UK-based policy institute under fire for inviting junta telecoms official to regional forum

A UK-based non-profit digital policy institute is facing criticism for its decision to invite a representative of Myanmar’s telecoms regulator to a three-day regional online forum.

The event, organised by the International Institute of Communications (IIC), began on Tuesday with a roundtable discussion on “protecting citizens and consumers” that included Than Htun Aung, the deputy director-general of Myanmar’s Post and Telecommunications Department.

As an official of a department under the Ministry of Transport and Communications, Than Htun Aung represents a regime that has been accused of using its control over the country’s telecommunications networks to suppress the rights of citizens.

Justice For Myanmar, an activist group that campaigns against the junta, called his inclusion at the Asia Telecommunications & Media Forum 2022 “astounding.”

“Than Htun Aung should be sanctioned for his role in electronic surveillance, censorship and internet shutdowns,” the group’s spokesperson, Yadanar Maung, told Myanmar Now.

Allowing him to attend the event gave him “legitimacy on the international stage” and amounted to “reputation laundering for a terrorist junta,” she added.

Since last year’s coup, Myanmar military has steadily tightened its control over access to the internet to prevent its opponents from exercising their digital rights.

Just days after it seized power last February, the regime attempted to introduce a new cybersecurity law that imposed draconian restrictions over the use of online services and removed privacy protections.

Forced to back down due to pushback from influential business leaders, the junta responded by amending the 2004 Electronic Transactions Law to include many of the same provisions as the proposed new law.

Last month, shortly before the coup anniversary, the regime renewed its push to bring in a cybersecurity law that would give it even greater power to persecute its opponents.

If enacted, the draft law will make it illegal to post anything on social media that threatens “national solidarity” or constitutes a personal attack. It also forbids the use of virtual private network (VPN) technology, digital currencies, and malware.

Over the past year, the regime has charged hundreds if not thousands of people, including both public figures and ordinary citizens, with incitement for online posts expressing support of anti-coup resistance activities.

Since overthrowing the country’s elected civilian government, the coup regime has also killed at least 1,500 civilians and arrested more than 12,000, according to figures compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Justice For Myanmar called on IIC’s strategic partners, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Amazon, and the Walt Disney Company, to withdraw their support for the organisation until it clarifies its stance on the Myanmar regime.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA)—whose chair, Nerida O’Loughlin, also took part in Tuesday’s roundtable meeting—responded to the controversy by saying that it planned to use its participation in the forum to “reiterate Australia’s grave concern about the dire and deteriorating situation in Myanmar.”

In a statement, the ACMA also called on Myanmar’s military regime to “immediately cease violence against civilians and other serious human rights abuses, engage in inclusive dialogue for a peaceful return of Myanmar to the path of democracy and release all those arbitrarily detained.”

Myanmar Now was unable to confirm, however, if the agency actually followed through with its stated intentions because the press was not permitted to attend the Tuesday roundtable.

Dr Wi-Chung Teng, the Commissioner of Taiwan’s National Communications Commission (NCC), also spoke at the roundtable.

The NCC has not provided a comment to Myanmar Now.

In reply to a request from Myanmar Now to attend, the IIC said that the event was “a closed meeting for statutory regulators only.”

IIC did not respond to requests for comment.


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