How the military behind the Myanmar coup took the country offline

Myanmar soldiers went down before dawn on February 1, carrying rifles and pliers. At gunpoint, they ordered technicians from telecom operators to turn off the internet. To be sure, soldiers cut wires without knowing what they were cutting, according to an eyewitness and a person informed about the events.

The attacks on the data center in Yangon and other cities in Myanmar were part of a coordinated attack in which the military seized power, arrested the country’s elected leaders and took most Internet users off the air.

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

So far, the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, has relied on rougher forms of control to restrict the flow of information. But the army seems serious about creating a digital fence to more aggressively filter what people see and do online. The development of such a system could take years and is likely to require outside assistance from Beijing or Moscow, according to experts.

This comprehensive firewall can also take a heavy toll: Internet disruptions since the coup have paralyzed a struggling economy. Longer interruptions will damage local commercial interests and the confidence of foreign investors, as well as the military’s vast commercial interests.

“The military is afraid of people’s online activities, so they tried to block and turn off the internet,” said Ko Zaw Thurein Tun, president of a local chapter of the Myanmar Association of Computer Professionals. “But now international banking has stopped and the country’s economy is in decline. It is as if your urine watered your own face. “

If Myanmar’s digital controls become permanent, they will increase the global walls that are increasingly dividing what should be an open and borderless Internet. The blockades would also offer new evidence that more countries are looking to China’s authoritarian model for taming the internet. Two weeks after the coup, Cambodia, which is under China’s economic dominance, also unveiled its own comprehensive internet controls.

Even policymakers in the United States and Europe are setting their own rules, although they are much less severe. Technologists fear that such movements could ultimately break the Internet, effectively undermining the online networks that unite the world.

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 apps, brought together millions of people in opposition to the coup.

Daily street protests against the military have gained strength in recent days, despite fears of bloody repression. Protesters flocked to China’s diplomatic missions in Myanmar, accusing Beijing of exporting the tools of authoritarianism to its smaller neighbor.

Huawei and ZTE, two large Chinese companies, have built much of Myanmar’s telecommunications network, especially when Western financial sanctions have hampered the operation of other foreign companies in the country.

Myanmar’s two foreign telecom operators, Telenor and Ooredo, met a number of demands from the military, including instructions to shut down the Internet every night last week and block specific sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

At the same time, the military has placed officers from its Signaling Corps in charge of the Department of Posts and Telecommunications, according to two people who know the department’s staff.

A 36-page cybersecurity bill that was distributed to telecom operators and Internet service providers the week after the coup describes draconian rules that would give the military comprehensive powers to block websites and cut off access to users considered problematic. The law would also allow the government broad access to users’ data, which stipulates that Internet service 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 monitors technology in Myanmar. “If approved, the digital economy will end in our country.”

When the draft law was sent for comment on foreign telecommunications, company representatives were told by officials that rejecting the law was not an option, according to two people familiar with the talks.

These people and others with knowledge of ongoing attempts to crack down on the internet in Myanmar spoke to The New York Times on the condition of anonymity because of the sensibilities of the new regime.

The cybersecurity bill follows a years-long effort in the country to develop surveillance resources, often following suggestions from China. Last year, Telenor, a Norwegian company, raised concerns about pressure from the government to register the identities of individuals who buy cell phone services, which would allow authorities to link names to phone numbers.

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

In recent years, Huawei surveillance cameras, made to track cars and people, have also been installed in the country’s largest cities and in the underpopulated capital of Naypyidaw. A leading cybersecurity officer in Myanmar recently showed photos of this road monitoring technology on his personal Facebook page.

A spokesman for Huawei declined to comment on the systems.

For now, while anti-Chinese protests are mounting over fear of an influx of high-tech equipment, Tatmadaw has ordered telecommunications companies to use less sophisticated methods to make access to the Internet more difficult. The method chosen is to decouple website addresses from the series of numbers a computer needs to search for specific websites, a practice similar to listing a wrong number under a person’s name in a phone book.

More experienced internet users avoid blocking virtual private networks or VPNs. But last week, access to some popular free VPNs in Myanmar was hampered. And paid services, which are more difficult to block, are inaccessible to most people in the country, who also do not have the international credit cards needed to purchase them.

Still, for one of the poorest countries in Asia, Myanmar has developed a surprisingly robust technical command. In the past decade, thousands of military officers studied in Russia, where they were trained in the latest information technologies, 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 use in a social media monitoring team that “aims to prevent foreign sources that interfere and incite unrest in Myanmar. “

Thousands of cyber soldiers operate under military command, technology experts in Myanmar said. Each morning, after the Internet shutdown at night, more sites and VPNs are blocked, showing the soldiers’ diligence.

“We see military men who have been using analog methods for decades, but are also trying to adopt new technologies,” said Hunter Marston, a Southeast Asian researcher at Australian National University. “Although it is applied randomly for now, they are setting up a system to scan anyone who posts anything that threatens the regime, even remotely.”

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 arrived to arrest him. Other digital activists have already been detained across the country. He ran.

He is now in hiding, but he is helping to direct a civil disobedience campaign against the military. Zaw Thurein Tun said he was concerned that Tatmadaw was building, brick by brick, its own firewall.

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