On May 6, 2021, FORSEA, in partnership with Asia Centre, convened the “FORSEA Dialogue on the internet control and censorship in Myanmar & across Far East and Southeast Asia” to discuss internet shutdowns and the spread of autocratic propaganda across East and Southeast Asia.
Dr. Maung Zarni, co-founder of FORSEA and the dialogue’s host, introduced Asia Centre as a trusted and reliable resource on the topic of freedom of expression and human rights in Southeast Asia.
In his opening remarks, Maung Zarni outlined first, how the military-appointed State Administration Council (SAC) engaged in social media manipulation to shape public opinion; and second, how the junta has used legal measures to censor critical contents about the junta over social media.
Continuing the discussion, Dr James Gomez, Regional Director of Asia Centre began by pointing out that the military junta in Myanmar has now switched its tactics from simple internet manipulation and censorship, to direct control of telecommunications infrastructure. He stated that during the early days of the coup, internet content censorship was the main form of control, however due to the technologically advanced younger generation in the country, they were forced to introduce shutdowns in an effort to reduce awareness of military activity and control the narrative.
James Gomez went on to forecast that the junta will inevitably reintroduce internet access to the population, but with added controls. He explained that the Tatmadaw would graft surveillance technology onto the communications networks to secure future control. Thereafter, it will aim to disseminate one direction propaganda.
FORSEA’s Zarni responded by noting how difficult it has been for the junta to fully establish themselves as “a state actor” due to the sustained opposition from both private and public sectors while having now to fight multiple war fronts where hundreds of the junta soldiers are being killed in Chin, Shan, Kachin and Karen states. The ethnic majoritarian Burmese society and the national minorities with armed resistance movements are now united against what they view as the Common Enemy of ALL people, namely the Tatmadaw or the formerly national armed forces.
He then asked James Gomez for the full timeline of how the Junta control of internet communications came about.
James Gomez emphasised the importance of the “Telecommunications Law”, as it was the key tool used to legitimise the Junta’s actions on February 1, 2021. He said, on the 2nd and 3rd of February, the military began by throttling internet speeds, then resorting to a ban of social media platforms. A week later, 7th February, there were shutdowns of the internet in response to mass protests of the coup. 15th March saw the military cut off mobile data access nationwide, followed by limiting access to public information pages critical of the military.
Zarni inquired about the role of the technology companies operating in Myanmar in respect to the coup, and asked about how they responded to the orders from the Myanmar’s junta. James Gomez replied, and mentioned that due to clauses in the Telecommunications Law, the companies had to comply with Junta orders. The Norwegian company “Telenor”, the largest telecommunications company in Myanmar, were putting out regular updates on social media about the requests made from the Myanmar military until they were ordered to stop. Additionally, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter made public their concerns over the developing situation in Myanmar, carrying out a mass banning of all Tatmadaw accounts on their platforms.
Dr Gomez highlighted that “Mytel”, one of Myanmar’s four national mobile networks, is a joint venture between the Tatmadaw and Vietnam’s Ministry of Defence. He questioned why this wasn’t made clear at the recent ASEAN summit, and that they needed to be held accountable for their complicit behaviour in contributing to the repression of the people of Myanmar.
Maung Zarni moved on to ask Dr Gomez about Asia Centre’s report “Defending Freedom of Expression: Fake news Legislation in East Asia and Southeast Asia”. He explained the report focused upon the phenomena of fake news, with this label being used in East and Southeast Asia to discredit political opponents. He added, several countries in the region have introduced “fake news laws”, a primary piece of legislation now utilised to imprison pro-democracy activists or attack independent, fact-based media.
Developing this point, Gomez mentioned the spread of Chinese propaganda throughout the Asian region. He gave examples of the large number of Thai news outlets bought by Chinese companies, and the prolificity of Chinese sponsored Thai language television programmes that speak supportively of China, helping to promote autocratic ideals. To avoid this, he named foreign interference policies like Taiwan’s being pivotal to prevent the slow destabilisation of a free and liberal democracy.
The final topic of the conversation was on how multi-party democracies and independent institutions in Southeast Asia are necessary to preserve freedom of expression for the populace?
Maung Zarni explained that, in Myanmar, it is now very difficult to democratise the country due to the way in which the military has embedded itself within the society. In response to this, James Gomez said that if the people of Myanmar are able to shake off the junta’s rule, they could become a shining example of the democratic strength of a united people, providing a grim warning to other such regimes globally.
Concluding the discussion, Maung Zarni thanked James Gomez and added that the Asia Centre has produced internationally recognised quality research that deserves to make a major impact across the Asian region and beyond.
Read Asia Centre’s reports here:
“Defending Freedom of Expression: Fake News Laws in East and Southeast Asia” : asiacentre.org/defending-freedom-of-expression-fake-news-laws-in-east-and-southeast-asia/
Watch the full discussion below –