After seizing power in the early hours of February 1, one of the first things Myanmar’s military did was to take control of vital information and communication channels. Following the loose tenets of what I have previously dubbed the “authoritarian playbook,” the military was well aware that control of information flows would be key if they were to gain control of the country without interference.
Before the digital era, taking control of the information channels would primarily require a take-over of mainstream media. In our time, however, it requires much more. Faced with a restive population that has embraced mobile technologies and social media at a speed unmatched by any other country in the region, the Myanmar military also had to cut off access to the internet and telecommunications. With no access to their regular communication channels or their most trusted news sources, people were left completely in the dark about what was happening until news of the coup broke on the military-controlled television channel Myawaddy News.
Although internet access and mobile connections were restored later that day, the military junta – known officially as the State Administrative Council (SAC) – has retained a tight grip on information flows. Since February 3, the country’s telecom companies have been ordered to temporarily block access to Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger “to limit social unrest.” (Twitter was added the following day.) Meanwhile, for more than a week, access to the internet has been shut between 1 a.m. and 9 a.m. While the media has so far been able to work more or less unhindered, several warnings have been issued by the Ministry of Information and Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing encouraging the media to co-operate with the government and warning it not to incite the population. More direct restrictions are in the making, posing a severe threat to people’s access to information and freedom of expression.
One thing is clear: Myanmar’s military, or Tatmadaw, knows what it is doing. Its track record provides evidence of its capabilities not only in controlling, but also manipulating, information flows. The constant shifts between tightening and releasing the grip on communication flows is designed to create a level of frustration, confusion, and fear among the public, a well-known method by which authoritarian governments signal to the public that they can do whatever they please. Similar messages are sent to independent media and journalists through indirect threats – and increasingly also direct threats – of possible sanctions if they misstep.
What we are witnessing is in many ways a reversal of the limited progress that has taken place since Myanmar’s political reforms began in earnest 10 years ago. Prior to the reforms, Myanmar had one of the world’s strictest censorship regimes. The only existing free and independent media worked in exile and had to rely on the bravery of in-country stringers to cover the actions and rule of the military regime. The internet and mobile access were rare and most information came via military-controlled channels. Independent journalists and editors lived in constant fear, and many spent long periods behind bars.
It was therefore seen as a landmark event when the Press Censorship Board was dissolved in 2012, marking an end of pre-publication censorship. In the following years, the media environment blossomed: dozens of new outlets were established, exiled media personnel returned to the country, and new industry associations and organizations were formed. Myanmar immediately rose on the lists and indexes of international press freedom, and many had high hopes for the new era. Although far from all expectations were met and the progress of the first years was never matched in later years, many journalists and editors now fear a serious regression.
Yet, some things cannot be reversed. Myanmar’s media are today far better organized than at any point in the past. Armed with digital communication technologies, media outlets have a wider reach and a firmer foothold. Equally important is the fact that the military now rules over a fundamentally different population compared to 10 years ago. Not only is it a population that has lived with greater degrees of freedoms for the last decade; it is also a more tech-savvy population that has grown accustomed to using online platforms. The resistance both online and offline in the weeks since the coup is proof of just that.
The military, though, did not fall behind either. By following authoritarian trends globally, they have updated their playbook to match the current challenges. A tool that has become particularly popular following the spread of the coronavirus in 2020 is “lawfare”: the use of laws to blot out information that undermines the authoritarian state narrative. Following that trend, the SAC on February 6 announced a draft Cyber Security Law containing several restrictions on the types of content that may be disseminated online. Equal to what has been observed in similar types of laws in the region, vague wording on the type of content deemed to be in violation would allow the junta to clamp down on activists, citizens, and media making pretty much any criticisms of the military.
While the Cyber Security Law has currently been put on hold following a massive outcry, amendments have been made to other laws to assist the SAC in its efforts to control both information flows and the civic protest movement. For instance, changes have been made to the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code which broaden the scope of the crimes of high treason and sedition and create new, vaguely worded offenses relating to “sabotage” and the “disruption” of military or government officials. Other laws target anyone deemed to be causing “fear” or knowingly spreading “fake news.”
Another and more sinister tool is online information warfare. Here it is all about creating a disrupted information sphere where disinformation can spread and sow distrust between different groups in society. The numerous internet disruptions and shutdowns of Facebook have done just that, creating an information deficit in which rumors and disinformation can run wild. This has been observed in several cases over the last weeks. When a written statement signed by Aung San Suu Kyi was released on February 1 on one of NLD’s verified Facebook accounts urging people to “fully oppose the military coup and resoundingly resist against it” people did not know what to believe. Was this a move by the military, posting through the NLD’s social media accounts? Was the military intentionally spreading “fake news” to drive out activists and NLD supporters? Or was it indeed the NLD issuing a call for popular resistance? Although the issue was resolved some days later when the NLD released another similar statement, it created a lot of confusion in the days immediately following the coup.
More confusion was observed during the weekend of February 6-7, when social media, the internet, and mobile connections were taken down. Rumors that Aung San Suu Kyi had been released circulated, prompting some people to begin celebrating in the streets. Other rumors claimed the detained president to be dead. Although both rumors were false, people had nowhere to verify the information and therefore did not know what to believe. The feeling of navigating in darkness can both be terrifying and numbing – precisely the level of control you want to have as instigator of a coup.
Furthermore, it poses an enormous risk for people to jumping to conclusions based on false assumptions. Last week, rumors started circulating on social media of Chinese soldiers being flown in from Kunming to assist the military in striking down protests. Evidence was provided in the form of images of military personnel with people mainly judging their nationality based on skin complexion and height. Again, the rumors were false but until they were fully debunked, there was a very real risk that the tension would materialize into retaliations against Myanmar citizens of Chinese descent.
The examples above show just how important access to relevant and reliable information is in a time of crisis, and just how easily moods, and thus the turn of events, can shift due to disruptions in information streams. When people’s access to information is hampered, it elevates the risk of further destabilization.
It is difficult to predict exactly which chapter and tools from the authoritarian playbook the military will use next. With the population continuing to voice its displeasure with the coup, we need to prepare for the worst. The military has already begun using excessive force against demonstrators with two people being killed and several injured in Mandalay on February 20. Independent journalists and media are expected to be next in line. They are currently meddling with the military’s attempts at controlling information streams and shaping a coherent narrative that legitimatizes the coup. With threat levels rising and journalists increasingly being targeted at protests, arrested, and detained, we are unfortunately seeing the first signs of self-censorship. Myanmar journalists are increasingly feeling forced to go underground and many are strongly considering returning to exile operations. Without the necessary support, this democratic pillar may crumble, further challenging the population’s access to reliable information when it is needed the most.
Emilie Lehmann-Jacobsen (@emilietjacobsen) holds a PhD in media studies and works as program development advisor on Asia at IMS (International Media Support).