On 1 February 2021, the Myanmar military seized power from the democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). While quashing anti-military protests with unlawful force, enacting draconian legal changes, and arresting hundreds of anti-military activists, the military put in place severe internet restrictions that deny people in Myanmar the full enjoyment of their human rights.
In the months since the coup, the military has enacted increasingly sophisticated restrictions on internet access. In the immediate aftermath of the events of 1 February, the military often imposed blanket, but time-bound, restrictions on internet access. The military has recently moved to an approach of ‘whitelisting’, in which all mobile internet access is blocked save for pre-approved websites and applications. However, the degree to which this policy is being implemented is unclear, and internet users continue to be able to access a wide range of websites. By making internet access the exception rather than the norm, the government has violated the right to freedom of expression and access to information, which may only be restricted under limited conditions defined by international law.
While the internet restrictions themselves violate human rights, they have also exacerbated other human rights concerns in the country. Internet restrictions have hindered the organisation of anti-junta protests, obstructed efforts to assist individuals threatened by the junta, and restricted the flow of information about human rights abuses. The restrictions have also deepened the economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
While imposing internet restrictions, the military enacted changes to Myanmar’s Penal Code—many of which target expression, including online expression. New or amended crimes carry severe penalties for, among other things, expressing opinions critical of the government. Internet restrictions and the threat of criminal sanction have severely constricted the operating environment and forced many civil society organisations to limit their work or shut down entirely. Internet service providers (ISPs) have come under increased pressure to implement policies that would provide expansive surveillance powers to authorities.
This briefing paper first explains internet restrictions that the NLD-led government put in place before the coup. It then sets out a timeline of the implementation of internet restrictions since 1 February. It further describes the domestic legal framework enabling the internet restrictions and the new changes to Myanmar law that have increased repression of the right to freedom of expression. This briefing paper concludes by providing recommendations to States, the UN, and private sector actors.
For more information
Matthew Bugher, Head of Asia Programme, [email protected]