On 1 February, Myanmar soldiers landed before dawn carrying rifles and wire cutters. At gunpoint, he ordered telecom operators to shut down the Internet. According to a good eyewitness, the soldiers cut the wires without knowing anything.
The data center raids in Yangon and other cities in Myanmar were part of a coordinated strike in which the military seized power, shut down the country’s elected leaders and took most of its Internet users offline.
Since the coup, the military has repeatedly shut down the Internet and cut access to major social media sites, tearing apart a country that was only connected to the outside world over the years. The military regime has also enacted legislation that can criminalize the mild views expressed online.
Until now, Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar army, has relied on serious forms of control to restrict the flow of information. But the military seems serious about digital fencing to filter more aggressively what people see and do online. According to experts, developing such a system can take years and will require external help from Beijing or Moscow.
Such a comprehensive firewall can also have a heavy cost: the coup has paralyzed the struggling economy. Prolonged disruption will hurt local business interests and the confidence of foreign investors, as well as the military’s vast business interests.
“The military is afraid of people’s online activities, so they tried to block and shut down the Internet,” said Za Thurin Toon, president of a local chapter of the Myanmar Computer Professionals Association. “But now international bank transactions have stopped, and the country’s economy is declining. It is as if their urine is watering their face. “
If Myanmar’s digital controls become permanent, they will add to global walls that are increasingly fragmented into what used to be an open, frontier Internet. The bloc will also present new evidence that more countries are looking towards China’s authoritarian model to tame the Internet. Two weeks after the coup, Cambodia, which is in China’s economic zone, also unveiled its own extensive Internet controls.
Even policymakers in the United States and Europe are setting their own rules, although these are far less severe. Technologists worry that such moves could eventually break the Internet, effectively weakening online networks that connect the world together.
The people of Myanmar may have gone online later than others, but their enthusiasm for the Internet has the enthusiasm of the converts. Communications on Facebook and Twitter, along with secure messaging apps, have united millions in opposition to the coup.
Despite fears of a bloody conflict, daily street protests against the military have gathered strength in recent times. Beijing rallied on China’s diplomatic missions in Myanmar, accusing Beijing of exporting tools of authoritarianism to its smaller neighbor.
Two major Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE built much of Myanmar’s telecommunications network, especially when Western financial sanctions made it difficult for other foreign companies in the country to operate.
Telenor and Ooredo, Myanmar’s two foreign-owned telecom operators, have complied with several demands from the military, including instructions to cut the Internet every night for the past week and block specific websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
At all times, the Army has placed officers of its Signal Corps as in charge of the Department of Posts and Telecommunications, according to two people with knowledge of the department’s staff.
A 36-page draft cyber security law, distributed to telecommunications and Internet service providers in the week following the coup Drakanian rules, would give the military broad authority to block websites and cut access to users harassing users. The law would also allow the government wider access to users’ data, which it should store for three years to Internet providers.
“The cybercity law is simply a law to arrest people going online,” said Ma Hatike Hikeik Aung, executive director of MIDO, a civil society tracking technology in Myanmar. “If it passes, the digital economy will move into our country.”
When the draft law was sent for comment for foreign telecoms, representatives of the officials told the officials that according to two people with knowledge of the negotiations, rejection of the law was not an option.
Those people and others spoke to The New York Times on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the new regime, along with information about ongoing efforts in Myanmar on the Internet.
The draft cyber security law follows a long-term effort to build surveillance capabilities within the country, often indicated by China. Last year, Norway-owned company Telenor raised concerns about a government push to enter the identities of individuals purchasing cellphone services, which would allow officials to link names to phone numbers.
Thus the campaign in Myanmar has so far been unsuccessful, although it is similar to China’s real-name registration policies, becoming a keystone of Beijing’s surveillance state. The program mirrored Myanmar’s ambitions, but also how far China has come close to what it has done.
In recent years, Huawei surveillance cameras have been created to track cars and people and have also moved to the country’s largest cities and to the short-lived capital, Napidaw. A top cyber security official in Myanmar recently showed pictures of such road surveillance technology on his personal Facebook page.
A spokesman for Huawei declined to comment about the system.
For now, even as anti-Chinese demonstrations grow out of fear of influx of high-tech devices, Tatmad has ordered telecommunications companies to use less sophisticated methods to disrupt Internet access. The method of choice is to interpret website addresses that computers need to view specific sites, a practice for listing the wrong number under a person’s name in a phone book.
Savvier Internet users skirt the block with a virtual private network or VPN but in the past week, access to some popular free VPNs in Myanmar has been disrupted. And paid services, which are difficult to stop, are unfair to most people in the country who lack the international credit card required to buy them.
Nevertheless, Myanmar, one of the poorest countries in Asia, has developed a surprisingly strong technical command. Over the past decade, according to educational data from Myanmar and Russia, thousands of military officers have studied in Russia, where they were placed in the latest information technology.
In 2018, the Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications, which was then under a hybrid civil-military government, diverted $ 4.5 million from an emergency fund to use for a social media monitoring team aimed at “spreading unrest in Myanmar and Abusive foreign sources were to be stopped. ” . “
Technical experts in Myanmar said that thousands of cyber soldiers work under military command. Each morning, more websites and VPNs get blocked after the nighttime internet is shut down, showing the hardworking of soldiers.
“We see an army that has been using analog methods for decades, but is also trying to adopt new technology,” said Hunter Marston, a Southeast Asia researcher at the Australian National University. “While this has been implemented randomly for now, they are setting up a system to sweep anyone who posts anything that is a threat to the regime from afar.”
Mr Zaw Thurin Tun of the Myanmar Computer Professionals Association said that he was browsing the Internet shortly after the coup, when a group of men arrived to arrest him. Other digital activists were already detained nationwide. He ran away.
He It is now in hiding, but helping to direct a civil disobedience campaign against the military. Mr Zaw Thurin Tun said that he is concerned that Tatmadov is assembling his own firewall with brick, digital brick.
“Then we’ll all be in complete darkness again,” he said.