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How Myanmar’s Junta Uses Telecom Companies to Target Journalists

FILE - A woman uses her mobile phone to check Facebook in Naypyidaw, March 16, 2021, as Myanmar authorities ordered telecommunication companies to restrict their services on the mobile data networks, following the February 1 military coup.
FILE - A woman uses her mobile phone to check Facebook in Naypyidaw, March 16, 2021, as Myanmar authorities ordered telecommunication companies to restrict their services on the mobile data networks, following the February 1 military coup.

Since the 2021 coup, Myanmar’s military has consolidated control over the country’s mobile service providers, putting activists, opposition members and journalists at greater risk of surveillance, according to experts.

With the country’s four mobile service providers now either directly or indirectly linked to Myanmar’s military, sensitive user data is more easily accessible and could be used to persecute opposition voices, experts say.

“The military in Myanmar has continued to oppress human rights online in the face of ongoing civil disobedience, political opposition, and armed conflict,” Freedom House researcher Kian Vesteinsson said.

The consolidation of mobile service providers means “people lose out on being able to express themselves freely or enjoy the privacy of their communications,” he said. “The distinct risk here is source safety and the safety of journalists.”

Since the coup, Myanmar’s military has killed more than 3,500 people, and over 17,900 remain detained for resisting the coup, according to the human rights research group, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The U.N. Human Rights Office has said that the military’s actions, including airstrikes, likely amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Consolidating control over mobile service providers is part of the military's broader strategy to monitor and censor the internet, according to experts and journalists.

Kyaw Hsan Hlaing, a freelance reporter who left Myanmar after the coup, believes media are at risk.

“For sure, independent media workers and journalists are the most at target,” said Kyaw Hsan Hlaing, who is now based in Hawaii.

Myanmar’s military did not reply to VOA’s request for comment about its use of telecommunication companies to track people in the country.

Myanmar has four mobile service providers: Mytel, ATOM, Ooredoo and MPT. Before the coup, the military already owned Mytel and MPT. Following the coup, ATOM — formerly the Myanmar operation of Norwegian telecom giant Telenor — and Qatari-owned Ooredoo’s Myanmar operation came under ownership of junta-affiliated firms, according to media reports.

But even before the coup, telecom and internet service providers had been ordered to install intercept spyware that could give the military power to listen in on calls, view texts and web traffic including emails, and to track user location, Reuters reported.

In Myanmar, telecom company ownership is shrouded in layers of secrecy. “It’s purposefully opaque,” says Oliver Spencer, an adviser at the group Free Expression Myanmar.

A former Myanmar telecom company employee, however, told VOA that to a certain extent, it doesn’t matter that all four companies are now linked to the military to varying degrees. The employee requested that their name and former company be withheld for safety reasons.

“In this current period, it doesn’t matter who owns or how linked the company is to the military. The response of the companies would be identical,” they said. “Compliance is the result.”

In an email to VOA, ATOM’s communications team said the telecom company respects its customers’ rights and privacy.

“ATOM Myanmar will never facilitate or allow unlawful interception requests or equipment,” ATOM said. “Our telecom operation will always act in a law-abiding, ethical manner.”

“We continue to provide essential communication services to the people of Myanmar while respecting local and international laws; upholding human rights; and advocating for consumer protection regulations, especially in terms of data security, data resilience, privacy, connectivity, roaming, internet access, and others,” ATOM said.

The other three telecom companies did not reply to VOA’s requests for comment.

The military is most interested in accessing the user data of potential political opponents, resistance members and journalists as part of its broader effort to squash dissent, analysts believe.

That data can include details on who a user texts or calls, the length of calls, location data, and contents of unencrypted messages. Sometimes data can even reveal website history and whether a user is using a VPN.

“All types of data requests that you can dream of — it’s all done here,” the former employee said.

All the military needs is a phone number. That allows them to track who else that individual calls and texts, according to Spencer. “They’re basically enabling the military to spy on their customers,” he said.

A former journalist, who has left Myanmar but asked for anonymity for safety reasons, says that when a reporter’s “mobile number is exposed to police and military intelligence” they are no longer secure.

“The journalists who are living in Myanmar are aware of digital safety,” he said, adding that more and more reporters use encrypted platforms, regularly delete messages, and use two phones — one for reporting and another for non-sensitive use. The latter helps them pass through checkpoints, where police regularly check and confiscate phones.

Journalists still inside Myanmar also often change their SIM cards for security reasons, according to Nu Nu Lusan, a freelance reporter based in Malaysia.

“I don’t have much to worry about since I live outside the country, but my concern is for the sources in Myanmar,” she said. She uses secure messaging platforms to communicate with sources on the ground.

The Myanmar military’s control over technology and the internet with web shutdowns, online censorship, and surveillance has led U.N. experts to describe the strategy as an attempt to establish a “digital dictatorship.”

Although the former telecom company employee said the situation is less risky if users have access to a VPN and use encrypted messaging platforms, “where the internet is cut off but the phone line is not — that’s where the risks are for journalists and activists.”

Across the country, all 330 townships have been subjected to internet shutdowns at least once in 2022, with about 50 townships facing shutdowns that measure more than one year, according to a February report from the digital rights group Access Now.

“I try secure online communication options, but most conflict areas have no internet access,” Lusan said, so sources have to go somewhere with service. “There is no absolute safe communication when I communicate via telephone with the sources.”

All of this means it can be dangerous for people on the ground to communicate with each other and access banned independent news websites, which makes it harder for people to stay up to date on what’s happening in their country and around the world.

“This is the military strategy,” Spencer said, “to create a system of fear.”