A year after Myanmar coup, growing surveillance threatens lives

A group of young men were recently stopped at a security checkpoint in Yangon, Myanmar, and asked to hand over their mobile phones. After being questioned about social media apps, one was fined for using a virtual private network.

The crackdown on VPNs, which anonymize a user’s Internet Protocol address and help bypass firewalls, is the latest attack on digital rights in Myanmar — alongside internet shutdowns and growing surveillance — since a military coup on Feb. 1, 2021.

Authorities say the surveillance measures are part of a drive to improve governance and curb crime.

Fearful of being tracked, citizens have turned off the location setting on their phones, and used encrypted messaging apps, VPNs and foreign SIM cards to communicate and organize protests, and document human rights abuses in the country.

“Even before the coup, there was an assumption that there was surveillance — it has just gotten much more heavy-handed and overt since Feb. 1,” said Debbie Stothard, founder of the Alternative Asean Network on Burma, an advocacy group.

“But people are determined to keep communication channels open, and they are being very resourceful in expressing dissent and recording abuses — even at great risk to themselves,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Bangkok.

Security forces have killed about 1,500 people and arrested thousands since Feb. 1, 2021, according to the nonprofit Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

People in the Southeast Asian nation had already lived under military control for nearly half a century until 2011.

During the decade of democratic transition that followed, Myanmar welcomed multiple mobile networks, and purchased drones, facial recognition software and spyware from foreign firms that the junta is using to track civilians, rights groups say.