In this second part of our blog on the situation in Myanmar, we look at the developments that have taken place since the military coup a month ago.
The violence being perpetrated by security forces against the thousands of demonstrators across Myanmar has been getting worse: at least 54 people have reportedly been killed and over 1,700 detained since the takeover began on 1 February, with brutal footage released worldwide showing the military firing indiscriminately on protesters and attacking medical personnel.
The response to the coup from around the world has been anything but unified. Russia and China have both – predictably – declined to condemn the military takeover. Western leaders and the United Nations have called for the reimposition of economic sanctions. Asian countries, however, have shown little inclination to follow suit, citing a reluctance to interfere in Myanmar’s internal affairs. A regional perspective throwing some light on this stance was noted in the Japan Times: “Among Southeast Asia’s 10 countries, two are run by military men who staged coups, two are communist regimes with no elections, two have had ruling parties in power for more than two decades and one is an absolute monarchy.”
Christine Schraner Burgener, the UN’s special envoy for Myanmar, also pointed out that the military elite are not particularly worried about any new action that might be taken against them globally. Their position appears to be: “We are used to sanctions and we survived those sanctions in the past,” she said.
The Tatmadaw (military) cited electoral fraud as their reason for carrying out the coup, but even before the election had taken place last November there were indications that they would not accept the outcome. Following a massive victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), there were immediate demands for a re-run of the vote from the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The threat of a new takeover thus became a reality. Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint were arrested and Gen. Min Aung Hlaing took office as the Chairman of the State Administration Council of Myanmar.
The military leaders were not only motivated by the prospect of regaining power and control over the population. Unsurprisingly, personal wealth also played a huge part. The scale of corruption in this very poor country is immense. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing is one of the major shareholders in Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), which controls many state-owned industries, including the highly lucrative jade mining trade; other Tatmadaw leaders are also heavily involved in the most important economic sectors. As a spokesperson for the campaign group Justice for Myanmar noted, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing had long “exploited his position as commander-in-chief for his personal gain” and the coup “extends that power and privilege”.
Justice for Myanmar has also produced some very interesting background information on the technological preparations the Tatmadaw had made prior to the takeover. Details of this have been published in an informative piece in the New York Times. After the 2015 election and during the years of power-sharing with the NLD, the military apparently invested not only in technical equipment produced in authoritarian states such as China and Russia, but also in “Israeli-made surveillance drones, European iPhone cracking devices and American software that can hack into computers and vacuum up their contents”. This highly specialised surveillance technology enables the regime to track people’s movements; it found its way to Myanmar despite many western governments banning such exports after the expulsion of the Rohingya Muslims.
Ko Nay Yan Oo, a former fellow at the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, commented: “Even under a civilian government, there was little oversight of the military’s expenditure for surveillance technology. Now we are under military rule, and they can do everything they want.”
Along with building up their supplies of digital equipment, the military also made full use of Facebook as a means by which to communicate with the population. The social media platform is extremely popular in Myanmar. The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper claimed in 2013 that in the country, “a person without a Facebook identity is like a person without a home address”. The popularity of the platform can be linked to the lack of a free media in the many years of dictatorship. The Tatmadaw regularly used it to publish “inflammatory content” before Facebook took the decision to ban various military-run pages in 2018 for inciting violence and disseminating disinformation. Following the February coup, Facebook again acted decisively, this time banning the military’s main account altogether.
For its part, the Tatmadaw had already taken its own steps to block access to the platform, aware that protesters have been using it to organise further street demonstrations and to share information about atrocities being committed by the security forces. The widespread use of VPNs has allowed that ban to be circumvented, something which the authorities are aware of. One tweeter commented:
Now they’re even intruding into our private lives. They just randomly stop pedestrians on streets or pull drivers over to make them log into their Fb accs. Then, they check whether posts opposing the junta are uploaded or not. If any related post’s found, we’ll surely be sent to jail
Along with the mass demonstrations taking place across the country, threat intelligence researchers have seen a resurgence of activity among hacktivist groups and collectives, including those which operate under the Anonymous umbrella. In earlier years hacktivist action was very common; like-minded individuals around the world would take part in well-organised operations focusing on issues such as political corruption, police brutality, human rights, racism or environmentalism.
More recently, there has been a sharp drop in this type of activity. While Anonymous as a collective of independent hacktivists continues to exist, we no longer see coordinated campaigns operating in the same way. However, the coup in Myanmar has provided a catalyst for new cyber activity. A threat group known as MyanmarHackers quickly began to organise support for the street demonstrations by disrupting multiple government websites, including the Central Bank, the Tatmadaw’s propaganda page, state-run broadcaster MRTV, the Port Authority, and the Food and Drug Administration. While no further claims have been made on their Twitter feed, the hacktivists’ Facebook page is active, with posts announcing attacks on some of “the propaganda websites of the Myanmar terrorist regime”.
Other hacktivists also began to launch their own attacks. YourAnonCentral, which has taken the lead in publicising actions, released a video on Twitter announcing OpMyanmar, and a target list for websites in Myanmar was also released. The impact of these attacks is probably relatively low but nonetheless highlights that these groups can continue to garner. Myanmar’s cyber-security practices are notoriously lax, allowing even low-skilled hacktivists an opportunity to try their luck at defacing a page or taking a site offline. Whether or not we will see reports of more serious incidents involving the theft of data or ransomware attacks remains to be seen.
At present, it would appear that the most important activities being carried out online focus on informing the wider world about what is going on in Myanmar. The threat actor LorianSynaro, who has been very active in various cyber operations worldwide for a number of years, has compiled a GitHub page detailing “Myanmar junta evidences of repression” and has asked followers to send him videos of military and police brutality in Myanmar so that it can be documented.
The news footage and videos that make their way onto Twitter or other media show a worrying escalation in violence and further threats to the lives of the people of Myanmar; it seems likely that the situation will deteriorate still further in the coming weeks.