On 1 February, after more than 10 years of gradual political reform, a military coup took place in Myanmar, ending the rule of the National League for Democracy (NLD); party leader Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested, and in the following days other prominent politicians, including President Win Myint and members of the government, were detained. The Myanmar military (the Tatmadaw) announced a state of emergency that would last for one year.
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to denounce the takeover and demand the immediate release of the detainees and a return to democracy. Despite the Tatmadaw warning protesters that they could face up to 20 years in prison for “preventing the security forces from carrying out their duties”, the demonstrations have continued across the country. Civil servants, teachers, engineers, health workers have also been taking strike action in Naypyidaw, the seat of government.
This month’s coup was not entirely unexpected. In November 2020, the Tatmadaw-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) suffered a huge loss in the general elections when the NLD took 83% of the vote: allegations of voter fraud surfaced almost immediately and have been used as justification for the military takeover.
The protests that have been taking place were also predictable. Myanmar is no stranger to large-scale political demonstrations. In 1988, hundreds were killed when troops opened fire on a rally calling for the end of the military dictatorship and mass protests have taken place regularly since then: notably in 2007, when several hundred people were arrested after a series of demonstrations against the economic policies of the ruling military junta. But what has differentiated the demonstrations this time has been the ability of participants to use the internet to organise protests or strikes, and ensure their messages are shared as widely as possible.
When the military takeover began on 1 February, the new regime disrupted communications by shutting down the internet. Although this was restored relatively quickly, it soon became apparent that the protest movement was growing rapidly, aided by social media. Along with posting information on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, activists shared details on messaging apps. Mindful that online access could be cut again at any time, Bridgefy proved an especially popular download, as it allows anyone to use apps without an internet connection.
Hashtags such as #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar and #CrimesAgainstHumanity began to trend on Twitter, while on Facebook – particularly popular in Myanmar – #MyanmarCoup2021 was being used by many thousands of people as they posted pictures and comments about the demonstrations, the arrests of peaceful protesters, and alleged violence by the security forces. The military leaders claimed that the social media platforms were being used to destabilise the nation via disseminating misinformation and propaganda, and on 5 February they issued directives ordering ISPs to block Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Access to the internet was cut again on the night of 14 February. Monitoring group NetBlocks reported that the “state-ordered information blackout” had resulted in an almost total withdrawal of services before they were restored after around eight hours.
High levels of censorship are nothing new in Myanmar. The country’s main ISP, Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT), is government-owned and the Ministry of Transport and Communications (MoTC) therefore controls a great deal of the telecommunications infrastructure, with the power to cut access to the internet or to block websites with content deemed dubious or dangerous for the ruling regime. Even before the military takeover took place, online access and freedom of expression had declined. In June 2019 mobile services were cut in parts of Rakhine State and Chin State, and in March 2020 the government ordered ISPs to block some regionally based news outlets. A year later, further censorship measures were implemented as the elections in November approached.
It appears that additional restrictions are now being planned. A few days after the coup, the MoTC issued a directive about a new “Cyber Security Bill”. In a statement, the Asia Internet Coalition, whose members include Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon, said: “This would significantly undermine freedom of expression and represents a regressive step after years of progress. We urge the military leaders to consider the potentially devastating consequences of these proposed laws on Myanmar’s people and economy.”
Worldwide condemnation of the takeover was swift. The G7 countries called on the Tatmadaw to end the state of emergency, respect the results of the elections, and release detainees. The UN warned of “severe consequences” if the military used force to disperse the protesters.
The possible imposition of new economic sanctions on Myanmar has also been raised. Its regional neighbours, however, are unlikely to support such measures. The Indian government fully understands the importance of maintaining a cordial relationship with the new regime for important economic and political reasons. Similarly, with nearly one million Rohingya refugees now living in Bangladesh, there will be no desire on the part of that country’s leaders to endanger negotiations for their agreed return to Myanmar.
China’s reaction to the coup is of particular concern. It has a wide range of strategic and economic interests in the country and has been investing heavily in industrial development and infrastructure there; moreover, Myanmar has important oil and gas reserves. Maintaining a good relationship and regional stability is therefore high on Beijing’s priority list.
In the West, there is a range of opinions about China’s possible response. Some believe that Myanmar’s military leaders must have had the support of Beijing – or at least “tacit approval” – to launch the coup. Dan Sullivan, a Republican senator from Alaska, claims the Chinese government is “clearly focused on exporting the authoritarian model China has” and would “take a lot of comfort in having a country like Burma fail in terms of its democratic aspirations”. Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C, however, argues that the Chinese leaders do not see the “return to a junta and the instability accompanying it in Myanmar to be in Beijing’s best interests”. Other analysts have pointed out that the Tatmadaw has retained “a deep institutional suspicion of China,” due to Beijing’s support of communist insurgents and ethnic armed groups in Myanmar; China may well not be its most favoured international partner.
Many social media users have also been claiming the Tatmadaw is being supported by the Chinese government, which has allegedly sent IT experts to Yangon to assist with tightening control over the internet. A typical tweet read:
“Chinese Gov is urgently helping Junta to set up Internet Firewall to block FB, Twitter, Google including VPN and tighten CYBER LAW. Five flights from Kunming have arrived Yangon. Witnesses said most the passengers are IT technicians #ChinaSetupFirewallforJunta #ShameOnYouChina”
While Beijing has rejected the claims that it has been helping Myanmar to build cyber defences similar to the Great Firewall of China, its expertise in the sphere would be very valuable to the Tatmadaw. Myanmar’s cybersecurity defences are notoriously weak. In 2017, at the height of the Rohingya crisis, government and financial websites were routinely and easily breached by hacktivists, and limited improvement has been seen since then.
More than two weeks on from the coup, the protests in Myanmar continue unabated. Military officials have promised new elections in the country, but no date has been given. Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi is reportedly facing further criminal charges, and the possibility of a brutal crackdown on the demonstrators remains.