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Burmese Expert: China Helping Military Establish Cyber Firewall

FILE - Hooded demonstrators display placards accusing China of supporting Myanmar's military during a protest against the recent coup, outside the Chinese Embassy in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 11, 2021.

The Burmese military government is about to pass a tough cyber censorship bill that has sparked widespread opposition at home and abroad.

A cybersecurity expert in Rangoon told VOA that China has provided technical assistance so the Burmese military can develop a cyber firewall similar to the Great Firewall that restricts online activities of Chinese citizens. The expert, who is known to VOA, asked to remain unnamed for security concerns.

Cybersecurity law

The cybersecurity expert said Chinese IT technicians and hardware had arrived at the request of the military government to help the military implement the cybersecurity law to stamp out dissidents and pro-democracy protests on the internet.

“These are firewalls from China. These firewalls have been sent to internet service providers, and telecom providers like Ooredoo, Telenor,” the expert said. “All of these are … to be operational before February 15.”

According to a copy of the 36-page proposed cyber censorship law obtained by Reuters and translated by the Financial Times, the law would require online service providers in Myanmar to store user data at a location identified by the government for three years.

The new rules would also require providers to hand over information to authorities “under any existing law” and would give the state powers to intervene in cases that threaten Myanmar’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity.” If convicted of failing to manage data in keeping with the law, individuals could be jailed for up to three years, fined up to $7,500, or both.

The expert said the requirements would be monitored by firewall devices provided by China.

The expert added, “The latest technology firewall has features called deep packed inspection. They can access this traffic, and you can start to see what data is being transferred. So I think they are trying to control the internet with the latest technology.”

The interviewee also said that the hardware devices may have come from the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, but VOA could not confirm this. Washington has banned U.S. firms from doing business with Huawei because of security concerns.

China denies helping Myanmar military

Photos circulating on Twitter and Facebook show people unloading boxes of goods from a flight from China to Myanmar. Many Burmese believe the boxes contain technical devices used by China to limit online activities.

China denied the allegations. Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry, said at a regular press conference on Wednesday that he had not heard of China providing equipment and IT experts to Myanmar. He also asked people to disregard “such false statements and rumors” regarding China’s involvement in Myanmar.

The Chinese government has extensive experience in internet censorship. Because of the "internet firewall," people in mainland China cannot use Western social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and media and social media software in China are subject to rigorous censorship.

China has significant economic and geopolitical interests in Myanmar. China has long been Myanmar’s most important foreign partner, and Myanmar sees China “as a key source of investment, diplomatic protection and potential leverage over ethnic armed groups fighting the country’s military,” according to the International Crisis Group.

China backs coup

Despite widespread international condemnation of Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, China has continued to support the Southeast Asian nation, much as it has supported the military since the February 1 coup.

Christopher Ankersen, clinical associate professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, told VOA that the Burmese military government tends to move closer to Beijing in the face of U.S. sanctions and being isolated by other democracies.

“The sanctions and asset freezes announced by President [Joe] Biden may force Myanmar military officials to look to China for increased support,” he said.

Biden on Wednesday approved an executive order “enabling us to immediately sanction the military leaders that directed the coup,” their business interests and close family members.

Internet giants speak up

Some of the world's largest internet companies are joining Myanmar’s civil society groups in opposing the proposed cyber laws, saying they violate basic human rights and harm the economy. The military overthrow of Myanmar’s democratically elected government has prompted widespread and continuing street demonstrations there against the takeover.

The Asia Internet Coalition on Thursday issued a statement saying the proposed bill grants the military leaders “unprecedented power to censor citizens and violate their privacy, contravening democratic norms and fundamental rights.” Members of the coalition include Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google.

The statement said the proposed bill “would significantly undermine freedom of expression and represents a regressive step after years of progress.”

The coalition also called for the military leaders to consider “the devastating consequences” the bill would cause to the Burmese people and economy.

Myanmar groups voice concerns

More than 150 Myanmar civil society organizations said in a statement that “the so-called bill includes clauses which violate human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, data protection and privacy, and other democratic principles and human rights.”

The Burmese military government suspended internet services after the coup and ordered a block of local access to social media such as Facebook and Twitter last week to crack down on opposition. Service has been partially restored.

Facebook has more than 21 million users in Myanmar, almost 40% of the population, and is the main vehicle for many Burmese to connect to the world.