Home Asian News The shutdown of Myanmar's unsustainable social media - The Diplomat

The shutdown of Myanmar’s unsustainable social media – The Diplomat


Just over two months ago, on the first day of February, an aerobics coach in the Myanmar capital Naypyidaw filmed an impending celebrity. fitness videos. The clip shows the strong woman doing her routine – fists, her body slammed to the side – in a traffic roundabout as an armored caravan passes by. Of course, she had unintentionally recorded a coup that was taking place rapidly.

What makes the film so appealing is that, even if it captures the country’s democratic downturn in real time, it reflects the degree of economic and technological progress that previously did not seem to be. can be achieved. Just a decade ago, less than 1% of Myanmar’s population had access to the internet, and even a landline phone was a rare luxury. Today, just over half the country is online, and smartphones like those that record training videos are cheap and widely available.

All of that makes Myanmar’s sure rulers a little bit tied up.

As soon as the aerobics video went viral around the world, the military cut off the internet, presumably to control the flow of information and stave off protests. Internet access was partially restored soon, but the regime forced internet service providers to block Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Those social platforms, along with Wikipedia and the messaging service WhatsApp, remained inaccessible nationwide for more than two months.

Initial internet problem paralyze The country’s banking system and businesses were disrupted. The military may have realized that prolonged power outages would be an economic disaster, which is true. But shutting down social media is also unsustainable. Facebook is synonymous with the Internet in Myanmar and the platform has been deeply embedded in e-commerce.

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So no matter what happens in the next few weeks or months, restoring access to social media seems to be all but inevitable. Furthermore, the military has no leverage over Facebook, TikTok, and other online service providers based outside the country, so any request to remove the activist’s account or videos will likely be not accepted. This does not indicate that the regime is at any disadvantage in maintaining power; The apparent failure of the tech-savvy youth-led demonstrations in Hong Kong and Thailand will leave us ignorant of that concept. But the military’s old style of monopolizing control over communications will no longer apply in the digital age.

Extend access and reduce visibility

During Myanmar’s previous military rule, the country was isolated from the world and all forms of communication with the outside world were strictly restricted. The country itself was underdeveloped during those five decades, so the limited telecommunications infrastructure that existed was relatively easy to control. Domestic media operated under the regime, very few people had their own phone lines (and naturally existed lines being tapped), and fax machines and satellite dishes had to be registered. . Any unauthorized use of communication devices results in severe penalties and imprisonment.

World Bank data show internet penetration in Myanmar still less than 1% by 2010. Up to this point, authorities have been able to effectively control internet activity by restricting individual users’ access to tightly regulated internet cafes. where owners must submit monthly records of internet usage data.

With the official end of the military dictatorship in 2011, the government finally opened up the telecommunications market to outside service providers. In 2014, Ooredoo of Qatar and Telenor of Norway won license to develop the country’s mobile infrastructure. What’s next isn’t worth noting, given a country where SIM cards were previously priced at one a staggering 3,000 dollars cheap mobile phones were suddenly flooded – and finally, internet access with 3G support.

Due to this development, the level of internet penetration fly up to 10 percent in 2014 and 21 percent in 2015. Today, just over half (51 percent) of the country has access to the internet, according to most recent estimate from Internet World Statistics.

What’s more, the internet has been relatively uncensored – at least by regional standards – over the past decade. It is true that there is some level of content restriction, as the ISP did ordered blocking pornographic sites and media reports on the ongoing Rakhine state conflict. But until recent events, Myanmar’s Net Freedom scores looks much closer to Thailand than that of China or Iran.

In part, this degree of internet freedom simply represents the state’s limited ability to control. Just like the country’s telecom infrastructure developed by foreign companies, all of the most popular web services come from outside the country. According to industry figures, Myanmar’s most popular apps include Facebook (United States), TikTok (China), Viper (Japan), and Instagram (United States). Local developers have created a number Homegrown social media alternativesBut there’s nothing on the scale of these tech giants.

This dynamic explains why China encourages the development of domestic apps like Sina Weibo and WeChat as alternatives to Facebook and Facebook Messenger. Chinese Communist Party officials can always pressure these homegrown companies to cooperate with censorship and surveillance efforts. However, the Myanmar military does not have such leverage over Mark Zuckerberg.

The only instantaneous tool available to the military, at the moment, is to order domestic ISPs to block access to specific websites and applications. What seems like a statement of strength is actually a testament to weakness. And netizens quickly learned how to bypass access blocks. Some VPN mobile browser, which can encrypt internet traffic and reroute it around a local server crash, currently ranks in Myanmar’s top 10 apps for both Iphone phone and Android.

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Crackdowns Facebook

The mode’s digital helplessness was clearly visible ahead of the latest coup.

In August 2018, Facebook announced it was banning 18 accounts belonging to high-ranking Myanmar military officials for breach of unprecedented terms of service: using its platform to promote violence. Race against the Muslim Rohingya minority of the country. Lieutenant General Min Aung Hlaing’s account, which has nearly 2.8 million followers, was among those deleted. Immediately after the ban, the military chief create a new account on the Russian social networking site VKontakte.

The move caused concern that Russia’s internet ecosystem could serve as a safe haven for the Myanmar military and other nationalists. Ashin Wirathu, a radical Buddhist monk known for his act of hatred against the Rohingya, Written on VK that “We have to go with Russia when the father of democracy, America, is not fair.”

But just a few weeks later, VKontakte accounts for Min Aung Hlaing, Ashin Wirathu and other nationalists were suspended for violating the platform’s terms and services.

No other digital secure docks have appeared, which is why the military proved powerless when, weeks after the coup, Facebook banned any and all military-related accounts. Myanmar team and cut advertisements of military owned businesses. YouTube announced the ban itself soon followed, removing five military-run channels from its platform.

A single social platform on which the military is still active is TikTok, where soldiers are posted the video threatened to kill protesters. These clips prompted the Beijing-based app to announce that it would remove content inciting violence. Indeed, though conspiracy theories in contrast, the Chinese internet companies were not particularly helpful to the regime.

Few paths forward

So where does this leave junta 2.0?

Rest of the world editor Peter Guest present an interesting case that the military has a lot of digital resources of its own to help them identify and arrest activists and generally restrain dissidents. This seems to be true in the short term. The era of “overthrowing dictators on Twitter” seems to be a lifetime ago, and the aforementioned recent protests in Hong Kong, Thailand and even Belarus have finally failed to dislodge the regimes. has been ingrained.

On the contrary, however, such an objection is to exaggerate the government’s ability to control internet activity. Chinese usually are presented as a model that can be replicatedBut China’s internet infrastructure (from online services in the walled garden to the Great Firewall gate) has been developed for decades at exorbitant costs. This level of control is also not a one-time investment. The CCP has reserved one estimates $ 6.6 billion for internet surveillance measures only in 2020.

The Myanmar government, whether run by Min Aung Hlaing or Aung San Suu Kyi, has a much more limited digital state capacity. China’s degree of control is simply unquestionable. The best model the regime can hope for is probably Vietnam, a country with a rich level of scrutiny but no social network congestion. In reality, 68 million Vietnamese, more than two-thirds of the population are using Facebook.

All of that brings us back to the inevitable: At some point in the near future, access to social media platforms in Myanmar will be restored as there are no alternatives. in the country for these services. This concession continued to be postponed, showing that the regime had good cause for concern for its own stability.

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