Zaw Zaw, a photojournalist in Myanmar was arrested in Mandalay by the local military authority on April 9, 2022, and was sent to Mandalay’s Obo Prison in May 2022 after being detained at the notorious Mandalay Palace interrogation centre for more than one month. Two months later, he was charged with incitement for a Facebook post that denounced the Myanmar military regime. The Irrawaddy News reported that he was accused of instigating the destabilisation of the country by using Facebook and by taking photos of protests against authoritarian military rule and military security forces’ violent crackdowns on peaceful protesters. On August 24, he was sentenced to three years imprisonment under an incitement charge by the court. Zaw used to work for a well-known Myanmar news agency, The Irrawaddy, but resigned a couple of months after the military coup.
This is one of the many cases in which civilians and journalists in Myanmar have been arrested and imprisoned for Facebook posts that denounce or criticise the junta since the military staged a coup on February 1, 2021. While the actual number of incidents is believed to be much higher, between January 2022 to May 2022, Radio Free Asia reported that at least 200 internet users in Myanmar had been arrested for incitement and terrorism by the junta for posting and sharing social media content that support the shadow government and resistance forces such as the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the National Unity Government (NUG) and the People's Defence Force (PDF), which the military declared terrorist organisations. Despite the increasing arrests, people in Myanmar continue to post and share anti-junta content and messages on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms.
Facebook equals the internet in Myanmar
Used by about half of Myanmar’s 53 million population, Facebook is the dominant media platform and is considered equivalent to the internet in Myanmar. While its role has been controversial in the political context of Myanmar, it is undeniable that Facebook has enormous influence over the Myanmar people and in shaping the political trajectory of the country.
During the period of Rohingya displacement, Facebook was criticised for allowing the spread of disinformation, rumours, and hate speech against the Rohingya Muslim people in Rakhine State. During the months preceding the 2020 general elections, disinformation aimed at discrediting then-State Counsellor of Myanmar (equivalent to prime minister) Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, delegitimizing the election results and spreading hate speech against Muslim electoral candidates were widely disseminated on the Facebook platform by pro-military lobbyists and Buddhist nationalists.
Digital rights activists claimed that the Facebook algorithm exacerbated the genocide of the Rohingya people. In February 2021, the Facebook algorithm was believed to have contributed to the military coup that resulted in thousands of civilians being killed and tens of thousands of people being imprisoned for joining anti-coup movements as its algorithm amplified military propaganda news and disinformation regarding the credibility of the electoral process. Back in 2018, after receiving massive public criticism concerning the Rohingya displacement to Bangladesh, Facebook took down now-coup-leader General Min Aung Hlaing’s Facebook account along with accounts and pages of other Myanmar Military officials and military TV news channels (in particular Myawaddy News), based on the UN investigation which reported that these individuals and organisations committed or enabled serious human rights abuses in the country.
In the post-coup context, the military junta and its supporters have been using different platforms to spread rumours and disinformation to promote pro-military narratives and to suppress democracy and anti-coup resistance movements in Myanmar. As a result, Facebook put more effort into removing harmful accounts, content, and groups linked to the Myanmar military and Buddhist nationalist groups for violating its community standard and to control the further spread of disinformation, hate speech, and propaganda news.
The military’s reactions against Facebook
Since the coup, the Myanmar military has detained tens of thousands of dissenters, activists, students, and protesters who supported the movement against military rule in Myanmar. In addition to the Myanmar military's brutal crackdown on protesters and armed resistance forces, they severely restricted freedom of speech, freedom of information, and access to telecommunication services. In an attempt to suppress dissent in cyberspace, the military increasingly arrested those who showed support for opposition and resistance groups on social media, especially after January 2022, with the support of pro-military lobbyists who monitor social media accounts. In early May 2022, the Myanmar junta released a statement that 229 people were arrested and charged for violating the Anti-Terrorism Law and Electronic Communications Law that prohibit the distribution of anti-military propaganda online.
Ever since it emerged as a key platform for opposition to the military coup, the Myanmar military regime has been trying to ban Facebook, claiming that it is the source of disinformation that is causing instability and violence and has been unfairly taking down nationalist content. Right after the coup, the military ordered internet providers to block Facebook to ensure stability. Despite the military's attempt to discourage them from using Facebook, people downloaded VPNs to bypass the block. Unable to use Facebook for its own ends, the junta started looking into creating a new social media platform to replace Facebook. During the military-sponsored press conference on August 17, the spokesman of the military’s State Administration Council (SAC) and head of the military true news information team, Major-General Zaw Min Tun, revealed the regime’s plan to ban Facebook and replace it with a homegrown social media platform. In addition, he noted that action will be taken against Myanmar companies that are using Facebook to advertise their products, to stop Facebook from financially benefiting from these advertisements. The regime also amended the cyber security law to include a clause that could punish Myanmar internet users for using VPNs with up to three years in prison.
According to analysis by Qurium Media Foundation, this replacement app is likely OKPar, which offers a number of services, including instant messaging. The foundation warns that OKPar is not secure and leaks sensitive information, despite claiming to offer end-to-end encryption. Anti-coup activists urge people to report the app and called for its removal from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
On a related note, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that the Myanmar military is developing the MTube Live Streaming Platform to replace YouTube. During a meeting with United Info-Sec company on September 8, 2022, Information minister U Maung Maung Ohn stated that YouTube is unfairly restricting and taking down content that supports the military, and therefore a new platform is needed to replace YouTube.
Facebook must step up and support the people of Myanmar
Social media platforms have an oversized influence on political events such as elections, and they have a responsibility to advance democracy. This includes content moderation to prevent the spread of disinformation and not allowing content that could violate the norms of democracy, even if it comes at the cost of potential revenue. In the context of Myanmar, pro-democracy activists believe that Facebook has the power to intervene and influence the democratisation movement in Myanmar and put an end to authoritarian military rule.
Access Now called on Facebook (Meta) and Google to invest in technical solutions that would allow people in Myanmar to safely access Facebook and YouTube. Furthermore, it also requested Google and Apple to take the OKPar app down from their stores and commit to not hosting MTube once it's rolled out. These companies have a responsibility to uphold human rights and must not allow the military to use their products and services to promote propaganda. Furthermore, Access Now urged Big Tech to explore all means possible to protect the privacy and security of the millions of people in Myanmar who are using these social media platforms.
Please visit the project page for more pieces from the Unfreedom Monitor.