Myanmar ranked second most repressive country for internet freedom

The conflict-riven nation is inching closer to surpassing China as the world’s worst “digital dictatorship,” as the junta jails and kills people for online expression-related crimes.

Myanmar is the world’s second most repressive environment for internet freedom, according to a new report, as the military regime’s online hostility contributed to “a globally rare decline in internet penetration.”

Pro-democracy organisation Freedom House’s annual “Freedom on the Net” report, released on Wednesday, found that global internet freedom declined for the 13th consecutive year, with people facing legal repercussions for online expression in a record 55 of the 70 countries covered by the group’s research. China was found to have the worst conditions for internet freedom for the ninth consecutive year—but Myanmar, the authors noted, “came close to surpassing it.”

Some of the most egregious cases of persecution also occurred in Myanmar, where the authoritarian regime issued death sentences against people convicted of online expression-related crimes. These included individuals who expressed support for the democratic resistance movement, such as Kyaw Min Yu–or Ko Jimmy–a prominent activist who was arrested over pro-democracy social media posts and executed in July 2022.

Ko Jimmy was one of hundreds of activists and public figures who were subjected to arrest warrants  for allegedly inciting unrest in the wake of the coup, as the junta sought to crack down on civil disobedience and support for the resistance. After his arrest, the junta accused Ko Jimmy of masterminding guerrilla movements in Yangon and charged him with terrorism, which led to his execution.

Soldiers, nationalist supporters of the military and online informants tracked down suspected dissidents and used Telegram channels to leak their information to authorities, who would then find, detain and in some cases forcibly disappear them, the report said. At least four journalists working for or previously employed by online media outlets were killed in military crackdowns, as was a photographer whose photos of anti-coup protests were published on social media, and a student whose social media posts criticised the military.

The harms of Myanmar’s “digital dictatorship” aren’t limited to those who have been arrested, jailed or killed, however. International bodies like the United Nations have previously highlighted the ways in which the junta’s systematic attacks on freedom of expression and information threaten the lives and wellbeing of millions of people.

Weaponizing censorship

Such oppression is a key feature of the junta’s military strategy to quell civilian dissent and consolidate power over the populace. The local author of the “Freedom on the Net” report, who could not be named for security reasons, told Myanmar Now that the Burmese population’s ability to access the internet has been a major factor in the junta’s inability to exercise dominance over the nation as effectively as it has in the past.

“In the 1990s they didn’t have the internet; there were no information flows; there was no ability to communicate without the military basically intervening,” the author said, comparing conditions under the present coup regime and the junta that seized power in 1988. “So from that, you can say that basically access to the internet is a principal reason why this coup has not been consolidated like it was consolidated quite quickly in the 1990s.”

It is for this reason, the author added, that the military has put so much effort into restricting internet access.

After overthrowing the elected government in the February 2021 coup, the junta imposed rolling nationwide internet outages and blocked civilians from accessing messaging platforms and social media. More recently, they have weaponized internet shutdowns against the resistance movement, switching off or throttling online traffic in dozens of townships thought to be harbouring opposition groups, and often timing this manipulation to coincide with attacks on the same areas.

The whitelist

It is this blunt force approach to online oppression that distinguishes Myanmar from the other lowest-ranking country on the list, China. The report author told Myanmar Now that while China’s model of repression leverages its highly advanced domestic tech infrastructure—for example, its widespread surveillance capabilities—Myanmar’s less sophisticated technological landscape necessitates a less sophisticated response.

The junta “doesn’t have high-tech ways of cracking down on the internet,” the author said. “So it uses a much blunter model, which is basically turning the internet off, arresting people in an arbitrary way, and sentencing them to long prison sentences. And then, of course, taking over all of the telecom companies to make sure that they have total control.”

As of September 2022, all internet service providers in Myanmar are under direct or indirect military control. But the junta’s stranglehold on digital communication ratcheted up even further as recently as September 27, 2023, when the junta-controlled Ministry of Transport and Communications announced that any sellers or users of mobile phone services who didn’t register their SIM cards, or registered them fraudulently, would henceforth face up to six months in prison. Most internet users in Myanmar rely on mobile services.

The most unique aspect of the junta’s digital censorship strategy, however, is its implementation of a “white list” to limit people’s freedom online. Rather than blacklisting certain websites or online platforms that it doesn’t want civilians to access, the regime has flipped the equation, blocking the internet as a whole and allowing access only to approved websites and platforms.

As the local author put it: “There’s nothing really that exists anywhere else in the world that has the same blanket default blocks.”

The Freedom on the Net report found that during the coverage period, most internet users in Myanmar remained confined to a batch of about 1,500 military-approved websites. Many Burmese civilians have otherwise responded by pivoting to virtual private networks (VPNs) that allow them to bypass the censorship blockades. But the junta has moved to crack down on these as well, with soldiers stopping people at checkpoints and fining and arresting any who are found to have VPN apps on their phones.

Resistance online

The impacts of such extreme online oppression are widely felt—not only in terms of how it throttles civilians’ access to information and communication, but also the way in which it contributes to perpetual surveillance anxiety.

“You’ve got massive limitations on information flows, and also just a general sense of fear of using the internet; fear of whether you’re being tracked or monitored at all times,” the local author told Myanmar Now. “This then increases social trauma and PTSD since the coup, because you’re not only fearing going outside your front door but you’re also fearing what the military is looking at inside your own personal space, inside your house, what you’re looking at, and so forth.”

However, this has not completely discouraged nor deterred the civilian resistance. Despite internet shutdowns, data price hikes, online trolling, and arbitrary prosecutions creating what the Freedom on the Net report described as “a high-risk and hostile online space for the public at large,” those opposed to the authoritarian regime continue to operate and coordinate in the online space.

“The military… continued to repress internet freedom in the face of ongoing civil disobedience, political opposition, and armed resistance during the coverage period,” the report noted. “Despite these and other obstacles—including detentions, egregious physical violence, and the country’s first executions in decades—people in Myanmar continue to use digital tools to share information and organise opposition to the military.”

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