How the armed forces behind Myanmar’s coup ditched the country

Myanmar soldiers descended before dawn on February 1 with rifles and wire cutters. At gunpoint, they ordered the technicians of the telecommunications operators to turn off the Internet. To a large extent, the soldiers cut cables without knowing what they were cutting, according to a witness and a person briefed on the events.

The data center raids in Yangon and other cities in Myanmar were part of a coordinated attack in which the military seized power, locked up the country’s elected leaders and disconnected most of its Internet users.

Since the coup, the military has repeatedly shut down the internet and cut off access to major social media sites, isolating a country that only in recent years had linked itself to the outside world. The military regime has also launched legislation that could criminalize the softer opinions expressed online.

Until now, the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, has relied on cruder forms of control to restrict the flow of information. But the military seems serious about creating a digital fence to more aggressively filter what people see and do online. Developing such a system could take years and would likely require outside help from Beijing or Moscow, experts say.

Such a comprehensive firewall can also take a heavy toll: Internet outages since the coup have crippled a struggling economy. Longer outages will hurt local business interests and the confidence of foreign investors, as well as the vast business interests of the military.

“The military is afraid of people’s online activities, so they tried 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 transactions have stopped and the country’s economy is declining. It’s like urine is wetting his face. “

If Myanmar’s digital controls become permanent, they would add to the global walls that increasingly divide what was supposed to be an open, borderless Internet. The blocks would also offer new evidence that more countries are seeking China’s authoritarian model to dominate the internet. Two weeks after the coup, Cambodia, which is under China’s economic dominance, also revealed its own radical internet controls.

Even policy makers in the United States and Europe are setting their own rules, although they are much less severe. Technologists worry that such moves could end up breaking the internet, effectively undermining the online networks that link the world together.

The people of Myanmar may have gone online later than most others, but their enthusiasm for the Internet has the zeal of converts. Communications on Facebook and Twitter, along with secure messaging applications, have united millions of people in opposition to the coup.

Daily street protests against the military have gathered steam in recent days, despite fears of a bloody crackdown. Protesters have demonstrated at China’s diplomatic missions in Myanmar, accusing Beijing of exporting the tools of authoritarianism to its smaller neighbor.

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

Myanmar’s two foreign-owned telecom operators, Telenor and Ooredo, have complied with numerous 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.

Meanwhile, the military has put officers from its Signal Corps in charge of the Department of Posts and Telecommunications, according to two people with knowledge of the department’s staffing.

A 36-page cybersecurity bill that was distributed to Internet and telecom service providers the week after the coup describes draconian rules that would give the military radical powers to block websites and cut off access to users deemed problematic. . The law would also allow the government broad access to user data, which stipulates that internet providers must store 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 tracks technology in Myanmar. “If it is approved, the digital economy will disappear in our country.”

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

Those individuals and others with knowledge 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 a year-long effort within the country to develop surveillance capabilities, often following cues from China. Last year, Telenor, a Norwegian-owned company, raised concerns about a government push to register the identities of people who buy cell phone services, which would allow authorities to link names to phone numbers.

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

In recent years, Huawei’s surveillance cameras designed to track cars and people have also been installed in the country’s largest cities and the unpopulated capital Naypyidaw. A senior cyber security official in Myanmar recently posted photos of such road monitoring technology on his personal Facebook page.

A Huawei spokesperson declined to comment on the systems.

For now, even as protests against China mount over fears of an influx of high-tech equipment, the Tatmadaw has ordered telecommunications companies to use less sophisticated methods to hinder Internet access. The method of choice is to decouple website addresses from the series of numbers that a computer needs to search for specific sites, a practice similar to putting the wrong number with a person’s name in a phone book.

The smartest internet users border the blocks with virtual private networks or VPNs. But for the past week, access to some popular free VPNs in Myanmar has been hampered. And payment services, which are harder to block, are unaffordable for most people in the country, who also lack the necessary international credit cards to purchase them.

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

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 be used for social media monitoring equipment that “aims to prevent foreign sources from interfering and incite riots in Myanmar. “

Thousands of cyber soldiers operate under military command, tech experts in Myanmar said. Every morning after nightly internet shutdowns, more websites and VPNs are blocked, demonstrating the industriousness of the soldiers.

“We see an army that has been using analog methods for decades, but is also trying to adopt new technologies,” said Hunter Marston, a Southeast Asian researcher at the Australian National University. “While it is being applied haphazardly for now, they are setting up a system to sweep away anyone who posts something that is even remotely threatening to the regime.”

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

Now he is in hiding, but he is helping to lead a civil disobedience campaign against the military. Mr. Zaw Thurein Tun said he is concerned that the Tatmadaw is assembling, brick by digital brick, its own firewall.

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

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