Resisting Myanmar’s Digital Coup: Voices from Frontline Defenders & ASEAN Solidarity
BANGKOK, Thailand - On 18 February 2021, the ASEAN Regional Coalition to #StopDigitalDictatorship led by ALTSEAN Burma, Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), ELSAM, Manushya Foundation, PEN Myanmar, and SAFEnet, hosted the “Myanmar’s Digital Coup: What can we do to resist?” Live webinar to discuss the digital dictatorship imposed on netizens, media outlets, internet service providers and social media platforms by the military coup in Myanmar. The Military Coup which took place on 1st February in Myanmar is also a digital coup. Not only the Myanmar military has issued order to shutdown the internet and pressure internet service providers and social media, but the regime is drafting a new cybersecurity law. The end goal of the Tatmadaw is to stop the domestic and international information flow on #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar. During the webinar, activists resisting on the ground and SEA partners provided their analysis and how they are resisting this digital coup, offering practical solutions to support frontline defenders on the ground and build a stronger ASEAN solidarity.
Moderated by Ms. Debbie Stothard, Founder & Coordinator of ALTSEAN Burma, the conversation greatly benefited from voices at the forefront of the digital resistance, despite restrictions in the country, honestly and openly sharing their challenges, calling for resistance and solidarity; and providing their solutions. These included:
Thinzar Shunlei Yi, Anti-coup Activist, Youth Advocate & Feminist;
Ko Swe Win, Editor-in-Chef, Myanmar Now
Ma Thida, Board member of PEN International & Member of PEN Myanmar
Tin Tin Nyo, Managing Director of BNI Multimedia Group
Commentators from the Asian region showed strong ASEAN solidarity, reflecting on the Myanmar’s Coup, including:
Damar Juniarto, Executive Director of SafeNet
Sopheap Chak, Executive Director of Cambodian Center for Human Rights – CCHR
Raman Chima, Asia Policy Director at Access Now
Emilie Palamy Pradichit, Founder & Executive Director of Manushya Foundation
Watch the LIVE WEBINAR on our Youtube Channel:
SUMMARY OF THE CONVERSATION
Part 1: #WhatIsHappeningInMyanmar: Voices from the Ground
A Youth’s perspective: Ms. Thinzar Shunlei Yi
Opening the discussion, Ms. Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a Youth Anti-coup Activist and Feminist informed the audience about the latest digital restrictions faced by young people resisting the coup and how activists were dealing with these restrictions.
Ban on social media platforms: She shared that in addition to having daily protests, the junta has imposed a curfew both online and offline with a digital curfew enforced for three days in a row, from 1 am to 9 am. She pointed out that this accompanies a Facebook, Twitter and Instagram ban; with the platforms only accessible with VPN.
Lack of digital security awareness among young people: Ms. Thinzar highlighted the struggle they face with digital devices, as civil society activists often do not know what may be dangerous to them when using the devices. Furthermore, there is not enough awareness about digital security even amongst the generation Z. With several apps launched to mobilise people for the protests, young people are using them without being aware of how to be secure on these apps.
Repressive digital laws, harassment & imprisonment of human rights defenders: Additionally, Ms. Thinzar also discussed the laws, restrictions and orders imposed by the junta, such as the new Cybersecurity Law and the amendment of the Penal Code to impose higher penalties, resulting in jail time of up to or more than 10 years. As a result of this, she pointed out that detention and harassment continued with nearly 500 political prisoners at present who have been detained only since 1 February, while up till December 2020 there were about 600 political prisoners jailed.
Thinzar’s solutions: Ms. Thinzar also provided solutions to address the digital dictatorship faced by the civil society of Myanmar, including by raising awareness about digital security; flooding social media platforms with information on digital tools and how to mobilise protests safely; and holding social media companies such as Facebook, TikTok and Viber accountable for propaganda being spread by the military through misinformation and disinformation on their platforms causing religious and ethnic tensions.
Ms. Thinzar Shunlei Yei, youth anti-coup activist
“A coup comes in a package of oppression and restriction of our freedom of speech, online and offline with violent crackdowns. This coup or dictatorship has been extended to digital platforms and in our digital lives as well.”
Journalists are held hostage with Media Freedom under Attack: Mr. Ko Swe Win
Mr. Ko Swe Win, Editor-in-Chief of Myanmar Now, winner of the prestigious Magsaysay Award and a hard-hitting investigative journalist joining from a secret location for security reasons was invited to explain what faces those at Myanmar Now and other media organisations. Mr. Ko Swe Win shared that they have been actively covering the coup and its aftermath, even though they live and work in fear on a daily basis. In fact, he stated that media on the ground had alerted a military coup was about to take place. They are waiting for the full-blown assault of the state with the full-fledged police state being re-established by the military regime. With the regime having so many enemies and opposition groups to deal with, Mr. Ko Swe Win pointed out that the military has an unspoken policy that will not target the media immediately, but there is an indication that it would happen soon. The Ministry of Information issued a statement asking the media to address the regime only by its formal name of ‘State Administrative Council’, and not as the military junta or any similar name. Mr. Ko Swe Win stated that they will not comply with these orders in their reporting, even if it means that they would need to shut down their operations.
On the ground, Mr. Ko Swe Win says their work continues to be disrupted owing to the internet blackout and the potential assault they may face anytime. Even before the coup, there were rumours on social media that they would be attacked as part of a hit list. Mr. Ko Swe Win said they found the hit list to be authentic and included individuals as well as organisations who were arrested and jailed in the early hours of 1 February 2020 when the coup was launched. After being the only news organisation that wrote a coup would take place in 72 hours with Aung San Suu Kyi and all the top political leaders detained by the military, Myanmar Now was in a difficult position. Mr. Ko Swe Win also illustrated that the premeditated and coordinated information warfare and propaganda launched in the run up to the coup continues till now, with rumours that he had been detained and that Aung San Suu Kyi had been released. He also pointed to another rumour that discouraged people from protesting for 72 hours after the coup, as this would make the regime illegitimate automatically. All information, he stated should not be taken as true, with even the Myanmar Now website under the control of the military.
Mr. Ko Swe Win, Editor-in-Chief of Myanmar Now “The information warfare is not touched by the media and people, as they are still dealing with trauma caused in the past. For instance, after being confined for seven years in prison, every bitter moment comes back to me now. The media and also the people are dealing with this trauma. I feel concerned about the safety of the youth and what they will have to go through. I made a decision if I am off work I express my opinion in a non-violent form. We cannot write our story with outrage, but we need to vent our fury as we deal with the destruction caused by the regime.”
Resisting military-sponsored disinformation: Dr. Ma Thida
As the third speaker, Dr. Ma Thida, Board Member of PEN International and Member of PEN Myanmar was asked to share her solutions on how to deal with the double war on digital rights of ordinary people and activists, along with a well-coordinated information warfare that started even before the coup. Dr. Thida highlighted that compared to 1988, technology is a common weapon used by the junta and the people now. She pointed out that organising big protests was difficult back in 88’, but it is easier now even though they banned social media and the internet. She expressed her belief that the junta has no legitimacy now, compared to the strong legitimacy of the people with election results. Dr. Thida encouraged the international community to acknowledge this legitimacy and work with people based on it. She pointed to the encouraging trend of collective leadership by the international community through security council resolutions holding individual countries like China and Russia accountable, as well as collective leadership on the ground in Myanmar, led by Youth using social media platforms via VPNs to share to the world #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar. Dr. Thida also suggested that at this time, the people of Myanmar and the international community should work together and choose the right way taking advantage of their collective leadership and legitimacy. This is especially since the army is not secure as its actions are illegitimate under the 2008 Constitution.
Dr. Ma Thida, Board Member of PEN International and Member of PEN Myanmar “The digital dictatorship is not very successful as there are ways to combat it, such as by using VPNs and SIM cards from Thailand. Global hackers are helping in spreading information on Myanmar. Hacking the Myawady and MRTV Facebook page has also been successful. They cannot shut down the internet 24x7, as they also rely on platforms to distribute their misinformation and disinformation. Moreover, the youth are netizens and global citizens, making it difficult to silence their voices.” Challenges faced by the Ethnic Media: Ms. Tin Tin Nyo
Ms. Tin Tin Nyo, Managing Director of BNI Multimedia Group, an alliance of 16 primarily ethnic based media outlets was the next speaker at the webinar. While everybody knew the earlier democratic transition was not genuine, she expressed her belief that she did not expect the military to seize power again as they gave themselves power and legitimacy through the 2008 Constitution. However, she concluded that she was fortunate to witness the power of the people who have united, against a common enemy working to abolish the same system. Ms. Tin Tin Nyo pointed out that the military had always targeted, persecuted, assaulted, threatened and intimidated the media; especially since they have an important role in informing people of policy and they also broaden the democratic space in the country.
Reporting on the ground, she continued has become difficult because of internet shutdowns and data control. Community reporting to ethnic media outlets is affected because people are afraid with fewer people as accessible sources, making it difficult to maintain the quality and balance of the news. Ms. Tin Tin Nyo shared that media members of BNI are doing live streaming of anti-coup demonstrations and get injured on the frontlines, as they do not have good protective gear or advanced recording devices to use from a distance. Illustrating an example, she shared that a group reporting on a powerplant was arrested but let go after signing a document from the police saying they violated Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code on the imposition of a curfew. The military also asked them to sign a document not to report anything provocative, which they refused. Ms. Tin Tin Nyo also discussed the epidemic of hate speech and misinformation on social media, stressing on the importance of media literacy and credible information. She stressed on relying on independent media organisations, with Myawady and MRTV only looked to understand the strategy of the junta to counter the false messages they share.
Ms. Tin Tin Nyo, Managing Director of BNI Multimedia Group
“After the military coup happened, we lost our freedom of speech, freedom of expression and our access to information. We have also lost the democratic space created by media in the country. Also, reporters are always at the centre of protests with shooting, tear gas and water cannons. This is dangerous as now there is no institution that journalists and media can turn to in this situation.” Directing the attention of everyone to the list of resources being shared by the webinar participants including resources in Burmese language, Ms. Debbie encouraged participants to share more information that could be of assistance to civil society in Myanmar while asking speakers how they believe the international community can help those on the ground.
What can the international community do in support of Myanmar citizens?
In response, Mr. Ko Swe Win addressed the need for technological support for journalists, activists and civil society so they may be able to access information, with the suggestion that tools be developed specifically for the Myanmar context so easier methods can be used to communicate in the event of an internet blackout.
As a reply, Dr. Ma Thida provided two recommendations including training and information exchange on how to use VPN and other modes such as Bluetooth; as well as by having the international community keeping an eye on what is happening in Myanmar beyond 1 am when their internet is cut off with this real information shared widely on their behalf.
Ms. Tin Tin Nyo proposed several solutions such as doing coverage particularly by connecting with rural and ethnic media to provide their perspective; sending statements and letters calling for the safety and respect for freedom of expression of journalists; providing technical assistance to journalists and media houses for digital security, protecting data privacy and preventing hacking; and by providing advanced phones with better zoom and covering the cost of international SIM cards for ethnic and local media. She also suggested raising awareness amongst by encouraging people not to take selfies at protest sites.
Part 2: How can we #StopDigitalDictatorship in Myanmar: a regional perspective
To provide a regional and international perspective, Ms. Debbie invited a sub-panel of commentators, including the other members of the ASEAN regional coalition to #StopDigitalDictatorship.
Rolling-out Digital Security Training & leveraging AICHR: Mr. Damar Juniarto
Mr. Damar Juniarto, Executive Director of SAFEnet was asked to share his reaction and propose solutions on what is happening in Myanmar. In response, Mr. Damar stated that to resist and fight back solidarity amongst ASEAN people must be increased, by gathering as much support as possible and raising awareness on Myanmar. He suggests making voices of civil society heard by releasing statements condemning the coup and curfew. Additionally, Mr. Damar proposes rolling out digital security training tools for circumventing the digital curfew, learning how to document the internet shutdown, and deploying fact checkers from Southeast Asian fact checking organisations. Finally, he also points out that human rights mechanisms can be employed by asking ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) representatives to write recommendations on Myanmar and by pushing for a UN human rights special envoy to be allowed to enter Myanmar.
Mr. Damar Juniarto, Executive Director of SAFEnet
“Digital dictatorship in Myanmar does not stop there. In the Southeast Asia region, we are racing to the bottom with rising digital dictatorship.”
Holding ASEAN Member States into account to pressure Myanmar to respect the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration: Ms. Sopheap Chak
Adding to this, Ms. Sopheap Chak, Executive Director of Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) shared the solidarity of Cambodian civil society with the people of Myanmar. She shared their action of protest before the Burmese embassy to call for the rejection of the military coup and support the fight for a democratic space in the country. Ms. Sopheap highlighted this as a form of people to people cooperation in the ASEAN community, rejecting the argument used by ASEAN governments that the government or people of other countries should not interfere in the Myanmar situation. However, this principle of non-interference, Ms. Sopheap asserts does not apply when there is a violation of the ASEAN charter which emphasizes that countries should uphold the rule of law in government and the participation of people. This is also a violation to the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration that all ASEAN member countries have adopted. Thus, Ms. Sopheap appeals to all ASEAN governments to not repeatedly allow military coming to power using force, by speaking out against it from the government level and with people power. With people power and support she asserted, the military coup will not be successful.
Ms. Sopheap Chak, Executive Director of Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR)
“The International community has a responsibility to ensure this assault on democracy in Myanmar is not successful. ASEAN must step in to help one of its own, in line with the ASEAN Charter that affirms its adherence to the principle of democracy, rule of law and good governance. Nothing short of immediate, strong and correct action will do.”
Tech companies must resist the military’s digital dictatorship & must be held accountable to uphold digital rights: Mr. Raman Chima
Mr. Raman Chima, Asia Policy Director of Access Now was called on to share his perspective on the role of tech companies in Myanmar’s digital space. Referring to the statement put out by Facebook, Mr. Raman pointed out that they said they would take down misinformation posted by the military government; not provide a space for the military government to justify the coup; and take down profiles and pages maintained by them. However, he pointed out that some Facebook pages taken down existed before the coup and should have been taken down under their terms of service. Mr. Raman urged that he would like to see clear statements from social media platforms on what role the military and government agencies controlled have on their platform, if they will take their pages down completely or only on violence or incitement against protestors. These platforms must also commit to not cooperating with Myanmar authorities on user data and surveillance requests. They must also contest any attempt to pass a Cybersecurity law or add provisions to the electronic translations law. Mr. Raman also suggests that they must refuse to data requests from neighbouring governments such as Thailand that target Myanmar protestors or that they will enforce further human rights protections or checks on them. Telecom services are a lifeline and so should continue to be operate in Myanmar. Mr. Raman proposed that telecom companies operating in Myanmar need to be hold firm and apply human rights practices and checks as far as they can. Telenor has been very public in their statements, but accountability is required from Mytel and Ooredoo. Mr. Raman stresses that answers from companies that service telecom companies, such as the National Electronic Cooperation of Japan and CISCO. He also highlights that as governments place sanctions, they should be careful not to make the human rights situation worse, such as by denying activists with critical digital security tools. Finally, Mr. Raman emphasizes that businesses in Myanmar must do a Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) and be accountable on human rights within 24 hours as is their obligation.
Mr. Raman Chima, Asia Policy Director of Access Now
“There can be hope even in digital and authoritarianism. Democracy always sees these fights and has to be fought for. If the Jakarta Administrative Court could rebuke their government last year for internet shutdowns; that is progress. Everyday what I see in Myanmar with people on the ground organising, protesting and sharing information that gives us the ability to put pressure on governments, the tech sector and global institutions to put this pressure back on the military junta.” The need to provide an online safe space for frontline defenders to speak their truth to power: Ms. Emilie Pradichit
Ms. Emilie Pradichit, Founder and Executive Director of Manushya Foundation provided a synthesis of the webinar and the role of the ASEAN Regional Coalition to #StopDigitalDictatorship. Ms. Emilie pointed out that to show ASEAN solidarity, it was necessary for the regional coalition to provide a safe space for those from the ground in Myanmar to share about their daily struggles and resistance and tell the world what is truly happening in their country While following social media and all the posts by speakers, they had to be given the opportunity to directly share their truth and solutions. We hope to do this more, so people from all over the world can listen. While Myanmar civil society were sharing that a coup could take place, Ms. Emilie asserted that the international community did not realise this until the coup took place. Highlighting the similarity with Thailand, she points out that this happened in Thailand in 2014, where a military junta continues in power and increasing crackdown continues on activists online and offline. She also reiterated that the webinar was organised to provide support, through tools and knowledge as shared throughout the webinar. In conclusion, Ms. Emilie brought emphasised the need to hold companies accountable, not just social media platforms but also tech companies and internet service providers according to their international human rights obligations, including under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). They must provide a human rights response within 24 hours and cannot claim ignorance. Ms. Emilie shared that to continue providing a safe space and a voice to civil society under threat in the ASEAN, a webinar on disinformation in Southeast Asia to address how state sponsored disinformation is an attack to democracy online and offline in the region, will take place on 18 March. Activists from the ASEAN regional coalition and those at the forefront of the human rights response would be invited to join the conversation.
Emilie Pradichit, Founder and Executive Director of Manushya Foundation
“This situation reflects a rise of dictatorship all across ASEAN, on the ground & online. This is why we established the ASEAN Regional Coalition to #StopDigitalDictatorship. What is happening is a testimony of digital dictatorship that has taken place over the years, and now more than ever we need to build a strong solidarity to resist and disrupt it.” Concluding Comments from Burmese Activists
In a final segment, Ms. Debbie invited final comments from all speakers. Mr. Ko Swe Win highlighted that this coup is the beginning of another era of control and junta propaganda that free and fair elections would be held after a year was an illusion. Bringing up a valid deduction, Mr. Ko Swe Win stated that this is not a coup of Myanmar military generals, but an extension of China’s geopolitical influence. He asserted that without the approval of China, no coup would be launched given the influence China has through joint economic projects between Chinese companies and military owned companies. Many Chinese projects will be implemented over the next few months, he believes. With this, Mr. Ko Swe Win highlighted that it is important to understand the Burmese coup not just from the local perspective, but also from the larger geopolitical point of view with China’s control over Southeast Asia increasing.
In closing, Ms. Thinzar Shunlei Yei expressed that solidarity is not just important but the key to everything. She believes the crisis shall now give a clear reflection of the solidarity that the Rohingya, Karen and Kachin people have been asking for from Burmese people all these years. Ms. Thinzar shared her hope for this to be a positive step to help them towards a better future with real change.
Adding to this, Dr. Ma Thida stressed that solidarity in spirit from the international community and effective support from telecommunications service providers and tech companies is needed, to give power to the protest; otherwise we will end up as an unimaginable, long-term dictatorship. She asserted that this needs to be the end of the junta.
With the ongoing coup, Ms. Tin Tin Nyo emphasised that this is the time to end the military dictatorship entirely. She clarified that this time it should not just be about restoring the previous elected government, but instead the 2008 Constitution must be abolished as it gives power to the military regime. Ms. Tin Tin Nyo suggested that this should be replaced by a federal democratic union, where all ethnic groups can enjoy their individual and collective rights. She also recommended that the media should continue to report what ethnic groups are demanding and if their demands are different from the Burmese majority or NLD supporters, a single goal must be reached with their wishes taken into consideration.
Ms. Debbie Stothard concluded the webinar by emphasising that solidarity was the key to deprive the military junta of the means to continue oppressing people. She encouraged everyone to continue showing support to those in Myanmar so they may keep the flame alive and know they are not alone.
Ms. Debbie Stothard, Founder & Coordinator of ALTSEAN Burma
“We all have a role to amplify the voices of our friends on the ground in Myanmar as they struggle against this military junta. It is a struggle to abolish this unjust Constitution. It is a struggle to change institutions and the very nature of the country itself, so that it is an inclusive democracy and society with inclusion on the basis of ethnicity, gender, religion and belief, location whether rural or urban, poor or rich, young or old, gender identity and political belief. This is the modern Myanmar we are all working for.” We would like to thank all the leading civil society voices from Myanmar and their invaluable input that helped in learning about the challenges faced by frontline activists, journalists and civil society in the digital space of Myanmar. We express our gratitude to the experts part of and who support the ASEAN Regional Coalition to #StopDigitalDictatorship for their important contributions on the regional and international perspective to this discussion. We would also like to show our appreciation to all participants coming from Thailand, Malaysia, Pakistan, Norway, Scotland, France, Brazil, United States of America, India, Germany and all over the world for their participation in and solidarity with the people of Myanmar. Finally, we would like to thank Access Now and the German Federal Foreign Office whose guidance and financial support made this webinar a reality and the vital work of the ASEAN Regional Coalition to #StopDigitalDictatorship possible.