Myanmar’s Unsustainable Social Media Shutdown

Just over two months ago, on the first day of February, an aerobics instructor in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw filmed a soon-to-be-famous fitness video. The clip shows the woman vigorously performing her routine – fists pumping, body bouncing side to side – in a traffic roundabout as a convoy of armored vehicles cruises by in the background. She had, of course, unknowingly documented the rapidly unfolding coup.

What made the footage so compelling was that, even as it captured the country’s democratic regression in real-time, it also reflected a level of technological and economic advancement that once seemed unattainable. Only a decade ago, less than 1 percent of Myanmar’s population had access to the internet and even landline telephones were a rare luxury. Today, just over half of the country is online and smartphones like the one that recorded the workout video are cheap and widely available.

All of which puts Myanmar’s would-be rulers in a bit of a bind.

Just as the aerobics video was going viral across the world, the military cut off the internet, presumably to control the flow of information and stem protests. Internet access was soon partially restored, but the regime forced internet service providers to block Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Those social platforms, along with Wikipedia and messaging service WhatsApp, remain inaccessible across the country more than two months later.

The initial internet outage paralyzed the country’s banking system and disrupted businesses. The military likely recognized that a prolonged blackout would be economically disastrous, which is true. But a social media shutdown is just as unsustainable. Facebook is synonymous with the internet in Myanmar, and the platform is deeply embedded in e-commerce.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Thus, no matter what happens in the weeks or months ahead, restored access to social media seems all but inevitable. What’s more, the military has no leverage over Facebook, TikTok, and other online service providers based outside of the country, so any requests to remove activist accounts or videos will likely go unheeded. This should not suggest the regime is at any sort of disadvantage in maintaining power; the apparent failure of tech-savvy, youth-led demonstrations in Hong Kong and Thailand should disabuse us of that notion. But the old junta playbook for monopolizing control of communication will no longer apply in the digital era.

Expanding Access and Diminishing Oversight

Diplomat Brief Weekly Newsletter N Get briefed on the story of the week, and developing stories to watch across the Asia-Pacific. Get the Newsletter

During Myanmar’s previous period of military rule, the country was internationally isolated and all forms of communication with the outside world were strictly limited. The country itself developed little during those five decades, so the limited telecommunications infrastructure that existed was relatively easy to control. Domestic media operated under the thumb of the regime, few people had private telephone lines (and the ones that existed were naturally tapped), and fax machines and satellite dishes had to be registered. Any sort of unauthorized use of communications devices resulted in severe penalties and imprisonment.

World Bank figures show that the internet usage rates in Myanmar remained below 1 percent through 2010. The junta was effectively able to control internet activity to this point by limiting individual user access to tightly regulated internet cafés, where owners had to submit monthly records of internet usage data.

With the formal end of the military dictatorship in 2011, the government finally opened up its telecommunications market to outside service providers. In 2014, Qatar’s Ooredoo and Norway’s Telenor won licenses to develop the country’s mobile infrastructure. What followed was nothing short of remarkable, as a country in which SIM cards previously cost a staggering $3,000 was suddenly flooded with cheap mobile phones – and eventually 3G-enabled internet access.

Because of this development, internet penetration levels soared to 10 percent in 2014 and 21 percent in 2015. Today, just over half (51 percent) of the country has internet access, according to the most recent estimates from Internet World Stats.

What’s more, the internet has been relatively uncensored – at least by regional standards – over the past decade. It’s true that some levels of content restriction have been present, as ISPs have been ordered to block pornographic websites and media outlets covering the ongoing Rakhine state conflict. But until recent events, Myanmar’s Freedom of the Net scores looked much closer to Thailand’s than to China’s or Iran’s.

In part, this level of internet freedom simply represented the state’s limited capacity to exert control. Just as the country’s telecommunications infrastructure was developed by foreign firms, all of the most popular web services come from outside of the country. According to industry figures, Myanmar’s most popular apps include Facebook (United States), TikTok (China), Viper (Japan), and Instagram (United States). Local developers have created some homegrown social media alternatives, but nothing on the scale of these tech giants.

This dynamic explains why China has encouraged the growth of domestic apps like Sina Weibo and WeChat as alternatives to Facebook and Facebook Messenger. Chinese Communist Party officials can always pressure these homegrown companies to cooperate with censorship and surveillance efforts. Myanmar’s military, though, has no such leverage over Mark Zuckerberg.

The only immediate tool available to the junta, at this point, is ordering domestic ISPs to block access to particular websites and apps. What seems like a declaration of strength is really a demonstration of weakness. And netizens have quickly learned how to circumvent access blocks. Several VPN mobile browsers, which can encrypt internet traffic and reroute it around local server blockages, currently rank in Myanmar’s top 10 apps for both iPhone and Android.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Facebook Crackdowns

The regime’s digital impotence was on display well before the latest coup.

In August 2018, Facebook announced it was banning 18 accounts belonging to high officials in Myanmar’s military on the basis of an unprecedented violation of terms of service: using its platform to promote ethnic violence against the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s account, which had attained nearly 2.8 million followers, was among those removed. Immediately after the ban, the military chief created a new account on the Russian social media site VKontakte.

The move generated concern that the Russian internet ecosystem might serve as a safe haven for Myanmar’s military and other nationalists. Ashin Wirathu, a radical Buddhist monk known for his hateful invective against the Rohingya, wrote on VK that “We have to go with Russia when the father of democracy, America, is unfair.”

But only weeks later, the VKontakte accounts for Min Aung Hlaing, Ashin Wirathu, and other nationalists were suspended for violating the platform’s terms and services.

No other digital safe harbor has emerged, which is why the military appeared powerless yet again when, a few weeks after the coup, Facebook banned any and all accounts associated with Myanmar’s military and cut advertising by military-owned businesses. YouTube announced its own ban shortly thereafter, removing five military-run channels from its platform.

The one social platform where the military has still been active is TikTok, where soldiers have posted videos threatening to kill protesters. These clips led the Beijing-based app to announce it was removing content that incites violence. Indeed, despite conspiracy theories to the contrary, Chinese internet companies have not been especially helpful to the regime.

Few Paths Forward

So where does this leave the junta 2.0?

Rest of World editor Peter Guest makes a compelling case that the military has plenty of digital resources of its own to help it identify and arrest activists and generally clamp down on dissent. This seems correct in the short term. The age of “Twitter toppling dictators” seems like a lifetime ago, and the aforementioned recent protests in Hong Kong, Thailand, and even Belarus have ultimately failed to dislodge deeply embedded regimes.

Conversely, though, there’s a tendency in such pushbacks to overstate a government’s ability to control internet activity. China is often presented as a model that can be replicated, but China’s internet infrastructure (from its walled garden online services to its Great Firewall gateway) was developed over decades at exorbitant cost. This level of control isn’t a one-time investment, either. The CCP spent an estimated $6.6 billion on internet surveillance measures in 2020 alone.

Myanmar’s government, whether run by Min Aung Hlaing or Aung San Suu Kyi, has a much more limited digital state capacity. China’s level of control is simply out of the question. The best model the regime can hope for is probably that of Vietnam, a country with ample levels of surveillance but no social media blockages. In fact, 68 million Vietnamese, more than two-thirds of the population, are on Facebook.

All of which brings us back to the inevitable: At some point in the near future, access to social media platforms in Myanmar will be restored as there are no domestic alternatives to these services. That this concession continues to be postponed suggests the regime has good reason to be concerned about its own stability.