Myanmar’s military government is set to pass a new cybersecurity law that will ban the use of internet services, a move that has been condemned by digital rights activists and business groups.
The Southeast Asian country has been in turmoil since a coup by the military last February. A widespread grassroots movement has seen thousands refuse to accept military rule, with anti-coup communications and demonstrations now largely mobilized online.
But a draft bill released by the junta, if passed, would criminalize the use of virtual private networks and online gambling, carrying a punishment of one to three years’ imprisonment and fines of up to $2,800.
The first draft of the bill was released last year, but progress on the legislation slowed after substantial public outcry and industrywide criticism. The legislation is expected to become law next week.
"We are speculating the bill will actually be official within just a few days, it might come before the first of February," Ma Htike, a digital rights activist, told VOA.
People living in Myanmar rely heavily on internet access, especially social media platforms such as Facebook, for news, and many have struggled to get online since the junta took control of the country’s telecommunication regulators after the Feb. 1, 2021, coup. Major Norwegian telecommunication operator Telenor recently quit its operations inside the country because of the political situation.
The military regularly shuts down the internet, routinely blocks social media platforms and censors what information can be found online, all in the name of ensuring national "stability."
But political analyst Aung Thu Nyein describes the latest draft legislation as unusually severe.
"The leaked new communication law is the most draconian law restricting many freedoms and privacy of a person," he told VOA. "This law could be a major roadblock to technological development as well, such as prohibiting the use of digital coins and blockchain technology, etc.
"It is definitely for the purpose of oppression of freedom of speech and a tool for control," he said.
Junta-enforced regional internet blackouts make VPNs vital to accessing independent news online via private networks outside of the country.
According to Top10VPN, Myanmar went without internet access for 72 consecutive days from February to April of last year, driving demand for VPNs up by 7,200%. The report also says the shutdowns came at a cost, with Myanmar suffering nearly $3 billion in lost revenue, according to the indicators from the World Bank, The International Telecommunication Union, Eurostat and the U.S. Census.
Htike says most of Myanmar's citizens continue to struggle with the blackouts.
"There are still various locations that the mobile internet has not been available," she told VOA, adding that junta-backed regulators have scheduled price increases for internet subscriptions, which is likely to pose "a big obstacle" for most citizens in a country with typically low per capita incomes.
"[The] internet plays a pivot role to send information to all parts of the country, from cities to remote corners," said Aung Htun, a journalist for Burma VJ, an informal network of professional and citizen video journalists who pool footage. "That’s why the military tried to raise the data fees higher than previously."
In its attempts to control the flow of information, the Myanmar military has also cracked down on the country’s media. According to Reporting ASEAN, a monitoring group in Southeast Asia, 120 journalists have been arrested with 49 still detained and 16 convicted. The licenses of at least five media outlets have been revoked.
Aung Htun also says the looming internet restrictions under the new law will put people at increased risk of arrest in public, where the military sometimes randomly searches phones.
"It’s getting more difficult to hide data in your phone. It’s better to use simple ways; don’t keep any important data in your phone," he said, adding that journalists must "stay low, and try to be in touch with your colleagues [only] by secure network."
Freedom House, a nonprofit research institute that ranks internet freedom by country on a scale in which 100 is "most free," placed Myanmar at 17 in 2021.
Ten foreign businesses and industry groups in Myanmar said in a joint letter they are "deeply concerned" over the latest draft of the cybersecurity law.
"If enforced, the current draft disrupts the free flow of information and directly impacts businesses’ abilities to operate legally and effectively in Myanmar," the statement read.
Htike said the new law could force customers to break the law in order to use basic business services.
"Myanmar’s economy really declined after the coup, but still small businesses have used social media and networks, but with this kind of [restriction] it’s going to be very difficult," she added.
Feb. 1 marks one year since the Myanmar military removed the country’s democratically elected government. To mark the anniversary, anti-coup activists have called for a silent strike, which leaves the streets of towns and cities across Myanmar deserted.
"Silent strikes are a good strategy for people to get involved," said Htike, who also warned that risks remain whether you’re demonstrating in the streets or online.
Myanmar’s military routinely stops and searches people to check phones for evidence of VPN activity, such as whether the phone has Facebook access, which is impossible without a VPN.
They also surveil the web for digital anti-junta activity.
In a silent protest, Htike added, "it might be difficult for [the military] to do search and seizure [on empty streets], but [even] if people are active [only] online, they can [still] be targeted there."
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, gained independence from Britain in 1948, but most of its modern history has been under military rule.
After a brief period of civilian rule, the military in November 2020 began making unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud. On Feb. 1 of 2021, the military removed the democratically elected government and arrested leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, both of whom have since been sentenced to several jail terms.
Widespread opposition to military rule has resulted in thousands of arrests and at least 1,499 killings, according to the Thai-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.