A communication blackout in Myanmar may be near


Social media has given us valuable access to the actions of military and anti-coup protesters in Myanmar, but communication failure could occur.

The country’s military took control of the government on February 1, after the National League for Democracy (NLD) won the general election in a landslide.

The opposition-backed army has since arrested hundreds of NLD members, including party leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Thousands of people took to the streets to protest, relying heavily on open channels of communication to disseminate military abuses from within and receive support from outside. And activists probably haven’t seen the latest of the military’s attempts to shut them down.

Disseminate human rights violations

After just a month, there is an astonishing internet archive documenting both the wrongs done by the military since the coup, as well as countless acts of protest.

There are shocking videos of soldiers showing off their weapons, drone footage of people held in monasteries and snapshots of ongoing violence.

At the same time, protesters are using social media to find creative ways to keep morale high, such as holding candle light vigils.

In response to the massive movement of civil disobedience, the military partially cut off communications with the outside world. For the past 17 days, internet access in Myanmar has been blocked overnight.

In doing so, the military demonstrates that it can control Internet access without, for now, completely cutting Myanmar off from the rest of the world.

Parts of the country had already been cut off from the internet since June 2019, in what has been dubbed “the world’s longest internet cut” by Human Rights Watch.

Within days of the start of the coup, Facebook was blocked across the country and remains blocked by most internet service providers. On top of that, a new cybersecurity law has been drafted that would give the military extensive powers to censor citizens online and violate their privacy.

So far, these efforts have only been partially successful.

Read more: COVID Coup: How the Myanmar Army Used the Pandemic to Justify and Enable its Takeover

Watch cat and mouse game online

The young Burmese generation, familiar with the internet, began to share information on how to avoid a communication failure almost as quickly as restrictions were imposed.

When Facebook was blocked, they switched to Twitter. They used virtual private networks (VPNs), which mask Internet Protocol (IP) addresses so that a user’s Internet activity could not be traced.

They migrated to platforms offering additional privacy through end-to-end encryption, such as WhatsApp and Signal. To communicate the times and locations of the protests, they turned to older technologies such as landlines.

And at the same time, they’ve created local networks using the new bluetooth messaging apps that work over short distances. With these small, decentralized communication clusters, they can avoid cell tower transmission.

But despite the ingenuity of the militants, in this game of cat and mouse, the Burmese army is ultimately stronger and endowed with much greater resources. As the violence escalates, the military will be increasingly keen to limit the flow of information to and from the country’s citizens.

If the cybersecurity bill becomes law, the use of VPNs will become illegal. Tweets, images and videos that have kept the outside world informed could stop abruptly or slow down considerably.

Cutting off internet access in Myanmar altogether would also cause enormous economic disruption – even more than what has already been felt. But the military may still see this as better than being derided around the world, including by its own ambassador to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun.

The Ambassador was on the verge of tears before the United Nations General Assembly as he called on the international community to help restore Myanmar’s democratically elected government.

For the rest of us, a complete blackout would mean an absence of critical information that advocates and policymakers rely on to create petitions, lobby governments and businesses, and impose sanctions. But for people inside Myanmar, it would mean much, much worse.

Putting the pressure online

For now, online tools remain essential for those who wish to put pressure on the Burmese military.

An online petition (now closed) urged Telenor, a Norwegian telecommunications company working in Myanmar, to push back on the cybersecurity bill. And the company did.

Likewise, Facebook deleted all accounts linked to the Burmese military, blocking their use on Facebook and Instagram and thus preventing one of the military’s main means of communication. There is always pressure for Facebook to completely ban the military from promoting its services and products.

There are also online pages that serve as clearinghouses for those who wish to offer support. The coup brought Myanmar’s economy to its knees. Activists and the general public will quickly feel the financial loss caused by business closures, the protest movement, and economic sanctions imposed by foreign states (even when these are carefully targeted).

Initiatives to support them – largely through groups in the United States and Australia – are accepting donations to help fund protesters’ activities and top up their phone credits. Some viewers may choose to support local journalists broadcasting from within, by subscribing to English newspapers such as The Irrawaddy and Frontier.

Finally, there are border groups that combine their online presence with fieldwork in ethnic minority areas. For example, the Karen ethnic minority group on the border of Thailand and Myanmar released information defections of military personnel in favor of the movement.

In Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees have protested against the military coup.

Even if a total blackout befalls Myanmar, activists can use porous borders to penetrate neighboring countries, particularly Thailand and Bangladesh, where infrastructure for activism already exists.

By collecting information inside the conflict zone, crossing borders and disseminating it, these groups have the potential to bypass internet bans. And with them, online efforts can continue.

Read more: Myanmar internet blackouts keep military in controlThe conversation

This article by Susan Banki, Senior Lecturer, Sydney Southeast Asia Center, University of Sydney, is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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