terms.
The military was therefore also well positioned to take back power two years ago. Equipped with new digital tools and approaches to control a potentially resisting population – tools partly funded through years of development assistance – the military forcefully regained power while blaring unfounded claims of fraud in the 2020 general elections, which the National League for Democracy (NLD) won by a landslide.
Fully exercising their capacity to take control over the information space, one of the first things the military did as part of the coup was to shut down the internet and take control of the main media outlets. While access to the internet was later restored, the military has continued to execute its control over people’s access to information and done its part in spreading propaganda to control the narrative around the coup and the military’s claim to power. Nearly overnight, the media, which had enjoyed a high degree of press freedom during the period of reform, lost their abilities to operate freely.
The most popular independent television channels lost their licenses and broadcasting frequencies; independent online media were blacklisted and blocked; and critical journalists were detained, beaten, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
Last year, 42 journalists were imprisoned, up from 30 in 2021, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, placing Myanmar among the top jailers of journalists in the world, trailing only China and Iran. In addition to arbitrary detentions, the military and police have not shied away from torturing and sexually abusing detainees before releasing them without charge. This tactic of intimidation and cruelty is of course meant to send a chilling effect through the profession and deter people from challenging the military and its narratives.
However, the independent media are not giving up. Today, most of them operate as they did prior to the reform era, with hybrid setups in exile, producing journalism from abroad with close ties to in-country journalists and citizens who contribute information, images, and videos. This time, however, the rapid transformation of their newsrooms and journalistic practices allowed them to make the move from traditional distribution of news and information to digital distribution, in particular social media.
In contrast to the last time the military was in power, the population is no longer solely dependent on state-controlled media but has embraced the internet and social media at rapid speed. In 2011, less than 1 percent of the country’s 48 million inhabitants had access to the internet. Ten years later, that number had grown to 43 percent.
A Digital Dictatorship in the Making
It is therefore no surprise that the military is now moving to take an even tighter grip on the online information landscape. Like other autocracies around the world, the military has learned that the online realm can be curbed and contained. With the right measures, the right ownership structures, and the right regulation, the internet need not pose a threat to those in power.
Since the coup, the Myanmar military has gained direct or indirect control over crucial elements of the digital infrastructure, from cell towers and underground cables to internet service providers and essential apps. As an example, two out of the country’s four telecom companies were owned by private companies prior to the coup – with Norway’s Telenor in particular being an important and trusted player for many opposing the military. Last year, however, Telenor was forced to sell their Myanmar operation to Lebanese M1 Group, which has close ties to the military.
In September of last year, the only remaining private telecom company, Ooredoo, also announced that it intended to withdraw from the Myanmar market and sell its operation to the Singapore-based Nine Communication. With this sale, yet another telecom company will be in the hands of or under control of the military through the close ties between the leadership of Nine Communication and the military top brass.
The sale of these companies has certainly contributed to Myanmar’s sharp decline in internet freedom, and the country is now second only to China in having the worst environment for human rights online. With the level of ownership and control the military currently has of the digital infrastructure, it can effectively close access to the internet and related services at a local, regional, or even national level. Furthermore, the military theoretically also has access to detailed user data and can apply surveillance technologies without any oversight.
While we do not know the extent to which the military will use these powers, it is safe to say that with the current digital infrastructures, the military is well-positioned to establish what the U.N.’s human rights agency has called a “digital dictatorship,” severely hindering people’s access to information and protection of privacy. Gradually, the military is closing off Myanmar’s borders, physical as well as digital.
Democracy Needs a Fighting Chance
However, Myanmar is not a lost cause – but it might well be one if the international community does not take real action and support its ongoing fight for democracy and human rights. Democratic governments need to continue and ideally increase their support to the remaining civil society organizations, rights groups, and independent media outlets to loosen the authoritarian grip the military has on the country. Isolation and international neglect will only worsen the situation.
Unfortunately, we are already seeing the contours of the coming downscaling of international engagements. New wars and disasters have seized global attention, and Myanmar risks becoming yet another of the world’s forgotten crises. Recently it was announced that Sweden – for years a major player in the field of development aid – will be reducing its support to Myanmar, and it is more than likely that others will soon follow.
For observers inside and outside of Myanmar this is a baffling development, since the population is far from done resisting. An abandonment of international support after more than a decade’s work and commitment makes a mockery of the Myanmar people’s struggles. If the international donors who engaged when times were good do not recognize their responsibility and come to the aid of the people now, the country’s suffering will likely multiply. Every stakeholder must ask themselves if they are willing to let that happen. If we believe in democracy, we need to fight back before the final curtain drops on the democratic aspirations of Myanmar’s people.