More than a year has passed since Burmese citizens have started experiencing a worrying backsliding of their digital rights. And, sadly, things are not getting any better.
A wave of internet shutdowns, censorship and social media blocks have been marking the aftermath of the February 2021 military coup. As often happens in these cases, people turned to the best VPN services to circumvent web restrictions. By the end of February 4, VPN demand increased a staggering 7,200% (opens in new tab) – and that number is only growing.
However, at the beginning of the year, the military junta released the draft of its infamous Cybersecurity Law. Among other directives, it will punish people using VPNs with up to 3-year prison sentences.
That’s why UN human-rights experts are now condemning junta’s attempts to establish a ‘digital dictatorship (opens in new tab)‘ within the country. “The international community must not stand quietly while the people of Myanmar are systematically denied their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, access to information and privacy, which are guaranteed by international human rights law,” wrote the experts.
Myanmar keeps curbing internet freedom
Although Myanmar’s freedom of the net was already at a critical point, it took an even more sinister turn in February 2021 when a military junta seized control of the government and ISP data centres.
It was around 3am on February 1 when internet connectivity dropped dramatically across the country. Just a few hours later, a 1-year state of emergency was declared following the arrest of Myanmar’s elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi. That would mark the first of a long series of internet disruptions.
The #KeepItOn (opens in new tab) coalition documented 15 shutdowns in 2021, making Myanmar the second largest offender worldwide. These could last even up to 30 hours, often alternated with a slowing of connection speeds and drops in mobile data during protests.
Then, it was the time of social media services. In an attempt to crack down on dissidents the military blocked the access to Facebook, citizens’ primary channel for communication. Twitter and Instagram followed suit.
As the military junta disrupts the internet in Myanmar, people can’t expose human rights violations on the ground.The military knows this. That’s why it continues to shut down the internet today. We explain below 🧵 https://t.co/QxW6FI6AAX #KeepItOn #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar pic.twitter.com/W2vZdh7JoDMay 10, 2022
Since then, the military have been taking control over telecommunications infrastructures across the country. This allows them to continue to block websites and social media platforms, while forcing ISPs to increase prices on data and sim cards. The latter makes accessing the internet unaffordable for many citizens.
An amendment to the Electronic Transactions Law also expands authorities’ grip on users’ data, while condemning new online speech-related crimes. As the UN reports: “Telecommunications providers have come under heavy pressure to activate surveillance technology and hand over user data to police and military officials.”
Without any doubt, Internet freedom in Myanmar experienced a sharp and quick downfall following the events of 2021. According to Freedom house, this is the most severe decline ever documented (opens in new tab).
However, it’s not the first time that Burmese authorities curbed online freedom to crush dissidents and maintain power. On 21st of June 2019, the government ruled out the shutdown of nine internet townships in the rebel Rakhine State. Lasting for 593 days, up until the coup d’etat took place, it’s was one of the longest shutdowns (opens in new tab) ever recorded.
The demand for VPNs in Myanmar has skyrocketed
Despite ever-increasing obstacles, people in Myanmar have continued to use digital tools to fight back military junta’s actions.
They are turning to secure VPN services to circumvent internet restrictions. According to Top10VPN’s data, last January the VPN demand was 464% higher compared to the previous 12 months.
Short for virtual private network, a VPN enables users to access censored sites as it masks their real IP address while protecting anonymity. People can pick one of the many secure international servers available and trick their ISP to think they are browsing from a total different place in the world.
However, as is the case for many countries around the world, authorities have been finding new ways to block VPN services’ usage. This means that residents often struggle to make their service work properly.
For the first time since the coup, today I can only access @FrontierMM with a VPN. Looks like their reporting has finally ticked the regime off enough to pull the plug and block the website inside Myanmar. #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar pic.twitter.com/0D95wxVglnMay 14, 2022
VPN users may be jailed for up to three years
VPN blocks are not the only challenge that people in Myanmar have to cope with. After the February coup, authorities have resumed a controversial draft for a new Cybersecurity Law.
Besides further empowering authorities to block online content and restrict internet access without judicial oversight, it would totally ban the use of VPNs. Punishments for being found guilty of using such a tool may reach up to three years in jail.
Even though the law hasn’t come into force yet, privacy advocates Access Now report a rise in arrests for alleged illegal usage of VPNs (opens in new tab). It seems that authorities are conducting searches (opens in new tab) to check if people have the incriminating software downloaded on their phones.
As about eight in every 10 people connected on the internet in Myanmar use social media, all this is particularly worrying as they rely on VPNs to access these services and exercise their digital freedoms.
Not just everyday users, though: journalists, activists and human rights organisations are all worryingly hindered from carrying on their work as usual.
What’s next for internet users in Myanmar?
The decline of internet liberties comes at a high cost.
Being able to access information is a prerequisite for guaranteeing free speech and press. As Reporters Without Borders warns, these events have wiped out the fragile progress (opens in new tab) towards greater press freedom reached over the last 10 years.
Indiscriminate control over citizens’ personal data exacerbates the reach of mass surveillance practices. This is why making security tools like private VPN services illegal will gravely affect people’s privacy – which is a fundamental human right.
Not being able to access online resources may obstruct fair access to education and health services, while fueling social exclusion. Internet shutdowns have a huge impact on both the local and worldwide economy, too.
“The people of Myanmar need and deserve a strong international response,” said UN experts, “to curtail the junta’s efforts to drag Myanmar back to a digital dark age.”
(Image credit: Shutterstock)
In the meantime, local communities are fighting back.
Online, they are sharing live information and keeping the conversation open. The #whatshappeinginMyanmar is now viral on all the major social media platforms. On Instagram alone it has been posted more than 390k times.
Activists groups are also organising peaceful protests all across the country. These include flash mobs, silent strikes and boycott campaigns. As protest leader Zin Mar told Amnesty International (opens in new tab): “Although our lives are in danger, we choose to continue. We will keep asking the world to help us because people are being killed in Myanmar.”
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