Online war: Tech uprising against Myanmar military government grows

Image credit: Dreamstime

After Myanmar's military rulers blocked communication services across the country, an international community of hackers and pro-democracy tech enablers chimed in to oppose the regime's bloody crackdown on protesters.

Last week, the rulers' media crackdown continued and the government revoked the licenses of five independent media companies. The move could make the act of reporting illegal for those five newsgroups. 

The oppression of a free press and free speech helped to elevate the importance of social media communication. Under the Twitter hashtag #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar, thousands of images and videos spread across the social media network, often showing the "systematic and premeditated killings amid extensive deployment of battlefield weaponry," described this week by Amnesty International in a forensic report that analysed the material.

The gruesome imagery spurred international participation in the protests online. Yesterday alone (11 March), more than 10,000 tweets with this hashtag were posted. Although many are not geo-tagged, those that were contained 53 per cent of posts by non-Myanmar handles.

That merely constitutes a spot check. However, it illustrates two things: one, that bloody images and videos went viral around the world and motivated more people to care about what is happening in Myanmar. We see more citizen investigators chiming in to analyse and verify information.

Secondly, with the military government actively blocking internet services across the country, it could be that there are just fewer domestic online protesters on Twitter - due to either lack of access to the service or fear of being held accountable for voicing their opinions. 

The military government understood early on the benefits of pulling the plug on services and attempted to stifle dissent online. In early February, telecom operators and internet providers across Myanmar were ordered to block social media services. One state-owned carrier blocked Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp. Another only cut the cord on Facebook. Initially, that drove many to Twitter and other services still online. Later the government blocked those too. 

This week, Netblocks, an observatory for tracking internet disruptions and shutdowns reported that Myanmar suffered the 26th consecutive shutdown. Cuts usually last between five and eight hours. 

It's particularly cruel when many families are concerned about other members. Without communication with friends and family, they are left to their own devices, often leaving them anxious about their loved ones' lives.

Also, much of the population is dependent on the web. Twenty-nine million people, more than half of Myanmar's population, are 'active social media users', according to a report by DataReportal for 2021. 

Protesters quickly found ways around the blocks on social messaging apps. As the coup unfolded, the protests assumed a similar form to the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong last year, where protesters used Bridgefy. It became a popular communication app among Myanmar's protesters early on after the coup. The maker, a Mexican startup, posted on Twitter that people of Myanmar would find the app useful during tough times. 

App download statistics shortly after the coup suggest that the number briefly soared.

Bridgefy is an offline-messaging app. It uses Bluetooth & Wi-Fi and operates on a mesh network in which mobile phones can exchange messages over a range of up to 100m, the app description says. 

The military government's internet shutdowns backfired in several ways. After a fourth-straight-night shutdown, Myanmar Hackers, a hacking group, successfully attacked government websites including the Central Bank, the military’s True News Information Team, state-run broadcaster MRTV, the Port Authority and the Food and Drug Administration.  

In early March, the infamous hacking group Anonymous chimed in and pledged to continue the disruption of government sites to help protesters. 

In a February note, the group says the coup government falsely claimed it had successfully hacked their accounts. "This is a common misinformation tactic by dictatorships worldwide. We demand peace and democracy for #Myanmar."

Under the hashtag #opmyanmar, the group celebrated the uprising against the oppressive military regime. 

Tweet downloads for posts between 4 March and 12 March suggest hacktivists hacked pages and celebrated it from accounts spread across the planet - often from the US, where calls grow louder on the new president to do something about the bloody crackdown on protesters.

Some hackers left messages in support of Myanmar's oppressed (see below). 

Cybersecurity expert Matt Warren from Australia's RMIT University told AFP that the aim of the attacks was to generate publicity. They did, and elevated the reputation of hacktivism, in this case, to invoke social change for the people of Myanmar. Attacks are mostly denial of service attacks or website defacement, an attack on a website that changes the visual appearance of it.

The clashes between protesters and the military government continued on online web forums like Wikipedia. On 19 February, Netblocks reported that all language editions of the knowledge-sharing platform were blocked across the country. A so-called 'edit war' on one Wikipedia site on military ruler General Min Aung Hlaing - in relation to his title and career - followed.

Why is the focus on Min Aung Hlaing? Under the old Defence Services Act, General Min Aung Hlaing should have retired at the age of 65 in July 2021. Information based on news articles including France 24, The Times and Nikkei Asian Review, suggest this would have provided an opportunity for the civilian arm of the government to appoint a new military officer as commander-in-chief, and, in turn, could have led to a potential prosecution scenario of Min Aung Hlaing in regards to alleged war crimes during the Rohingya conflict.

Min Aung Hlaing's Wikipedia page is currently partly locked for editing under Wikipedia's semi-protection seal. This means it cannot be edited by unregistered users accounts that are not autoconfirmed - accounts that are at least four days old and have made at least ten edits to Wikipedia - or confirmed. The last time it was edited was on 8 March.

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