The first Saturday evening after the coup, Nandar sat in her Yangon apartment playing the guitar. At 8 p.m., the streets resonated with the sound of thousands of pots and pans being banged in unison, a ritual of exorcism that has become a nightly tradition since the Burmese military took power in the early hours of February 1. Sometime later, there was a new clamor, clapping and cheering, so Nandar, a feminist activist and podcaster, went down to the street to ask what was going on. She was told that Aung San Suu Kyi had been released.
Suu Kyi, the state councilor and de facto democratic leader of the country, had been taken into custody on the morning of the coup and later charged with owning illegal walkie-talkies, among other crimes designed to add a veneer of legality to her arrest. If the rumors of release were true, it would have been a turning point in the turmoil of the past week: a glimmer of hope that the military might be willing to loosen its grip on power.
“I didn’t buy it,” Nandar said. The news was indeed a hoax, a way for the military junta to try to take control of the narrative in the face of a growing campaign of civil disobedience. Spread during an internet blackout — the second of the week — that cut access to independent news outlets and social media, the rumor seemed designed to take momentum out of the movement by making people believe they had scored a victory. “I think it was, in a way, to disturb our sleep,” Nandar said. “So that the next day, we would not feel as strong.”
Thousands of Burmese marched on Sunday anyway, many of them young people in their teens, 20s, and 30s, a cohort who have enjoyed the tentative expansion of freedoms in Myanmar over the last decade. Since the country returned to a form of civilian rule in 2011, its borders have opened, its economy has grown, and millions of its people have come online, connecting to global culture via social media.
Nandar is a model of this generation: she is in her mid-20s, fluent in English (she translated Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists” into Burmese), digitally native (she runs two podcasts), and politically active. The speed and scale of public opposition to the coup took the military by surprise, forcing them to take drastic measures. Within days of the junta seizing control, they had imposed curfews, blacked out the internet, and blocked access to messenger services and social media.
“There was this very popular slogan going round: ‘You messed with the wrong generation.’ I think that’s true,” she said.
Still, despite the outpouring of dissent and the expressions of solidarity across social media around the world, this tech-enabled civil disobedience movement is at an enormous disadvantage against a state that holds the power to disrupt and manipulate the infrastructure of protest. Their experience echoes that of political opposition groups, from Hong Kong to India, that have found that encrypted messaging systems, offline networks, and global attention only afford limited protection.
“Governments have significant advantages in the tools they can use,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia-Pacific policy director at Access Now, a global digital rights campaign group. “You have to remember that no tech is hack-proof, no mechanism is completely secure. Everything has insecurity built in. Any mobilization or campaigning or expression of your democratic rights should go with the assumption that technology … can be insecure.”
When the internet went off that first Saturday, five days after the coup, it was like being plunged into the dark, said Yin Yadanar Thein, director of Free Expression Myanmar, a civil society organization in Yangon. “I felt isolated: I’m alone. I couldn’t reach out to my partners, my colleagues, the international community,” she said. Independent media outlets were inaccessible. “Without information, you are totally in the dark.”
Then came fear. “All we can do is fear,” she said. “Fear from not only the [current] situation, but what is the next step.”
Yin, Nandar, and tens of thousands of others went out on the street anyway. Most of the coordination was done via word-of-mouth and over the phone, although some people turned to Bridgefy, a Bluetooth-based messaging app, which was downloaded more than a million times in Myanmar in the days following the coup.
When the internet flared back to life in Myanmar on Sunday afternoon, Twitter and Instagram were flooded with images from the street. Groups of doctors and engineers marched alongside bodybuilders, drag acts, girls dressed as princesses, and men dressed as superheroes, in a gleefully bizarre carnival of protest. Many protesters posted in English, with grimly comedic slogans that seemed designed to spread widely among global audiences.
“My neck is for my jewelry and my boyfriend’s kisses, not the military’s boots,” one sign said; another read: “We will fight for democracy until Arsenal wins the Champions League.” Many mocked the coup leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, for his short stature. In one viral post, someone hung a protest sign around a goose’s neck. The bird was pictured waddling down a Mandalay street, honking furiously.
As the anonymous protester who began tweeting under the handle Soup Not Coup last week told Rest of World: “The military is not funny. It doesn’t get humor or the emerging internationalized and cosmopolitan culture being adopted by young people. It is afraid of what it does not understand.”
The protesters’ strategy took cues from previous movements in Thailand and Hong Kong, where technologically enabled, youth-led demonstrations moved seamlessly between online forums and the street. Movements in both countries have come together under the “Milk Tea Alliance,” sharing tips, tricks, and expressions of solidarity.
The alliance has gone to bat for Myanmar. When the Burmese police used water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas against them, activists asked social media for advice on how to protect themselves. They were sent manuals from Hong Kong and Thailand, which they translated into Burmese and distributed. Someone — Rest of World was unable to confirm who — built a live map for protesters to report where police and soldiers had been deployed in Yangon. Similar tools were used in 2019 during civil unrest in Hong Kong.
These tools allow activists to coordinate, communicate, and document what is happening on the ground. But, Yin warns, they are also fragile and vulnerable to attack. “I don’t feel secure. I don’t feel secure at all,” she said.
After the coup, Yin joined a loose coalition of civil society groups working together to support the civil disobedience movement. While they have used Bridgefy, they do not trust its security. “We can see many users on our channel that are not identified. They could be police,” she said. To counter this surveillance, they use codes and ciphers to denote meeting places and times.
“Internally we have created secret sentences: How can I say that I am fine, how can I say that I am being monitored, how can I say that I am being detained, or I am detained,” she said.
They are prepared for the internet to be cut off at any time — the junta ordered overnight blocks on February 14 and 15. All of the protestors’ plans contain an A and a B scenario — online and offline. Neither is safe. Even encrypted messaging apps have weaknesses, which notably lie in the telecoms companies themselves.
“In other countries, the government uses these high-tech tools to surveil people,” Yin said. “But in my country … they don’t need this kind of high tech. They just can go raid the data center at the telco and get our information.”
In Myanmar, four companies provide most of the connectivity: the state-owned MPT; Ooredoo Myanmar, a subsidiary of a Qatari operator; Mytel, a joint venture between the Myanmar’s military and Viettel, which is owned by the Vietnamese defense ministry; and Telenor, a Norwegian company.
On the morning of the coup, those four were ordered to shut down internet services, which they did — although the blackout mostly targeted cellular connections, later affecting fixed-line broadband. The networks were down for a few hours, while the military consolidated its power. The second block on February 6 was much more comprehensive, also covering fixed-line broadband.
An internet blackout is a blunt instrument, not only disruptive to the protestors but also to the military’s own communications and the government machinery it has seized. The economic cost is significant, as banks and businesses are forced offline and digital payments cease. The Internet Society’s Internet Insights platform estimates that the first two weeks of disruptions cost the country more than $30 million.
Blocking individual social media services and websites is slightly more complex than a total shutdown, but this still is carried out via orders to telecoms operators. Although, according to Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at monitoring firm Kentik, these orders often come without specific instructions as to how to actually implement restrictions.
“Sometimes what happens is, the government says, ‘block these sites,’ and it’s up to the telecom to figure out how to do it, because the government often doesn’t specify technically how to do this,” said Madory, who has been studying internet blocks for a decade.
Typically, restrictions take one of two forms: Operators can interfere with the domain name server, or DNS, which takes a web address, such as facebook.com, and translates it into an internet protocol, or IP address, that can then be read by a device. Alternatively, they can try to block the IP address itself. The former is easier to bypass, the latter has a greater chance of causing collateral damage, as an IP address can be used by multiple sites.
So far, Telenor is the only company in the country that has been transparent about when it has received directives from the Myanmar junta ordering it to shut down or restrict access to individual platforms. The company has issued multiple statements criticizing the junta’s actions. Ooredoo, Viettel, and MPT did not respond to requests for comment.
Telenor reported a directive ordering it to block Facebook on February 4 — a significant move, given how widely the platform is used in the country. The digital marketing agency Hootsuite estimates that 22 million people in Myanmar actively use social media. Nearly 22 million people out of the country’s population of 54 million have a Facebook account.
People with knowledge of the situation said that Telenor originally blocked only Facebook and Facebook Messenger, which reside on the same domain, but not Instagram, which is also owned by the U.S. tech giant. Mytel and MPT interpreted the order differently and blocked Instagram on February 4. A second directive was issued on February 5, ordering Twitter and Instagram to be blocked. Telenor reported six further directives blocking specific IP addresses and URLs between February 9 and 14 before; ominously, it announced on Valentine’s Day that it was no longer able to disclose any further directives from the government.
The block on Twitter in Myanmar appears to have had a ripple effect across the region. One or more of the Burmese ISPs used a technique that interferes with the border gateway protocol, or BGP, which is how internet traffic moves between international networks. The ISPs essentially changed that protocol to redirect Twitter traffic to themselves and, as Madory said, “blackhole it.”
“However, they accidentally announced it outside of Myanmar,” he said. “It got picked up by a bunch of other providers, and they were also sending their Twitter traffic to this little ISP in Myanmar.”
Twitter was disrupted as far away as India, and, for around three hours, users there experienced temporary outages and error messages. This is not the first time the exploit has been used: In 2008, Pakistan’s YouTube block temporarily took the platform offline globally.
Despite the blocks, Burmese Twitter and Facebook remain active, due to the use of virtual private networks. Even MRTV, the state-run television channel now under military control, was still posting content as of publication. However, using VPNs requires planning and an above-average degree of understanding about security and access, meaning that a large proportion of the population remains unable to access the platforms.
“The major concern is that only tech-savvy people know how to use VPNs. Normal people don’t know how to use VPNs,” said Aung Kaung Myat, an activist and academic who studies social media use in Myanmar. “I think it will be quite difficult for a normal citizen to be on Facebook right now.”
Restrictions on individual platforms and sites are very disruptive, but activists worry that the government will also be able to apply pressure directly on tech and telecommunications companies to force them to intercept communications and hand over user data. Telecommunications companies and internet service providers typically hold granular information about users’ phone calls, text messages, and internet history, which can include emails and voice calls made over the internet. Governments could force ISPs to install surveillance technology or to implement nationwide internet gateways to automate censorship, similar to those used in China and Vietnam.
“What we’re concerned about is that, [while] we know about the internet disruptions, we don’t know about surveillance. We don’t know what measures are served on telcos right now,” Access Now’s Chima said.
So far, none of the telecommunications operators have disclosed any requests for user data. However, it’s unclear whether they would announce them publicly. In some countries — including the U.S. — such requests can come with a parallel secrecy directive, preventing operators from speaking out. Some operators get around this through so-called “warrant canaries” — text on their websites saying that they have not received any subpoenas for user data, which can be removed when that statement is no longer true.
Asked about its approach to secrecy directives, Telenor directed Rest of World to its list of posted announcements regarding blockages and did not respond to follow-up questions. Ooredoo, Viettel, and MPT did not respond at all.
Private telecommunications companies are in a challenging situation. Although they are expected to abide by local laws, the junta seized power by undemocratic means and is not a legitimate government. Even before the coup, there was tension between the companies and Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration over requests for data on specific users, according to people familiar with conversations between the state and telecommunications companies. Network operators often insisted on court orders as a prerequisite before supplying access.
On February 9, the junta notified telecoms operators of a new bill being rushed through parliament — now also under military control. If made law, the bill would grant the regime even more power to compel companies to hand over user data.
More than 150 Burmese civil society organizations signed a statement rejecting the bill’s contents. In a statement, Jeff Paine, managing director of the Asia Internet Coalition, an association of major tech companies in the region, said: “The military’s proposed bill grants its leaders unprecedented power to censor citizens and violate their privacy, contravening democratic norms and fundamental rights guaranteed under international law.”
Unfettered access to telecoms companies’ systems would mean that SMS messages and voice calls could be mass harvested. It could also create vulnerabilities for encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp, which rely on one-time passwords, or OTP codes sent via SMS to a user’s phone. Those OTPs can be intercepted at the telco, allowing security services to hijack or snoop on messaging services.
When they can’t crack individual platforms, the junta can push people onto more vulnerable ones by periodically switching off the network and selectively throttling access. Several members of Myanmar’s tech community reported that they were seeing temporary disruptions to Amazon Web Services. AWS is used by Signal, the encrypted messaging app that has become popular in Myanmar over the past couple of days. Experts said that the seemingly random disruptions could be an attempt by the junta to block IPs that Signal resolves to, causing collateral damage to other sites using the same addresses.
“Targeting AWS is normally to us a warning sign that someone is trying to take down Signal,” Chima said.
Even when activists are able to keep using encrypted services, or when telecommunications and tech companies are able to resist pressure, governments nevertheless have ready access to other tools they can use to identify and target opponents. Over the past decade, commodified hacking services have become widely accessible to state buyers. Companies, such as the Israeli government–backed NSO Group and the Milan-based Hacking Team (now rebranded as Memento Labs), have worked with nations the world over, ostensibly to help them identify security threats but sometimes to spy on and intimidate political opponents, critics, and journalists.
NSO’s Pegasus system was reportedly used to hack the WhatsApp accounts of activists in India, and WhatsApp is currently suing the company’s U.S. arm for the alleged breach. Research by the Citizen Lab, a web freedom think tank at the University of Toronto, found evidence that Circles, a phone hacking company affiliated with NSO, had worked for governments in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
Activists in Myanmar and overseas are particularly concerned about the use of technology developed in China, which has one of the world’s most sophisticated surveillance apparatuses. Chinese vendors have been actively seeking markets in South and Southeast Asia, including in Myanmar. On February 9, despite an almost total junta-implemented block on international flights coming into Myanmar, five aircraft from Kunming, China, landed in Yangon, sparking a flurry of rumors — as yet unconfirmed — that they contained advisors and surveillance technology.
While Big Tech and international telecommunications companies with local operations in autocratic companies face opprobrium from international civil society when their compliance with local laws leads to human rights being curtailed, cyberweapon companies have no comparable checks. As such, they have been able to act with relative impunity.
“It’s a catch-22 that, as tech firms are doing what human rights activists are asking them to do, it’s also incentivizing governments to say, We’ll go and deal with these black or gray market actors,” Chima said. “As things keep going on, we know that people will try to make money off this at the cost of human rights.”
The concerns of Myanmar’s activists are not theoretical. Under the last junta, which lasted from 1963 to 2011, political opponents were routinely wiretapped, surveilled, and jailed on trumped-up charges. Already, hundreds of people have been detained by the junta, and the army has said it is seeking at least seven people in connection with their social media activity. The junta has also suspended laws that protected individual property and privacy, giving itself free rein to surveil citizens and seize their possessions. The new rules will allow the junta to arrest people for using a VPN.
Activists who spoke with Rest of World shared an overriding fear that they could be arrested on almost any premise. Aung San Suu Kyi is facing three years in jail simply for owning illegally imported walkie-talkies.
“The unpredictability scares me the most,” said Nandar, the feminist activist. “It could be a device that is illegal, but it’s in your pocket. It could be some sharp thing you carry in your bag that they identify as a weapon. It can be a word that you say that is against them, and they arrest you.”
Despite solidarity from Thailand and Hong Kong, the experience of those countries is that governments have been able to weather the storm of dissent, shutting down tech where they can, and identifying and arresting individual activists. People with contacts in the Myanmarese military said that they felt that the junta is confident that it can contain the civil disobedience movement.
“Let me tell you for sure, General Min Aung Hlaing … is taking not only a page but the entire script from his neighbor, General Prayuth,” said Khin Zaw Win, a political analyst based in Yangon, referring to the Myanmar coup leader and his counterpart in Thailand, Prayuth Chan-ocha. Many intellectuals in Myanmar believed that the Thai government, which was created out of a 2014 military coup, would fall last year, he said. “But [Prayuth],” he added, “is holding on. … They let the demonstrations happen, but they try to identify who the leaders are, and the leaders are picked up. That is the script they are going to follow this time.”
Activists told Rest of World that they know the scale of the challenge they are facing. “I don’t have much hope, to be honest. But we will fight,” Free Expression Myanmar’s Yin said.
“‘Safe’ has become a very unfamiliar word,” Nandar said. “Every time I go to the protests, I say goodbye to the people close to me, imagining that this will be the last time I’m talking to them. I don’t have the strategy to keep myself safe. The only thing that I’m doing so far is doing what I believe, even though I know what I’m doing is not safe. That’s the risk we’re all taking.”