Categories
Audio Posts In English

Myanmar junta’s VPN block poses ‘major threat,’ say analysts


washington — Access to independent media has been tightly restricted in Myanmar since the military coup in 2021. But now, the junta is also blocking VPNs, in what analysts say marks an escalation in censorship.

The military — also known as the Tatmadaw — is now actively blocking virtual private networks, or VPNs, which help internet users bypass restrictions to access websites, as well as social media and messaging platforms.

Analysts believe the junta may be using technology from a Chinese company to enforce the blocks.

The move “poses a major threat to press freedom, activism and the ability of people to hold their government accountable,” said Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN. The London-based organization tests the security of VPNs and researches internet and tech security.

Block limits access to information

The junta has threatened to block VPNs since it overthrew the civilian-led government more than three years ago. In late 2021, the Tatmadaw drafted, but did not enact, a cybersecurity law that could punish people with three years in prison if they used a VPN without official permission.

The blocks, which began in late May, have dire consequences for internet freedom in Myanmar, where opposition to the military and its coup has largely been organized online, according to Migliano.

“The VPN crackdown in Myanmar severely restricts citizens’ access to independent and accurate information, reinforcing government control over the flow of information,” Migliano told VOA.

Several news outlets have reported that security forces are stopping people at random to inspect their phones for VPN apps. Around two dozen people were arrested and fined in early June after police found VPNs on their cell phones.

In addition, Myanmar’s Transport and Communications Ministry has blocked access to Facebook, Instagram, X and WhatsApp, according to media reports.

Myanmar’s military did not reply to VOA’s request for comment.

Myanmar’s military is seeking to control the flow of information as a way to control the country, say experts.

“They really want to control the narrative and spread their propaganda,” Wai Phyo Myint, a Myanmar analyst at the digital rights group Access Now, told VOA.

Experts say junta seeks ‘digital dictatorship’

The VPN crackdown is the latest example of what a group of United Nations experts in 2022 called the junta’s efforts to establish a “digital dictatorship.”

“There’s a battle in the digital space,” one digital rights activist told VOA. The individual, who is from Myanmar but moved to Thailand after the coup, requested anonymity for security reasons.

Part of the reason the military may have taken so long to target VPNs is because blocking is more difficult and expensive than other forms of censorship, according to Oliver Spencer, an expert on free expression in Myanmar.

The military has already consolidated control over the country’s telecommunications companies, imposed scattered internet shutdowns, revoked media licenses, and arrested dozens of journalists. The repressive environment led many independent news outlets to flee into exile.

“They basically cracked down on the internet in all the ways that they could do more easily,” Spencer said. That means blocking VPNs was the last main step the military could take to prevent the country’s people from accessing websites and platforms that the Tatmadaw would rather hide from them, according to Spencer.

Citing leaked documents, the activist group Justice for Myanmar reported in June that the military’s enhanced censorship system uses technology from the Chinese network security company Geedge Networks to block VPNs.

The Beijing-based company did not reply to VOA’s email seeking comment.

With this technology, authorities create a list of all known VPN domains and IP addresses they want blocked, according to Migliano. The simplest way to circumvent the block is to cycle through various VPNs, because some still work sporadically, Migliano added.

Demand for VPNs has on average been more than 1,000% higher than it was in the month before the crackdown, according to research by Top10VPN. The largest uptick was on May 30, when demand was 2,333% higher, Top10VPN reported.

Violence perpetrated by Myanmar’s military against those resisting the coup means that not having access to independent, accurate information can be a matter of life and death, said Washington-based Wai Phyo Myint, Asia Pacific Policy Analyst for the AccessNow.

In many cases, crucial information such as how to find safe places to avoid the military “got cut because of the VPN ban,” she said. That’s particularly concerning given the gravity of the violence perpetrated by the military, which stands accused by rights groups of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity since the coup.

Spencer estimates that the crackdown now means that there are “millions and millions” of people who have no access to any information or any way to communicate electronically.

“Instead of just attacking the media, which they’ve done until now, [the junta are] actually attacking the ways that the general public can communicate and can access information,” Spencer said. “It’s probably one of the largest attacks on freedom of expression in Myanmar since the coup.”