How military supporters are using Telegram channels to suppress dissent in Myanmar

Photo by Pyae Sone Htun on Unsplash. Free to use under the Unsplash License.

Internet freedom in Myanmar has always been constrained. However, it got worse especially after the coup on February 1, 2021, when the military junta forcefully removed from power the elected civilian government, led by Aung San Su Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) party. A brutal crackdown on the protesters and arbitrary arrests of lawmakers, politicians, activists, journalists, and civilians who resisted authoritarian rule ensued. In addition, the military junta used a wide range of methods to undermine and restrict media and internet freedom as an attempt to cover up human rights violations committed by the military security forces, to suppress anti-coup resistance, and to keep the military regime in power. As a result, the majority of social media users turned to encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram, Signal, and Viber, as a more secure way to organize protests;  the platforms started serving as a source of reliable news and information regarding the revolution, especially after the military blocked most news websites and junta-controlled state media was  full of pro-military propaganda, fabricated news, and disinformation.

The role of social media

Since before the February 2021 military coup, pro-military lobbyists and Buddhist nationalists were using social media networks, Facebook in particular, to spread pro-military propaganda, disinformation, rumors against Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD administration, and hate speech against Muslims and other minorities, in order to influence the result of the 2020 general elections. Consequently, the Facebook posts and accounts that incited violence and disseminated rumors were removed by Facebook for violating community standards. Among the notorious social media personalities were Han Nyein Oo, Kyaw Swar, and Thazin Oo, who actively disseminated pro-military propaganda and disinformation relating to election results, and even urged the military to seize power after Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party won the second election by a landslide.

In the post-coup context, these prominent pro-military social media users continue to help the military junta to hunt down activists, politicians, protesters, members of resistance forces, celebrities, and businesses who defied military rule and participated in different forms of protests, including silent protests, and those who supported the National Unity Government (NUG), the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), and the People Defense Force (PDF) — all of which had been designated by the military  as terrorist groups. After being banned by Facebook, these social media personalities migrated to other social media platforms and messaging groups such as Telegram, Viber, and VK to surveil people in digital spaces and to aid the military’s brutal crackdown on the resistance on the ground.

Retreating to Telegram

As of August 2022, the Han Nyein Oo Telegram channel has 73,238 subscribers, the Kyaw Swar channel has 68,668 subscribers, and the Thazin Oo channel has 23,174 subscribers. While the Kyaw Swar and Thazin Oo channels focus on pro-military propaganda news and anti-NUG/PDF narratives, the Han Nyein Oo channel regularly posts Facebook profiles and personal details — including names, addresses, and locations — of those who share anti-military messages or support the resistance forces. In these Telegram messaging groups, pro-military people are urging the military authorities to take action against those who are pro-democracy, including by detaining and imprisoning them, seizing property, and revoking citizenship and travel documents, even calling for the execution of political prisoners and rebels. Telegram has been criticized by activists for failing to stop campaigns led by these people on its channels and for letting them have unfettered access to the app, despite the content coming from these sources putting many people’s lives at risk.

In the Viber group, Han Nyein Oo posted, “To report in a timely manner is our duty, and to take action against them is the duty of ‘Shwe Ba’ [the military].” There have been numerous incidents where political activists, celebrities, and even everyday people were arrested by the military security forces, and their property seized by the authorities shortly after their information and whereabouts were shared in these messaging groups.

Finding and punishing dissenters

Burma News International reported that about 50 Myanmar military soldiers and police raided a private school named DNNA in the Taunggyi city of Shan State on the night of March 25, 2022, and arrested the headmaster and seven other women, accusing them of supporting the anti-junta resistance armed group (PDF). The incident occurred after the Han Nyein Oo channel speculated that the headmaster of DNNA school was supporting the resistance forces by collecting donations and taking supporting roles. The school teachers initially went into hiding after their details were posted on that channel, but were later arrested after a military informant disclosed their whereabouts to the military security force. Similarly, it was reported that a police second lieutenant in Yangon was detained in May 2022 by the military authority for sharing status updates regarding the revolution and a picture of the coup leader General Min Aung Hlaing’s photos being stepped on. He was charged with incitement under the repressive section 505(a) of the Penal Code for, and if found guilty could be imprisoned for three years. The arrest occurred after his details and anti-junta Facebook posts were exposed in the Han Nyein Oo Telegram channel.

On July 25, 2022, the Myanmar military junta executed four political prisoners including Phyo Zayar Thaw, a former member of parliament from the ousted NLD administration, and Kyaw Min Thu, a prominent democracy activist. Outraged and devastated by the news of the junta’s execution of the four pro-democracy champions, social media users in Myanmar changed their Facebook profile pictures to black or red as a show of grieving and an expression of people’s courageous resistance against the military’s brutal rule. Against this backdrop, the Han Nyein Oo and other pro-military telegram channels started campaigning for the arrest of celebrities and ordinary citizens who turned their Facebook profile pictures into black or red, by posting screenshots of their Facebook profiles, locations, and other personal information to alert the authorities. While there were reports that these harmful Telegram channels were removed following public criticism, new Telegram channels under the same names were recreated by the pro-military groups shortly after. The Facebook profiles that appear to belong to pro-military lobbyists and under the names Han Nyein Oo and Kyaw Swar are also resurfacing despite Facebook’s stricter regulation in recent months.

In addition to surveilling anti-military dissenters in digital space, the cybersecurity unit of the police, informants, and other pro-military supporters, in recent months the security forces have intensified searches and control of cell phones at checkpoints, where many people have been harassed, extorted, or arrested for the content of their social media, or sometimes for simply installing social media apps and VPNs banned by the authorities. Internet freedom in Myanmar continues to deteriorate since the coup in February 2021. On June 7, 2022, the United Nations human rights experts released a statement condemning the Myanmar military junta’s attempts to establish a “digital dictatorship” in Myanmar by imposing a stricter and ambiguous cybercrime law, further restrictions on access to the internet, internet shutdowns, online censorship, and digital surveillance. The experts also called for the UN Member States to condemn the junta’s policies to curtail fundamental freedoms on and off-line, and to adopt targeted sanctions that restrict the sale or supply of dual-use surveillance technology to the military junta. In December 2022, the UN Security Council passed its first resolution on Mayanmar since 1948.

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