The crackdown on VPNs, which anonymise a
user’s Internet Protocol address and help bypass firewalls, is the latest
attack on digital rights in Myanmar – alongside internet shutdowns and growing
surveillance – since a military coup on Feb 1, 2021.
Authorities say the surveillance
measures are part of a drive to improve governance and curb crime.
Fearful of being tracked, citizens have
turned off the location setting on their phones, and used encrypted messaging
apps, VPNs and foreign SIM cards to communicate and organise protests, and
document human rights abuses in the country.
“Even before the coup, there was an
assumption that there was surveillance – it has just gotten much more
heavy-handed and overt since Feb 1,” said Debbie Stothard, founder of the
Alternative Asean Network on Burma, an advocacy group.
“But people are determined to keep
communication channels open, and they are being very resourceful in expressing
dissent and recording abuses – even at great risk to themselves,” she told
the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Bangkok.
Security forces have killed about 1,500
people and arrested thousands since Feb 1, 2021, according to the non-profit
Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
People in the Southeast Asian nation had
already lived under military control for nearly half a century until 2011.
During the decade of democratic
transition that followed, Myanmar welcomed multiple mobile networks, and
purchased drones, facial recognition software and spyware from foreign firms
that the junta is using to track civilians, rights groups say.
Now, a draft cybersecurity law that is
expected to take effect in the coming weeks, is aimed at complete control of
electronic communications, data protection and VPN services in the country,
posing grave risks to citizens.
The bill will mean “the death of
online civic space in Myanmar – throttling any remaining rights of the people
to freedom of expression, association, information, privacy, and
security,” digital rights group Access Now said in a statement.
Myanmar authorities could not be reached
LIVES AT RISK
Across the world, authoritarian
governments are tightening their control of the digital space, monitoring
social media posts, demanding that critical posts be taken down, and using
spyware and internet shutdowns to track and silence dissenters.
In Myanmar, telecom and internet service
providers had been secretly ordered months before the coup to install intercept
technology that would allow the army to eavesdrop on the communications of
citizens, a Reuters investigation found.
With the junta in command, activists are
concerned that telecom firms will come under more pressure to deepen
Two of the four telecom firms in Myanmar
– MPT and Mytel – are backed by the state and the military, respectively.
Norwegian telco Telenor announced in
July it would sell its Myanmar unit to Lebanese firm M1 Group, later clarifying
that this was to avoid European Union sanctions after “continued pressure”
from the junta to activate surveillance technology.
Activists had called on Telenor to halt
or delay the sale, as it would entail handover of call data records of some 18
million users, putting “customers’ lives at risk” from potential
abuse of their meta-data by the Myanmar military.
Earlier this month, Reuters reported
that the junta is backing a deal for M1 Group to partner with a Myanmar firm
linked to the military to take over Telenor’s local business.
It clearly indicates that the military
is “consolidating control over the telecom sector to expand surveillance
and invade privacy,” said Access Now, which had asked Telenor to take
steps to prevent any rights abuses from the transfer of customer data to its
“They need to be clear on how the
data is being handled, who the data is being handed over to, and why they can’t
take mitigative steps right now to reduce some of the potential harms of any
transaction that goes through,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy
director at Access Now.
A spokesperson for Telenor did not
respond to a request for comment.
The surveillance equipment that the
junta is using with impunity on Myanmar’s population now was available even
before the coup, and underlines the dangers of adopting such technology, said
“No matter the intent or character
of any political administration, once surveillance architecture is put in
place, it can be used by any future regime or repressive actor to intrude on
privacy and further digital authoritarianism,” he said.
Meanwhile, mobile phone users in Myanmar
are also contending with higher costs to make calls and use mobile internet.
In the last month, mobile data prices
have increased by almost 50%, and call charges and SIM card activation fees
have also risen sharply, according to Myanmar rights groups.
In addition, the new cybersecurity law
is a “clear and existential threat” to anyone who opposes the junta,
said John Quinley, a senior human rights specialist at Fortify Rights.
The junta will “use this Orwellian
law to target critics and undermine people’s right to security and privacy
online,” said Quinley, whose organisation has heard of several cases of
civilians being stopped on the street by security forces and having their
mobile phones checked.
The restrictions on VPNs – with strict
penalties including fines and jail terms for those found to be using them
illegally – will have severe impacts on the local population, said Thinzar
Shunlei Yi, an activist in Myanmar.
“We use VPNs to access information
about COVID-19, for education, daily transactions and social activities,”
“When we are punished for using
VPNs, it’s like killing us.”