June 7, 2023

The Myanmar soldiers dismounted with rifles and wire cutters before dawn on February 1. At gunpoint, they ordered technicians at telecommunications operators to turn off the Internet. According to an eyewitness and a person who was briefed on the events, the soldiers cut wires without knowing what they were cutting.

The raids on data centers in Yangon and other Myanmar cities were part of a coordinated strike that saw the military take power, incarcerated the country’s elected leaders and put most internet users offline.

Since the coup, the military has repeatedly shut down the internet and blocked access to key social media sites, isolating a country that has only been connected to the outside world in recent years. The military regime has also passed laws that could criminalize the mildest opinions expressed online.

Until now, the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is called, has relied on more crude forms of control to restrict the flow of information. But the army seems serious about putting up a digital fence to more aggressively filter what people are seeing and doing online. Such a system could take years to develop and, according to experts, would likely require outside help from Beijing or Moscow.

Such a comprehensive firewall can also come at a high price: Internet outages since the coup have crippled a weak economy. Prolonged disruption harms local business interests and the trust of foreign investors, as well as the major business interests of the military.

“The military is scared of people’s online activities and is trying to block and shut down the internet,” said Ko Zaw Thurein Tun, president of a local chapter of the Myanmar Computer Professionals Association. “But now international banking has stopped and the country’s economy is in decline. It’s like her urine is watering her own face. “

If Myanmar’s digital controls become permanent, they would add to the global walls that are increasingly dividing the supposedly open, borderless Internet. The blocks would also provide new evidence that more and more countries are using China’s authoritarian model to tame the Internet. Two weeks after the coup, Cambodia, which is under China’s economic influence, also exposed its own extensive internet controls.

Even policymakers in the US and Europe set their own rules, although these are far less strict. Technologists fear that such moves could ultimately destroy the internet and effectively undermine the online networks that connect the world.

Myanmar people may have got online later than most, but their enthusiasm for the Internet has the zeal of converts. Communication on Facebook and Twitter as well as secure messaging apps united millions of people against the coup.

Daily street protests against the military have grown in strength in recent days despite fears of bloody action. Protesters have gathered at China’s diplomatic missions in Myanmar and accused Beijing of exporting the tools of authoritarianism to its smaller neighbor.

Huawei and ZTE, two large Chinese companies, built much of the telecommunications network in Myanmar, especially when Western financial sanctions made it difficult for other foreign firms to operate in the country.

The two foreign-owned telecom operators in Myanmar, Telenor and Ooredoo, met numerous demands from the military over the past week, including instructions to shut down the internet every night and block certain websites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Meanwhile, the military has hired officers from its Signal Corps to be responsible for the Post and Telecommunications Department, two people with knowledge of the department’s staffing.

A 36-page draft cybersecurity bill, distributed to telecommunications and internet service providers a week after the coup, contains draconian rules that would give the military extensive powers to block websites and block access to users who are considered problematic be valid. The law would also give the government wide access to user data that ISPs would have to keep for three years.

“The cybersecurity law is just a law to arrest people who are online,” said Ma Htaike Htaike Aung, executive director of MIDO, a civil society group that persecutes technology in Myanmar. “If it goes through, the digital economy in our country will be gone.”

When the draft law was sent to foreign telecommunications for comment, company representatives were informed by the authorities that, according to two people with knowledge of the talks, rejecting the law was not an option.

These and others who were aware of the ongoing attempts to crack down on the Internet in Myanmar spoke to the New York Times on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the new regime.

The draft cybersecurity law follows the country’s longstanding efforts to expand surveillance capabilities, often based on China. Last year, Telenor, a Norwegian-owned company, expressed concerns about a government push to register the identities of people who buy cell phone services, which could allow authorities to link names to phone numbers.

The campaign in Myanmar has so far been unsuccessful, although it shares similarities with China’s real name registration guidelines, which have become a cornerstone of the surveillance state in Beijing. The program reflected Myanmar’s ambitions, but also how far it is from achieving something close to what China has done.

In recent years, Huawei surveillance cameras used to track cars and people have also appeared in the country’s largest cities and the underpopulated capital of Naypyidaw. A senior cybersecurity worker in Myanmar recently posted photos of this road surveillance technology on his personal Facebook page.

A Huawei spokesman declined to comment on the systems.

Even as anti-Chinese protests grow over fears of an influx of high-tech equipment, Tatmadaw has directed telecommunications companies to use less sophisticated methods of obstructing Internet access for the time being. The method of choice is to decouple website addresses from the series of numbers a computer needs to look up specific websites. This is equivalent to listing an incorrect number under someone’s name in a phone book.

Savvier Internet users bypass the blocks with virtual private networks or VPNs. However, over the past week, access to some popular free VPNs in Myanmar has been blocked. And paid services that are harder to block are unaffordable for most of the people in the country who also lack the international credit cards required to purchase them.

Still, Myanmar has developed a surprisingly robust technical command for one of the poorest countries in Asia. For the past decade, thousands of military personnel have studied in Russia, where they were trained in the latest information technology, according to educational data from Myanmar and Russia.

In 2018, the Department of Transportation and Telecommunications, then under a hybrid civil-military government, diverted $ 4.5 million from an emergency fund to use on a social media surveillance team that “prevents foreign sources supposed to interfere in Myanmar and cause unrest. ”

According to cyber experts in Myanmar, thousands of cyber soldiers operate under military command. Every morning after the nightly internet shutdowns, additional websites and VPNs are blocked, which shows the hardworking of the soldiers.

“We’re seeing a military that has used analog methods for decades but has also tried to take advantage of new technology,” said Hunter Marston, a Southeast Asia researcher at Australian National University. “While it is being used arbitrarily for the time being, they are putting in place a system to sweep anyone who publishes anything that even remotely threatens the regime.”

Mr. Zaw Thurein Tun, of the Myanmar Computer Professionals Association, said he was sitting at home browsing the internet shortly after the coup when a group of men arrived to arrest him. Other digital activists had already been arrested across the country. He ran.

He is now hiding but is helping lead a campaign against civil disobedience to the military. Mr Zaw Thurein Tun said he was concerned that the Tatmadaw is putting together its own firewall brick by brick.

“Then we’ll all be in complete darkness again,” he said.