Myanmar’s military junta government has banned telecommunications company executives from leaving the country without authorization, after demanding firms implement the use of surveillance technology on their users’ calls, messages, and web activity. Following a February 1 coup that ousted the democratically elected government, Myanmar has seen mass protests effectively organized through social media platforms, which have also enabled the sharing of information and documentation of the government’s abuses. The junta, also known as Tatmadaw, has responded to the demonstrations with violent force, and seeks to suppress citizens’ expressions of dissent and organizing abilities through cutting off internet access and monitoring activists’ texts and calls.
The military’s invasion into the calls, texts, and internet use of activists and political figures began months before the coup even occurred, according to a report by Reuters in May. Myanmar’s primary telecom and internet service companies, Telenor, Ooredoo, MPT, and Mytel, were pressured beginning in late 2020 to install a “lawful intercept” without any legal processes in place to protect citizens’ privacy. Telenor, a Norwegian telecoms firm and one of two foreign operators in the telecoms sector of Myanmar, flagged the plans publicly and expressed concern for citizens’ rights to privacy and freedom of expression on December 3rd, 2020. Since gaining complete control through the coup, the military has imposed restrictions on the internet and arrested high-profile regime opponents, cutting off vital lines of communication and coordination for activists.
The junta shut down mobile data on March 15th, leaving only fixed-line internet connection that a fraction of the population has access to. The internet shutdown has negatively impacted business and government operations with likely serious economic consequences if it continues in the long term, yet the government has no plans to restore connection as it prioritizes maintaining its rule in the face of mass opposition. The remaining means of communication will be monitored by the government as it pressures telecoms firms to cooperate in quelling opposition voices.
Following the junta’s travel ban on telecoms executives, Telenor recently sold its Myanmar business to the Lebanese investment firm M1 Group. Activists in Myanmar fear that the exit of Telenor will cause further obstructions to their free expression as they relied on the company as a protector of human rights. Other telecom firms in Myanmar, Mytel and MPT, are state-backed, while Telenor emphasized protection of users and digital rights. The Western company’s decision to sell its Myanmar business likely reflects the increasing difficulty of continuing operations under principles of free communication and expression while the Tatmadaw pushes telecom firms to support their suppression of dissent.
The Tatmadaw faces one of its largest disadvantages in the arena of the internet, as is evidenced by its desperate strategy to shut down internet access almost entirely in order to maintain its control. Thus, international governments and businesses would be wise to focus their attention on restoring communication abilities to activists and protesters within Myanmar, so information can continue to flow within the country and out to the rest of the world. Invasions on citizens’ privacy are violations of their rights, especially without the proper legal processes that other governments use to justify surveillance for the sake of national security. As it stands, the junta’s intercept plans are meant to directly violate freedom of speech through intimidation and the unjust arrest of dissenters.
The international community’s efforts to counter and condemn the Myanmar junta have stressed the need for an arms embargo against the military and sanctions on businesses that support the military. To combat the Tatmadaw’s campaign to eavesdrop on communications, violating the privacy of Myanmar’s people, the embargo must also bar imports of surveillance and data-retrieval technology from abroad. Foreign governments should consider how equipment and software they allow to flow into Myanmar can be used by the junta against its citizens.
There should also be international aid to the people of Myanmar through providing access to secure VPNs and promoting digital literacy to circumvent the military’s internet restrictions. It should be recognized that in Myanmar, and in the rest of the world, unimpeded access to the internet can be an extremely powerful tool for the public to organize and protest against injustice. Although, efforts to restore freedom of speech in Myanmar should be accompanied by concrete action against the junta through impactful economic sanctions and an arms embargo.
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