International Community, particularly big tech, must do more for Myanmar

International Community, particularly big tech, must do more for Myanmar
Courtesy BBC

On February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military junta executed a coup d’état, removing State Counsellor of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi, implementing repressive policies and beginning a civil war. 


Since, a number of sophisticated digital and physical measures to exert control, suppress dissent and stifle humanitarian efforts have characterised the regime. The establishment of a “digital dictatorship” marks a critical aspect of this strategy, as highlighted by UN experts who have pointed to the junta’s systematic infringement of essential freedoms. This has included the rights to free expression and access to information.


The strategic deployment of internet blackouts, communication disruptions, and militarily enforced jamming of devices intensified throughout 2023, particularly in resistance-heavy regions. This has isolated communities, and hampered access to vital humanitarian aid and medical care. Furthermore, under the facade of e-government initiatives, the regime has embarked on expansive data collection ventures, like the development of an extensive “National Database”. This effort, aimed at monitoring and targeting dissenting voices underscores the junta’s determination to tighten its control, notwithstanding the conspicuous absence of international support for these technological endeavours. 


The junta’s approach to quelling dissent is multifaceted and extends beyond digital surveillance. The impact of legal framework manipulation, the implementation of severe measures to regulate online discourse and silence opposition. Consequently, this has led to widespread detention of persons critical in online spaces, the targeted incarceration of journalists, and repressive actions against participants in online activism. Physical demonstrations are also subject to the same measures: movements like the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and key oppositional entities such as the National Unity Government (NUG) are experiencing highly repressive treatment. The imposition of martial law and the looming threat of capital punishment have instilled a deep-seated fear among protesters, activists, and human rights advocates. The stark reality of these policies became clearest in March 2023, with at least 100 individuals, including minors, receiving death sentences from military courts, some of whom have already been executed. 


On social media platforms, numerous individuals have adopted black profile pictures to mourn the victims of the regimes brutality, only to be arrested for these minor acts of solidarity. This situation underscores the repressive grip that the junta holds on online expression and demands attention. Addressing the tactics of Myanmar’s military regime and its extensive digital suppression requires a strong, unified response from the international community. This response must encompass a range of decisive actions aimed at undermining the military’s authoritarian grip and supporting democratic initiatives. International governments and organisations should prioritise implementing targeted sanctions against key military figures and entities implicated in abuses, ensuring these measures pressure the regime without adversely impacting the general populace. 


Correspondingly, diplomatic efforts are needed to isolate the military government internationally, including suspending their participation in global forums to delegitimise their authority. In this sense, supporting civil society and independent media, both within and outside of Myanmar, is crucial, providing financial and logistical assistance to ensure the continuous flow of unbiased information and bolster grassroots movements advocating for change. 


Additionally, regional diplomacy, particularly through entities like ASEAN, plays a vital role in applying coordinated pressure on the junta and potentially facilitating successful dialogue among stakeholders. Humanitarian aid must be delivered through channels that ensure it reaches those in need without being exploited by the regime. The establishment of an international monitoring mechanism is vital and would surely aid in documentation of abuses for future justice and accountability. 


Importantly, technology companies and telecom providers bear the responsibility of adopting stringent data protection measures to safeguard Myanmar’s users’ information from government surveillance. These entities must refrain from any cooperation that could assist in oppressive activities and human rights abuses. The sale of technology or services conducive to surveillance and censorship should be strictly prohibited until the junta reduces it’s repression. Transparency is key, and companies should publish reports detailing government requests for data and content removal. Accordingly, responsible exit strategies must be considered to ensure that any market withdrawal does not adversely affect Myanmar’s users, and content moderation practices should be enhanced to protect users from hate speech and misinformation. The current infrastructures established, particularly from the likes of Meta, already recognised as an important player in the fuelling of anti-Rohingya sentiment and the subsequent ethnic cleansing in 2017, must conduct appropriate due diligence with online content. A continuation of previous policies must result in the pursuit of charges under international law if not rectified. 


Finally, civil society and the international community must maintain attention on the Myanmar crisis through sustained awareness campaigns a and media engagement. Amplifying the voices of grassroots movements and local organisations is essential, as is advocacy for the accountability of the military and its allies for the reported human rights violations. Importantly, this advocacy should extend to international legal forums, and efforts should be made to provide digital literacy and security training to activists and citizens to safely navigate the regime’s surveillance and censorship. 


This holistic strategy, combining sanctions, diplomatic isolation, support for civil society and responsible corporate practices, particularly in online spaces, is crucial for addressing the immediate challenges faced by the people of Myanmar. By working together consistently and strategically, the global community has the potential to effectively oppose repressive systems implemented by the junta and bolster the steadfast determination of its citizens. 


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