Myanmar military arrests bureaucratic leaders after an overwhelming electoral win
On February 1, 2021, Aung San Suu Kyi, state counselor and prominent member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), was one of the many party leaders arrested following November’s elections. She was charged with breaking COVID-19 restrictions, taking bribes, and possessing walkie-talkies, which violates a national import law. Other members were arrested and are still currently under imprisonment of the military junta, the Tatmadaw.
Since then, pro-democracy protests have been met with arrests, beatings, rapes and killings at the hand of the military. At the time of this writing, the death toll grows closer to 600 with at least 43 victims being children. That is considered to be a conservative estimate.
The previous Burmese coup of 1988 was different. It did not occur at a time where so many younger people have power through technology and perseverance. Even while facing gunfire, the people of Myanmar still use the many facets of online culture to fight terrorism and spread information.
But for every piece of information, there is disinformation. The military uses and abuses its power over the internet to spread propaganda and lies while censoring and spying on dissenters.
As the conflict continues, the internet seems to play a major role with both the protesters and the oppressive military regime.
A Brief History of Myanmar
Myanmar (also known as Burma) has a long history of violent coups and military conflicts. Before and after the country gained independence in 1948, the balance between elected leaders and military strongmen has been rocky. One of the fathers of Burmese independence and Suu Kyi’s father, Ang San, was gunned down in 1947 during a party cabinet meeting.
Basically, it’s all been downhill from there with brief moments of uneasy peace.
The military junta leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, has long fought to establish dominance in the country. In 2017, Tatmadaw soldiers led by Hlaing were the proponent of genocidal atrocities of the Rohingya, an indigenous muslim group living in the country. Death tolls have been reported as nearing 10,000 lives lost, as over 7,500,000 people fled to Bangladesh. The Burmese government still refuses them citizenship.
Since then, UN sanctions against the country have been discussed and debated.
Nightly Internet Blackouts in Myanmar
When the military took over Myanmar on February 1st, the phone lines were cut for twenty-four hours in an effort to slow the spread of information both in the country and around the world.
If you’re wondering why the junta only cut phones and not the internet as a whole, you would have to understand that most Burmese citizens don’t own a home computer.
As you can imagine, most people use their mobile device for everything internet-related. Wifi is rare and generally used for businesses in the larger cities.
So if the phones are down, then there’s no data service, and there’s no more internet. All data plans are through internet providers in the country. The military is currently working to regulate the country’s telecom companies.
“So, the military did have an easier time when the NLD was front and center,” Sandy said. They were the ones taking the flak for everything. Which is why we didn’t think a coup would happen, because this is the last thing the military ever wanted, right? It’s a no-win situation.”
In an effort to further regulate online speech and spread of information, the military blacks out internet usage from 1am to 9am each day.
Once the phone lines were re-established, the Burmese people found themselves victims of strict censorship and state-imposed firewalls. Currently, a heinous law is being pushed through what is left of their government to have strict consequences for any one in Myanmar criticizing the military online.
This hasn’t stopped all communication, though. Private news publications like The Irrawaddy, Frontier Myanmar and Myanmar Now have continued to cover the protests without any government interference as yet.
Many people still post constantly about what is happening on their own social media, relying on OPSEC to minimize risk. On the ground, the Burmese people have resorted to banging pots and pans whenever a military presence is patrolling or to show solidarity with the protesters being shot at every day.
Many social media sites, like Facebook, have taken down and removed many pro-military posts because they either promote false information or violence. This has led to the website being blocked in the country along with Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp.
Myanmar Citizens use VPNs and Encrypted Messenger Services To Outsmart The Military
For all of their physical might and strength, the military doesn’t seem to be all that bright. They struggle to suppress dissent in any way that can’t be dealt with through force. Case in point, most Burmese people have resorted to using VPNs on their mobile devices. This way, they circumvent censorship and learn the truth of the daily protests from sights like BBC News, Al Jazeera and Reuters.
“It was because, a lot of people who are tech savvy, just started buying VPNs or showing people where they can get free VPNs,” Sandy said. “People have been distributing VPN’s also, to a lot of people around here. They get around this issue. So, the government is pissed and are like ‘What in tarnation? What is this? (What’s) A VPN?’”
Unless the military quickly gets hip to modern technology or they have some assistance from outside sources (cough cough, CHINA! cough cough) they will, thankfully, not be able to completely censor online information.
When we contacted Sandy, we were instructed to download the messaging app Signal for contact. It’s a communication app, not unlike Telegram, where secure encryption is key to safe communication. There are no back door openings for any government-sanctioned hackers to infiltrate. All messages are permanently deleted after an established interval.
This level of security is necessary when you live in a country like Myanmar. Not only is the military oppressing people in the streets everyday, but informants are researching dissenters online and reporting them. More than before, safety is paramount for anyone who wants to send or receive the truth of what’s happening in Myanmar.
Social Media and Protest: The Truth Coming Out of Myanmar
Much like the Arab Spring, the truth about Myanmar has, for the most part, been shared through social media. Every day, more and Instagram accounts such as What’s Happening in Myanmar, Humans of Myanmar and Fullbellies_forlife are showing pictures from the protests live and in real time. They give warnings regarding the position of patrolling squads of soldiers. Accounts like these show solidarity with the brave protesters being shot at and, most impactful of all, they show the bodies in the streets.
As with anything that’s trending, the truth being shared on social media helps turn an internal conflict in a far-off nation into an international issue. Every day, more and more likes, retweets and shares from all over the world tell the story of what’s going on in Myanmar.
The largest amount of social media exposure so far came on March 24, the day of the “silent strike.” Instead of marching in the street, the people of Myanmar were instructed by protest leaders to stay home. No people were on the street, no one went to their job, and commerce ceased. The next day, the violence restarted. Even with threats of violence, the Burmese people won’t stop sharing what’s going on in their country, and they won’t stop fighting for what they know is right.
Facebook Is The Internet
Facebook and Myanmar’s relationship has had an easy courtship until now. It’s no surprise that “the big F” has played such a large role in the turmoil in Myanmar. The fact remains that it’s still the most used social media app worldwide.
In 2013, the government opened up the market for personal cell phone use. What resulted was the majority of the country now owns a personal mobile device. Facebook came previously installed and its usage wasn’t counted as data.
The sea-change was so large that it was covered by Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
Facebook is so easy to access, it basically became the Internet. So much so that people use ‘Facebook’ and ‘internet’ interchangeably.
Death Threats on TikTok
In truly horrific fashion, social media has become a tool for scare tactics or threats of violence. Not necessarily official statements but harmful just the same, Burmese soldiers are using TikTok to threaten anyone speaking out.
“I will shoot in your fucking faces… and I’m using real bullets,” one Burmese soldier said on his TikTok account as he holds the barrel of his gun to the camera.
TikTok community guidelines do consider this type of threat as a violation. The popular app has removed close to 800 videos relating to threats against the people of Myanmar so far.
Pro- Myanmar Military Social Media Influencer
Sure, people are always saying how social media influencers are causing more harm than good and shouldn’t be seen as a role model. But over there in the US, we’re mostly talking about some rando Kardashian. Unfortunately in Myanmar, one such influencer actually is dangerous.
Aye Ne Win is the grandson of former Burmese dictator Ne Win. Apparently, this guy went into the family business. He uses his social media to not only downplay the atrocities of the military but promote much of it’s propaganda.
For those who are saying that military are crazy for power, crazy for throne, I’m not sure if they’re crazy for power or not. But people are going in front of daddy Embassies, waiting for master UN to come. They are funny cause they don’t know that master Un will never come.
Deep Fakes and False Confessions
In March 2021, the military junta issued a video of Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein admitting to giving bribes to Suu Kyi. The video wasn’t very convincing and was thought to be a “deep fake,” albeit a very bad one. Oftentimes, the movement of Min Thein’s mouth movement does not match up with the words being spoken.
“But thing is, it’s not even his voice,” Sandy said. “They don’t know how to do actual deep fakes. It’s like ‘ Yo, is that a VLC player?’”
Now, if you want to see a really good deep fake, look to the Gen-Z protestors. They’ve made some that have a better quality than the one of Min Thein. There’s an entire reddit thread giving away technology and tips on how to make a legit deep fake of military leaders. Want to spread dissent by watching General Hlang Sing Cardi B? Of course you do!
What’s Next for Myanmar?
The people have a long road ahead of them. The military coup doesn’t seem to be slowing down. According to reports on the ground, The military is slowly cutting fiber wire in the city of Yangon. It’s too early to tell, but this could be a systematic attempt to kill all internet use in the country.
Not being an international conflict, their military has no other rival. The UN is calling for sanctions.
This will probably be difficult to pull off. China has a general policy against sanctions as well as business interest in the country.
The US House of Representatives voted to denounce the coup happening in Myanmar. Out of all that voted, 14 republican representatives did not vote in favor of the denunciation.
US President Joe Biden has already denounced the coup and seized $1 Billion in Myanmar private funds. On March 25, the US Department of State imposed sanctions on two Burmese military holding companies, Myanmar Economic Holdings Public Company Limited and Myanmar Economic Corporation Limited. Time will tell how much good these sanctions can achieve.
As for when the strife might end, no one really knows.
“The kids are the one here pushing the revolution, pushing the movement” Sandy said. “ There are the ones being pretty smart about it, also.”
If you'd like to contribute to the cause in Myanmar, consider donating to The Civil Disobedience Movement in Myanmar. There are many "copycat" donation opportunities sprouting up, but this one goes directly to the people involved.