Myanmar election will seal military’s digital domination

A soldier uses a mobile phone as he sit inside a military vehicle outside Myanmar's Central Bank during a protest against the military coup, in Yangon, Myanmar, February 15, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer
opinion

A soldier uses a mobile phone as he sit inside a military vehicle outside Myanmar's Central Bank during a protest against the military coup, in Yangon, Myanmar, February 15, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

Myanmar’s military is tightening its hold of the internet, reinforcing its ability to track people’s communications and locations

Dhevy Sivaprakasam is the Asia Pacific policy counsel at Access Now

Since 2021, the Myanmar military has waged parallel coups offline and online, as it implements tactics to surveil, target and deny people their digital agency. These have ranged from introducing significant price hikes on SIM cards and internet services - making it prohibitively expensive for many to access the internet - to regulatory attempts which will enshrine in law the death of online civic space in Myanmar.

Internet shutdowns and mobile communications blackouts have plunged whole communities into darkness, and the military now has complete dominance over the telecommunications sector, setting the stage for unfettered surveillance unprecedented in the country’s history. And the deadline to complete its mission? The 2023 general election.

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In September, the last internationally-owned telecom operator in Myanmar, Ooredoo, announced its sale to military-linked Nine Communications, likely going into effect next year. This outfit will join three operators, including military-owned Myanma Posts and Telecommunications and MyTel. The third, shrouded in controversy after picking up the contract from Norwegian-owned Telenor’s disposal, is not only linked to the military, but reportedly partially owned by the daughter of junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing. This acquisition of online space, along with vicious control wielded over physical space, will solidify the military’s power over every aspect of the lives of millions.

After Ooredoo announced its exit, the military-led Ministry of Transport and Communications’ attack on SIM cards continued, and it announced it would deactivate all cards not registered with a Myanmar National Registration Card (NRC). The deadline is January 31, 2023, following which non-corresponding SIMs will be revoked and all monies linked to them confiscated. This followed a SIM re-registration drive only months earlier, which saw the military deactivate more than 34 million SIM cards for “improper” registration.

These moves, which the military alleged were to facilitate “smoother transactions” online achieved the opposite — abruptly shutting millions off from mobile and internet access, plunging them into an information and communications vacuum.

As the military heads into 2023 and its planned election, its control of all digital information relating to people in Myanmar will railroad subservient voting. SIM re-registration drives are crucial in this process, linking mobile devices to NRCs in a way that will consolidate excessive personal information in a database the military can oversee, and access. People’s names and addresses are linked to their NRCs, which is also connected to other information, such as familial relationships, property, and bank accounts.

This is supplemented by newer regulatory measures, including proposed mandatory registration of all International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers for mobile devices which will link physical phones — which hold information on a person’s location and communications — with SIMs and NRC records. Meanwhile, the expansion of CCTV surveillance projects across the country and intercept spyware installed within telecom networks — now entirely owned by the military — will reinforce tracking of people’s communications, networks, and locations.

As 2022 comes to an end, it may seem so do any fledgling hopes of an open, accessible internet, or digital rights in Myanmar. As long as the military battles economic disaster and raging resistance, there is leverage for the international community to act on ongoing human rights abuses. Governments, companies, and international bodies must condemn and impede the digital dictatorship in Myanmar, including by denouncing ongoing violations, cutting off financial flows to military leaders, and extending support for civil society, journalists, and activists.


Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


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Content moderation
Internet shutdowns
War and conflict
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