A report by the International Crisis Group says that Myanmar’s military is developing a local intranet system to limit access to the internet. However, it is unlikely to succeed as it lacks technological sophistication and growing international and domestic resistance.
By Umair Jamal
Following the February 1 coup, Myanmar’s military has struggled to control social media platforms such as Facebook that activists have used to organize protests and voice opposition against the military’s crackdown on dissent.
The military’s efforts have been unsuccessful in part because the new regime lacks the required technological capacity. The junta’s online activities have also suffered setbacks as social media companies have banned the military’s pages from their platforms.
According to a report by the International Crisis Group, Myanmar’s military is now trying to implement a domestic “intranet”, a controlled version of the internet that will only allow mobile data users to access specific “white-listed” sites and apps.
The service will be controlled by the regime via Myanmar-based companies and may allow some businesses to bypass the controls through a “dedicated internet access” connection, if they agree to the military’s terms. The military has already begun working with telecom operators to whitelist specific apps, allowing users to continue accessing them during wider internet shutdowns.
However, the military’s attempts to build a restricted domestic internet will face technological and capacity challenges and may not succeed, the report warns.
Military’s internet shutdowns have been unsuccessful
Since the coup, the military has gradually ramped up internet shutdowns and limited internet access to fiber data connections. Most internet users in Myanmar access the web through mobile data and only a fraction of the population has access to fiber data connections.
“Although the junta has not been technologically sophisticated in its actions, it has approached the challenge methodically, gradually ramping up internet shutdowns as it deemed necessary to achieve the desired effect,” says the report.
“The mass outage it eventually opted for has already hurt the opposition movement, making it harder to organize protests and coordinate other activities,” it added.
People in Myanmar have found ways to bypass many of these restrictions, mostly by relying on virtual private networks or VPNs. In Myanmar, demand and internet searches for VPNs have increased significantly since the coup. Many people have also been able to obtain Thai SIM cards and rely on data services from telecom firms that are not complying with the military’s shutdown orders.
Despite the military’s ongoing censorship efforts, those opposed to the regime have successfully used the internet to organizes protests and mobilize people, using encrypted messaging services and other apps to counter censorship.
But there are also other factors at play that hamper the military’s efforts to monitor social media activity and ban access to platforms like Facebook.
Technology companies are blocking the military’s online propaganda efforts
The International Crisis Group report says the internet has become a “virtual battlefield” in Myanmar where the military is finding it hard to gain an edge because it faces forces beyond its control.
The policies of some social media companies are undermining the military’s efforts to spread its narrative of developments in the country. Following the coup, Facebook banned all Myanmar military pages, making it difficult for the junta to disseminate propaganda. Following the coup, Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, also removed military-linked pages from its platform.
The International Crisis Group report says that since the military’s crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in 2017, “Facebook has paid much closer attention to Myanmar, in particular by building its capacity to monitor vernacular content through human moderators and artificial intelligence.”
According to the report, this experience informed Facebook’s approach to Myanmar’s 2020 election and post-coup action when the technology giant took down disinformation and military propaganda material.
Among other strategies, the military has now turned to TikTok to spread pro-regime messaging. While TikTok has not banned the military’s accounts, it has made efforts to clean up its platform, taking down videos of military personal carrying weapons or on armed patrol, for example.
The report further says that the military’s broad shutdowns of the internet show it still lacks the technological sophistication to counter technology companies.
Military seeks to develop intranet but challenges remain
The military’s homegrown version of the internet will not resemble the internet as it won’t include social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TokTok. The switch to an intranet may also wipe out billions of dollars in investments tied to internet services, including operator licenses, international gateways and cell towers. Many medium and small-sized businesses associated with the internet will be affected.
But according to the International Crisis Group report, the military lacks human and financial resources to develop a domestic version of China’s “great firewall”, one of the largest and most sophisticated online censorship operations by any government.
But even if the military is able to pull it off, the planned internet service could have a major impact on the country’s economy by limiting access to information. The military may struggle to recruit the local staff needed to maintain a highly-repressive online system as people in Myanmar are not likely to cooperate.
The growing international pressure on the military will also make it difficult for the regime to recruit international companies to expand its technological capacities.In the midst of all of this, tech-savvy people in Myanmar and abroad will find ways to bypass the military’s checks to gain access to the wider web, making the junta’s domestically-run internet ineffective, even if it is implemented.