Report says Myanmar internet a ‘virtual battlefield’

by Joseph K. Clark

A report by the International Crisis Group says Myanmar’s military rulers are seeking to limit access to the internet to only “whitelisted” sites to quash widespread opposition to their seizure of power.

BANGKOK — Myanmar’s military rulers are seeking to limit access to the internet to an internal network of only “whitelisted” sites to quash opposition to their seizure of power, according to a report by the International Crisis Group. It likened the internet to a “virtual battlefield” where the military is struggling to gain an edge because it lacks technological capacity, while social media companies like Facebook have banned military officials and many government agencies.


The coup interrupted a faltering, decade-long move toward a civilian, democratically elected government after decades of military rule that began soon after the country, also known as Burma, gained independence from Britain. It incensed a generation of young Myanmar people who grew up in relative freedom, with access to cell phones, social media, and the internet as the country leapfrogged into the mobile age, with heavy reliance on internet services commonly found in wealthier countries.

The junta has ordered mobile operators and internet service providers to restrict access to certain websites and virtual private networks, or VPNs, to skirt internet filtering. It is gradually ramping up shutdowns, limiting access to only fiber data connections available to only a fraction of the population. Many tech-savvy young people are involved in the civil disobedience movement against the coup. The military lacks the sort of capabilities that China has developed over the past several decades, enabling it to police the internet and ban access to specific sites, the International Crisis Group report says.

So instead, the military, also known as the Tatmadaw, is developing an “intranet” for inside the country that allows mobile access only to approved or “whitelisted” applications, it says. Those might include online banking, for example. That “inevitably limits its ability to offer anything more than the most basic services, with a major impact on the economy,” the report says. Last week, Telenor, the only Western mobile carrier in Myanmar, issued a statement objecting to such trends.

“Myanmar’s superior connectivity was built on the combined experience of almost all other countries: Open internet access fuels growth. Allow listing is a practice that will not give the same benefits – and should be abandoned,” Telenor said. It noted an estimate by KPMG that the expansion of mobile and internet communications had boosted Myanmar’s economic growth by more than 5%. Telenor recently announced it was writing off the value of its business in Myanmar, worth about $780 million. But it said it did not plan to withdraw and was still adding subscribers.

Myanmar authorities appear to be finalizing details of a draft cybersecurity law that foreign businesses and other groups contend would increase the risks of doing business there. The International Crisis Group’s report urged companies and governments to ensure they are not abetting the military’s efforts to control the internet and suppress opposition. Governments should meanwhile step up arms embargoes to prevent supplying dual civilian-military use of technologies that can be used to suppress political dissent, it said.

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