Myanmar Report: Fueling the fear and division, it all began with the internet cuts
Digital communication has become a key factor in the anti-coup movement in Myanmar, using social media applications, from the most popular platforms like Facebook to more secure messaging apps. It was, initially, a game of cat and mouse.
The military government would ban social media apps, so the people used VPNs. If the military found a way to monitor online conversations on some platforms, more secure messaging apps, like Signal and Telegram, are used.
Since then, the Tatmadaw (the official name of the armed forces of Myanmar) has taken more drastic measures to cut communication between the people.
Leap-frogging into trouble
Myanmar, after emerging from its junta shell in 2011 under the quasi-civilian government, led by ex-general Thein Sein, leap-frogged into fast internet within a couple of years.
While Myanmar’s digital infrastructure is in no way advanced, its mobile internet penetration rate expanded rapidly. In fact, most people, and even some businesses, rely on mobile internet, as it was extremely popular and cheap which, in turn, has created a situation now where mobile data is expensive and Wi-Fi connections are preferred.
Since the junta escalated its use of force against largely peaceful protestors, so did their strategies to contain anti-coup messages from being spread online. The military initially seemed skittish. After all, the military wants a quick return to normality, so that it can solidify its reign for years to come but, despite wanting businesses and government offices to operate, they resorted to shutting down all mobile internet connections.
Speaking to Ba, a 21 year old male resident who goes out to join the protests almost every day, he said that having an internet connection was often a lifeline for him.
“Since the very first day, I have been out every single day. I only rest when I have had a brush with death too many times. Every single time I was trapped, in places like San Chaung Township, I was lucky enough to have got out, due to the kindness of local residents, and I could communicate with people across Yangon willing to take the risk of carrying us away in their cars. That, however, was when they (security forces) had killed only a few protestors and the mobile internet connection was still up.”
When the mobile internet connection was cut off, many relied on services, like Myanmar Net, which provide Wi-Fi internet, wherever they had coverage, at affordable rates, albeit at low speeds.
“Now that they have even shut down Myanmar Net, there are no reliable ways to connect to the internet anymore, unless your home has a fiber based cable connection. The military knows that many people either cannot afford to or didn’t find the need to have it in their homes. Thankfully, those who do are removing passwords, so that anybody can connect if they are in range, but those cases are few and far between. It’s even worse in places like Hlaing Tharyar Township, where martial law was declared. Those places are suburban at best with slums and a lot of industrial zones,” said Hein.
When asked whether he and his compatriots have found a workaround for this, he says that actual phone calls and SMS are now the most reliable forms of communication when outside.
“I managed to find ourselves some pre-registered SIM cards. My friends and I are all using different numbers now, just in case they are actually tapping the phone lines. Even for messages, we try to use Myanglish (writing Myanmar language phonetically in English) and secret words.”
(Daily round-up of the latest events in Myanmar by ThaiPBS World correspondent David Tun.) In Thibaw, of Shan State, protesters began to hold signs showing support for and calling on ethnic armed forces to unite and fight. In Lashio, an improvised explosive device was lobbed into a police compound, reportedly by two unidentified men on a passing motorbike.
Fueling the fear
Since the sharp rise in the death toll and the cutting of the internet, people have switched to more defensive tactics. Barricades and obstacles were erected to block roads and streets. Security personnel took at least a week to get rid of these makeshift barriers, even forcing civilians, who were not part of protests, to do the manual labour for them.
“When they came to our street with backhoes and bulldozers to remove the obstacles, they also rammed those machines into parked passenger cars. We don’t have firearms and we don’t want our children to die but, if we cannot build defenses for our streets, we can at least make our own homes and buildings more secure,” said a middle-aged man while welding a gate to the front of his building’s stairway in Tamwe Township.
Also living in Tamwe, Zaw, a master’s graduate in communications and a tech vlogger, said that the military has used the divide-and-conquer strategy for decades and is using it again now.
“When this crisis enveloped the whole nation, one of the key differences that makes this stand out, in Bamar ethnic heavy urban areas, is that we are now facing brutalities that the ethnic states have suffered for years. Now, it is happening again. The internet cut is fueling the fear and dividing the citizens,” said Zaw.
“When they started to crackdown on each neighborhood, you could see the effects of the internet cuts come into play. The older generation, whether they have good intentions or not, are now extremely scared, which is normal. We are scared too. The difference is that we still know how to search for and discern correct information. When Facebook became extremely popular here, the older generation also picked up on it, but they have no idea how much misinformation is spread around. They are most susceptible to confirmation bias, fake news and other manipulations. We see older people listening to commands from security personnel. The survivalist mentality kicks in and years of conditioning to keep their heads down tells them to obey.”
All of this was exacerbated after the mobile internet connection was cut and the military shut down all independent newspapers. That, combined with the Asian tradition of “parents definitely know best”, means that, even if their children try to give them more factual information, they ignore it.
“Now, it has caused a serious divide between generations. They are being called “Generation L** (expletive for penis)” now. You can see some youths going around the neighbourhoods, perhaps hoping to get them angry and out on the streets, and insulting their parents, who are much too afraid, but something on that level is not going to work. We need something huge to get the masses all over the country to rise up again, but right now, the military’s strategy of divide and conquer is working and it all began with the internet cuts,” said Zaw, exasperated that his parents are experiencing the same effect.
Though some elders say they are not scared, they fear for their grandchildren’s lives.
“I’m old, way too old to worry about dying. Of course I’m afraid, but I’m more afraid for my grandchildren. I understand their young people’s passion, but we are dealing with armed animals. People are getting killed when they are out protesting peacefully. My opinion is that, if we have enough equipment to actually do damage then go out and do it. If not, don’t,” said an 83 year old grandmother on Seikkanthar Street.
by David Tun
Myanmar’s junta on Tuesday defended its seven-week crackdown that has left more than 260 democracy protesters dead, insisting it would not tolerate “anarchy”. The junta has unleashed deadly violence as it struggles to quell nationwide protests against the February 1 ousting of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.