Junta turns phones against their owners in a bid for total control

Nandar (not her real name), a 27-year-old saleswoman from Mandalay, was walking down a street in Myanmar’s second-largest city one day in April when she was stopped by a member of the junta’s armed forces and ordered to hand over her mobile phone.

“They looked at my photo gallery. They read through my messages. And they checked my Facebook Messenger account. Then they asked me if I was involved in the protests. They wanted to know which side I supported in politics,” she said.

Luckily, she had already taken the precaution of deleting any incriminating photos or messages. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have let her off with a perfunctory roadside interrogation before sending her on her way.

If they had found something they considered suspicious, these tense few minutes might have ended very differently. Like thousands of others around the country, she could easily have found herself behind bars.

Residents of Yangon gather on February 19 to protest the military takeover (Myanmar Now)

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), an advocacy group based in exile, the regime is increasingly turning Myanmar citizen’s mobile phones into weapons to be used against them.

The AAPP, which says there are at least 5,100 people still being held in the country’s prisons for opposing the February 1 military takeover, calls the current situation the worst in Myanmar’s long history of oppression.

“At no time in the past has it been as bad as it is today,” said a spokesperson for the group, who asked not to be named because he fears for his family’s safety.

Instilling fear

The military’s goal, he said, is to instil fear in everyone by violating their privacy on every level, whether by raiding their homes or confiscating their phones. 

While Nandar was fortunate enough to walk away from her encounter with a junta foot soldier, the experience has had the effect on her that the regime hoped to achieve.

Since then, she said, she has been afraid to use Facebook or other social media. 

“I used to share a lot of posts and photos on Facebook,” she said, adding that many of her acquaintances have created new accounts in the hope that they won’t be easily detected.

Even then, she said, most people she knows avoid crowded areas where they are more likely to meet soldiers or police who will demand to see their phones. 

“Most people only use small side streets now,” she said, describing how the atmosphere of fear has altered everyday life under a regime that is desperate to consolidate its control over a citizenry that has overwhelmingly rejected its right to rule.

Anti-coup protesters take to the streets in Upper Myanmar in February (Citizen Journalist)

In Yangon, the former capital, young people say they are especially at risk because it is their generation—known as “Generation Z”—that has been at the forefront of the anti-coup movement.

“Anything that shows we support the movement, such as a photo of the three-finger salute, is enough to get us imprisoned and tortured,” said one young Yangon resident.

As someone who regularly moves around the city, he said he takes care to avoid areas where armed resistance fighters have attacked regime forces or assassinated military informants. Places where there have been explosions targeting government buildings or properties belonging to military allies are the most dangerous, he said.

The worst thing you can do if you are questioned is betray your fear, said one young woman who was recently subjected to a thorough interrogation while traveling from Yangon to her hometown of Pyapon in Ayeyarwady Region.

“If a person looks nervous, they will go out of their way to make them even more afraid,” she said of the soldiers who stopped her. “I just showed them my phone and didn’t let on how afraid I was.”

She added that the troops who took her phone didn’t just look at her social media accounts. They also examined the apps she used for financial transactions, such as KBZ Pay and Wave Pay. 

Eroding rights

The regime has also moved quickly to introduce legislative changes that make it easier to carry out electronic surveillance.

Although no new law has been enacted yet, the military junta has already amended the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens to enable it to freely intercept and inspect telecommunications services.

Less than two weeks after the coup, the junta removed provisions from the law that require the authorities to have witnesses present during home searches and that make it illegal to intercept telephone calls without a warrant.

Anti-coup protesters take to the streets in Upper Myanmar in February (Citizen Journalist)

The regime also reinstated a law revoked by the ousted civilian government that requires households to register overnight guests—another measure obviously intended to intrude on the privacy of ordinary citizens.

Used in conjunction, these rules imposed by the junta for its own benefit have served to erase any right to privacy that the people of Myanmar had come to expect during a decade of civilian rule.

In late May, a woman living in Yangon experienced first-hand how utterly devoid of rights she had become under the current regime.

She told Myanmar Now that eight soldiers arrived at her home at 11pm one night and demanded to see her mobile phones.

She realized then that there was no escaping the regime’s scrutiny—that it was not enough to avoid public places or make sure that her phone was “clean” when she left her home.

“Everyone has their own privacy. There will be things that you want to have on your phone. They should not inspect mobile phones,” she said.

But this lack of privacy—which is also threatened by high-tech tools that some fear could be used by the regime to turn Myanmar into a full-blown surveillance state—is the least of its people’s worries, according to one IT expert who spoke to Myanmar Now.

Given the level of brutality that the junta has displayed since seizing power, its crude attempts to access private data are a relatively insignificant concern, he said.

“Inspecting mobile phones seems like a minor issue for us now, because we have seen just how ruthless and lawless they are.”

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