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A digital firewall in Myanmar, built with guns and wire cutters

Burmese soldiers came down before dawn on February 1, carrying guns and wire cutters. At gunpoint, they ordered technicians from telecommunications operators to shut down the Internet. For good measure, the military cut threads without knowing what they were cutting, according to an eyewitness and a person briefed on the events.

The raids on data centers in Yangon and other towns in Myanmar were part of a coordinated strike in which the military seized power, locked up the country’s elected leaders and disconnected most of its users from ‘Internet.

Since stroke, the military has repeatedly shut down the internet and cut off access to major social media sites, isolating a country that only had a connection to the outside world in recent years. The military regime has also enacted legislation that could criminalize the slightest opinions expressed online.

Until now, the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar Army is known, has depended on cruder forms of control to restrict the flow of information. But the military seems serious about putting up a digital fence to more aggressively filter what people see and do online. Developing such a system could take years and would likely require outside help from Beijing or Moscow, experts say.

Such a comprehensive firewall can also be expensive: Internet outages since the coup have crippled a struggling economy. Longer disruptions will hurt local business interests and the confidence of foreign investors as well as the military’s broad business interests.

“The army is afraid of people’s online activities, so they tried to block and shut down the internet,” said Ko Zaw Thurein Tun, chairman of a local chapter of the Myanmar IT Professionals Association. . “But now international banking transactions have ceased and the country’s economy is in decline. It is as if their urine is spraying their own face.

If Myanmar’s digital controls become permanent, they would add to the increasingly dividing global walls of what was supposed to be an open and borderless internet. The blocks would also offer new evidence that more countries are turning to China’s authoritarian model to tame the internet. Two weeks after the coup, Cambodia, which is economically swayed by China, also unveiled its own global internet controls.

Even policy makers in the United States and Europe set their own rules, although the rules are much less strict. Technologists fear that such measures could eventually break the internet, thereby undermining the online networks that connect the world.

The Burmese may have logged in later than most, but their enthusiasm for the Internet has the zeal of converts. Communications on Facebook and Twitter, as well as secure messaging apps, united millions against the coup.

Daily street protests against the army have intensified in recent days, despite fears of a bloody crackdown. Protesters rallied at Chinese diplomatic missions in Myanmar, accusing Beijing of exporting the tools of authoritarianism to its small neighbor.

Huawei and ZTE, two large Chinese companies, built much of Myanmar’s telecommunications network, especially when Western financial sanctions prevented other foreign companies from operating in the country.

Myanmar’s two foreign-owned telecommunications operators, Telenor and Ooredo, have complied with numerous requests from the military, including instructions to shut down the internet every night over the past week and block specific websites, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

All the while the military placed officers from its Signal Corps in charge of the Post and Telecommunications Department, according to two people with knowledge of the department’s workforce.

A draft of 36 pages cybersecurity law which was distributed to telecom and internet service providers the week after the coup described draconian rules that would give the military sweeping powers to block websites and cut off access to users deemed troublesome. The law would also allow the government wide access to user data, which it stipulates that Internet service providers must keep for three years.

“The cybersecurity law is just a law to stop people online,” said Ma Htaike Htaike Aung, executive director of MIDO, a civil society group that tracks technology in Myanmar. “If this happens, the digital economy will disappear in our country.”

When the bill was sent to foreign telecoms for comment, company officials were told by authorities that rejecting the law was not an option, according to two people familiar with the conversations.

These people and others with knowledge of Myanmar’s ongoing internet crackdowns spoke to The New York Times on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivities of the new regime.

The cybersecurity bill follows a multi-year effort in the country to develop surveillance capabilities, often following indications from China. Last year, Telenor, a Norwegian company, raised concerns over government pressure to register the identities of people who buy mobile phone services, which would allow authorities to link names to phone numbers. .

The Myanmar campaign has so far been unsuccessful, although it bears similarities to China’s registration policies, which have become a keystone of the Beijing surveillance state. The program reflected Myanmar’s ambitions, but also how far it was from achieving anything close to what China has done.

In recent years, Huawei surveillance cameras designed to track cars and people have also been installed in the country’s largest cities and the under-populated capital Naypyidaw. A senior cybersecurity official in Myanmar recently showed photos of the traffic surveillance technology on his personal Facebook page.

A Huawei spokesperson declined to comment on the systems.

For now, even as anti-China protests escalate over fears of an influx of high-tech equipment, the Tatmadaw has ordered telecommunications companies to use less sophisticated methods to impede access. to the Internet. The method of choice is to decouple website addresses from the set of numbers a computer needs to search for specific sites, a practice similar to listing the wrong number under a person’s name in a phone book. telephone.

Savvier internet users are bypassing blocks with VPNs or VPNs, but over the past week access to some popular free VPNs in Myanmar has been hampered. And paid services, which are harder to block, are unaffordable for most people in the country, who also lack the international credit cards to purchase them.

Yet for one of the poorest countries in Asia, Myanmar has developed a surprisingly robust technical mastery. Over the past decade, thousands of military officers have studied in Russia, where they have been trained in the latest information technology, according to education data from Myanmar and Russia.

In 2018, the Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications, then under a hybrid civil-military government, embezzled $ 4.5 million from an emergency fund for social media monitoring team which “aims to prevent foreign sources that interfere and incite unrest in Myanmar”.

Thousands of cyber soldiers operate under military command, Myanmar tech experts have said. Every morning after the nightly internet shutdowns more and more websites and VPNs are blocked, showing the dynamism of the soldiers.

“We see an army that has been using analog methods for decades, but is also trying to adopt new technologies,” said Hunter Marston, a Southeast Asia researcher at Australian National University. “While this is being applied on a haphazard basis at the moment, they are setting up a system to wipe out anyone who posts anything, even from a distance, threatening the regime.

Mr. Zaw Thurein Tun, from the Myanmar IT Professionals Association, said he was sitting at his home browsing the internet shortly after the coup, when a handful of men arrived for stop it. Other digital activists had already been detained across the country. He ran.

He is now in hiding but is helping lead a campaign of civil disobedience against the military. Mr. Zaw Thurein Tun expressed concern that the Tatmadaw is assembling, brick by brick, its own firewall.

“Then we’ll all be in total darkness again,” he said.

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