Myanmar’s military regime has committed gross violations of its citizens’ privacy rights in its attempts to quell resistance. Any return to normalcy has to begin with restoring the people’s privacy protections.
Following the February 2021 coup, the military regime in Naypyidaw has committed serious violations of Myanmar citizens’ privacy. This is because it has prioritised the surveillance of people involved in demonstrations against the coup, support for the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and People’s Defence Forces (PDF), and other forms of resistance to the State Administration Council (SAC) junta. Given the wave of anti-junta resistance in the past year and a half, almost everyone in Myanmar can be considered to fit into these categories and thus fall under surveillance. In the current political climate, their privacy is at significant risk and almost anything could be deemed sensitive by the authorities.
Legal changes to accommodate the regime’s focus on surveillance have been enacted, including the removal of protections for citizens’ communications, documents and legal rights. Individuals and organisations can be subject to search without a warrant in their homes, offices and anywhere else in public. Belongings that store data can be confiscated. For instance, Myanmar’s Ward/Village Tract Administration Law (2012), which governs daily life in Myanmar, was changed less than two weeks after last year’s coup. With the restoration of the requirement to report overnight guests, authorities are now allowed to conduct searches, seizures and other actions at any time. Similarly, the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens (2017) and the Telecommunication Law (2013) were amended by removing important provisions protecting citizens’ privacy. Media personnel, for instance, are liable for lengthy prison terms instead of fines. Failure to report overnight guests could violate the village/ward administration law: heads of households and their guests can be punished. Also, those passing by security check-points can be subject to search and their cell phones can be scrutinised. If any data related to anti-coup movements is found, those individuals are at risk of being arrested. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), as of 28 June 2022, 11,286 people are currently under detention for various reasons.
Online platforms have been used to brutalise the population further. A recent UN special rapporteur report noted how Myanmar’s “digital dictatorship” has “systematically denied” Myanmar’s citizenry its rights of freedom of information and access to information and privacy. In one instance, a pro-military Telegram account operated by a ‘Han Nyein Oo’ shared information on people involved in the resistance and the regime undertook coercive action using that information. Several people were arrested. Telecommunications is another area with privacy risks. One of largest telecommunications operators in Myanmar, Norway’s Telenor, has been forced to depart the country. Personal data on its 18 million customers have been put at great risk through its transfer to a new owner, whose interest is linked to the military authority. Customers of another operator, Mytel, the joint venture between the military and Vietnam’s Viettel, are exposed to data security risks. Mytel, whose users include military personnel, has SIM cards which are reportedly used to monitor military defections and resistance. The regime is now trying to impose further restrictions on virtual private networks by introducing a new cyber law, which could mean that individuals would face more restrictions like lack of access to social media websites like Facebook.
The state’s handling of certain privacy protection measures must be the first step toward de-escalating the current situation, because the violation of privacy rights precedes acts of political violence.
Bank transactions are another area of concern. Financial supporters of the people’s resistance have made many donations — especially to PDFs, the CDM, and vulnerable populations, and those donations have become the SAC regime’s target. The regime has closely monitored mobile banking transactions and ordered banks to submit daily reports on account activity. Some accounts showing transactions suspected of being donations to anti-junta forces have been suspended. In a worst-case scenario, those involved might be arrested.
On the humanitarian front, providing support to newly internally displaced people (IDPs) has also become more complex due to privacy concerns. For instance, utmost caution is required in managing the data on IDPs, such as for those who have fled from urban areas, as there is a risk that the authorities will compare their current household composition to their prior one, to identify which members may be absent (and conducting an armed struggle against the regime). This puts the remaining household members at risk in an environment where security forces will arrest a family member in place of the targeted individuals. Such arrests are associated with psychological warfare tactics to induce the public to obey and bring about what SAC wants: “stability”.
Popular resistance groups have taken countermeasures, targeting those involved in reporting information to the regime and military informants. The first targets are the village/ward administrators who have often flagrantly violated privacy measures. Several have been killed for reporting information to the military.
Many ask when normalcy will begin to return to Myanmar. The state’s handling of certain privacy protection measures must be the first step toward de-escalating the current situation, because the violation of privacy rights precedes acts of political violence. The regime must comply with the provision in its 2008 Constitution, which states that the Union shall protect the privacy and security of home, property, correspondence and other communications of citizens. This compliance must be restored even before the people talk about any potential solution to Myanmar’s unfolding political violence.
Aung Tun is Associate Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.