War on citizens: How the junta’s VPN ban is strangling communication in Myanmar

Myanmar phone user checks Facebook

A Myanmar smartphone user checks Facebook in 2021. Photo from The Irrawaddy, used with permission.

This article by Mi Ei Thinzar Myint was originally published in The Irrawaddy, an independent news website in Myanmar. This edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Myanmar’s military regime blocked Facebook and other messaging apps following the 2021 coup in a bid to restrict freedom of expression and communication that it believes threatens its rule.

The people of Myanmar were using virtual private networks (VPNs), either paid or free versions, to bypass the restrictions.

However, the regime recently banned the use of VPN services in the country, and residents are now reporting difficulties accessing Facebook and other social media platforms.

Ma Wai Phyo Myint, Asia Pacific Policy Analyst at Access Now, which promotes digital rights around the world, recently talked to The Irrawaddy about how the VPN ban will affect people’s access to information and the ability of resistance groups to coordinate their efforts.

The Irrawaddy (TI): People are reporting difficulties using VPNs. What is happening?

Ma Wai Phyo Myint (MWPM): The regime blocked access to websites, Facebook, WhatsApp and other messaging platforms in 2021 and 2022. They used blacklisting and whitelisting, handing lists of websites that they wanted blocked to telecom operators and internet service providers. This time is different. They have bypassed telecom operators and internet service providers and are directly controlling [the internet] from [the capital] Naypyitaw. We are waiting to see if they will deploy firewalls like China.

TI: People say they can’t use certain VPNs. Which ones?

MWPM: Local organizations are checking. Some VPNs can still be used. Local organizations say the regime listed VPN servers in late 2023 and early 2024. It has blocked access to widely used VPNs including Psiphon. This includes the paid version [as well as the free version]. The point of using a VPN is to make your browsing history and location untraceable by military and government organizations. Your data are not safe unless you use a secure VPN. So, why haven’t they blocked access to widely available VPNs yet? Perhaps they want to keep monitoring, which is a cause for concern.

TI: People in China can still access banned sites despite the VPN ban? Is there any way to bypass the restrictions in Myanmar?

MWPM: This is a technical issue and we are still trying to figure out what exactly the regime is doing. Then, we will talk with VPN service providers about how they can help to restore VPN access in Myanmar. Neither local organizations nor VPN service providers can explain the details now.

TI: Why is the junta banning VPNs?

MWPM: Mainly, it wants to restrict people’s right to information. Since the coup, it has deployed various measures to restrict information flow. It imposed restrictions to control widespread criticism on websites and [social media pages] of media outlets, sharing of information about the regime, and coordination of anti-regime efforts. It has tightened this grip over time.

At the same time, it has deliberately kept VPNs usable so it can monitor and collect information [about anti-regime activities]. Lately, however, it has lost control. Despite restrictions on the internet, people are still managing to share information via alternative communication channels.

The regime made threats and arrests to instill fear. But people still found ways to communicate. Unable to restrict information flows, the regime decided to resort to an internet shutdown to keep people in the dark.

The VPN ban will also affect the junta, though it may have alternative communication channels. The ban will impact its business operations and spying mechanisms. Though the ban targets the people, the regime will inevitably be affected. So, the fact that it has resorted to this measure means it is failing.

Read more: Unfreedom Monitor Report: Myanmar

TI: Are there other ways people can use to share information?

MWPM: We heard that Facebook use has significantly declined due to the VPN problem.

Thanks to technological advances, even China’s government can’t completely ban VPNs. People can switch to other VPNs, and the regime won’t be able to block all the new technologies. There will be impacts, but people will be able to find ways [to evade the VPN ban] over time.

It is very costly to build firewalls. The regime doesn’t have sufficient resources to deploy firewalls in the long run. People should not underestimate what the regime is doing. Yet at the same time, they should not succumb to unwarranted fear. The regime can’t control everything.

Anti-regime forces are trying to use internet service providers that are not controlled by or tied to the regime. They are trying to get satellite phones and satellite internet, which have become accessible both technically and financially. The regime can’t shut down all the channels.

TI: The junta has been promoting a social media app called MySpace. How far can it go?

MWPM: It has previously created other apps to replace YouTube and Facebook. No social media app, whether it is MySpace or anything else, will be successful unless people accept it. People have boycotted military-linked products. And they know that any such technology made by the military is intended to monitor the people. So, there is little chance that any app created by the regime will succeed.

But we urge the Apple Store and Google Play Store not to offer these applications. We must continue to push international companies not to accept these apps on their platforms.

TI: Is there anything else you want to say?

MWPM: China has so far been the only country to ban the use of VPNs, so this situation is quite serious. I urge international bodies and governments to pay serious attention to this and provide tech and resources so people inside Myanmar can use the internet to keep track of the military situation and anti-regime forces can use communication channels that are not controlled by the regime. We notified the international community two years ago that the regime would do this, but there was almost no response or preparations. We continue to push for international assistance in this urgent matter.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.