Myanmar soldiers arrived before dawn on February 1, carrying rifles and wire cutters. They ordered the technicians at the telecom operators to turn off the internet. For good measure, the soldiers cut off the wires without knowing what they were cutting, according to one witness and one who narrated the incident.
The raids on data centers in Yangon and other cities in Myanmar are part of a coordinated attack in which the military takes power, locks the country’s elected leaders, and brings most of the people in. use their internet to the network.
Since the coup, the military has repeatedly turned off the Internet and cut access to major social media sites, isolating a country that has been linked to the outside world for only a few years. The military regime has also enacted laws that can criminalize the mildest of opinions expressed online.
So far, the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, has relied on more rudimentary forms of control to limit the flow of information. But the military seems serious about setting up digital barriers to more powerful filtering of what people watch and do online. Developing such a system could take years, experts say, and may require outside help from Beijing or Moscow.
Such a comprehensive firewall can also come at a high price: The loss of the internet since the coup has paralyzed a struggling economy. Longer disruptions will damage local business interests and foreign investor confidence and the military’s broad business interests.
“The military is scared of everyone’s online activities, so they try to block and shut down the internet,” said Ko Zaw Thurein Tun, president of a local branch of the Myanmar Computer Professionals Association. “But now international banking transactions have stopped, and the country’s economy is in decline. It’s like their urine is watering their own face. ”
If Myanmar’s digital controls become permanent, they will add to global walls increasingly dividing what is supposed to be an open, borderless internet. The blocs will also provide new evidence that many countries are looking for a Chinese model of dictatorship to dominate the Internet. Two weeks after the coup, Cambodia, which is heavily influenced by China’s economy, also announced its own sweeping internet controls.
Even policymakers in the United States and Europe are setting their own rules, although those are much less severe. Technologists fear such moves could eventually disrupt the Internet, effectively undermining the online networks that link the world together.
Burmese people may be online later than most, but their enthusiasm for the Internet also has that of those who have transformed. Communication on Facebook and Twitter, along with secure messaging apps, unite millions of people against the coup.
Daily street protests against the military have gathered strength in recent days, despite fears of a bloody crackdown. Protesters gathered at China’s diplomatic missions in Myanmar, accusing Beijing of exporting tools of authoritarianism to its smaller neighbor.
Huawei and ZTE, two major Chinese companies, have built the bulk of Myanmar’s telecom network, especially as Western financial sanctions make it difficult for other foreign companies to operate in Myanmar. this country.
Myanmar’s two foreign-owned telecom operators, Telenor and Ooredo, have complied with numerous requests from the military, including instructions to cut off the Internet every night for the past week and block specific websites, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Meanwhile, the military has placed officers from its Signals Corps in charge of the Ministry of Posts and Telematics, according to two people with knowledge of the ministry’s payroll.
A 36-page cybersecurity bill to be delivered to telecom and internet service providers the week after the coup outlines draconian rules that will allow the military to sweep the web and cut off authority. access by users is considered annoying. The law would also give the government broad access to users’ data, which requires internet providers to store for three years.
Ma Htaike Htaike Aung, executive director of MIDO, a civil society group specializing in technology surveillance in Myanmar, said: “Cyber security law is just a law to arrest people who are online. “If it goes through, the digital economy will no longer be in our country.”
When the bill was submitted for comments from foreign telecom carriers, representatives of the companies were told by the authorities that rejection of the law was not an option, according to two knowledgeable people. about chats.
Those people and others with knowledge of ongoing attempts to sweep the internet in Myanmar spoke to The New York Times on condition of anonymity because of the new regime’s sensitivity.
The draft cybersecurity bill follows a multi-year domestic effort to build surveillance capabilities, often following signs from China. Last year, Telenor, a Norwegian-owned company, raised concerns about the government’s push to register the identities of individuals buying cell phone services, which would allow the government to join. name with phone number.
The campaign in Myanmar has so far been unsuccessful, although it shares similarities with China’s real-name registration policies, which have become the foundation of Beijing’s surveillance status. The show reflects Myanmar’s ambitions, but how far away is it going to be to achieve anything close to what China has already done.
In recent years, Huawei’s surveillance cameras have been made to monitor cars, and residents have also grown in the country’s largest cities and in the less populated capital Naypyidaw. A top cybersecurity official in Myanmar recently showed off photos of such road surveillance technology on his personal Facebook page.
A Huawei spokesperson declined to comment on the system.
For now, even as anti-China protests intensify over concerns about a host of high-tech equipment, Tatmadaw has ordered telecom companies to use less sophisticated methods to thwart tracing. internet access. The method of choice was to separate website addresses from the series of numbers that a computer needed to look up specific web pages, a practice like listing a false number under the name of a person in the phone book.
Savvier internet users bypass blocks with virtual private networks or VPNs But over the past week, access to some of the popular free VPNs in Myanmar has been hampered. And the paid services, harder to block, are unaffordable to most people in the country, who also lack the international credit cards needed to buy them.
However, for one of Asia’s poorest nations, Myanmar has developed an incredibly powerful technical command system. According to educational data from Myanmar and Russia over the past decade, thousands of military officers have studied in Russia, where they learn in the latest information technology.
In 2018, the Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications, then part of the military-civilian government, transferred $ 4.5 million from the emergency fund for use by the social media monitoring group for “Prevent foreign sources from interfering and incite instability in Myanmar. “
Tech experts in Myanmar say thousands of cyber soldiers operate under the military’s command. Every morning, after the internet was turned off every night, more websites and VPNs were blocked, showing the diligence of the soldiers.
Hunter Marston, a Southeast Asia researcher at the Australian National University, said: “We see an army that has used similar methods for decades but is also trying to adopt new technology. “Even though it’s applied messily right now, they’re setting up a system to scan for anyone posting anything even remotely threatening the mode.”
Mr. Zaw Thurein Tun, of the Myanmar Association of Computer Professionals, said that he was sitting at home, browsing the internet right after the coup, when a group of people came to arrest him. Other digital activists have been detained across the country. He runs.
He is currently in hiding but is helping to direct a campaign against the civilian disobedience army. Mr. Zaw Thurein Tun said he was concerned that Tatmadaw was assembling, digital brick by block, its own firewall.
“Then we will all be in complete darkness again,” he said.