GENEVA (7 June 2022) – UN human rights experts* today condemned the Myanmar military junta’s attempts to establish a “digital dictatorship” in Myanmar by imposing further restrictions on the access to internet, internet shutdowns, online censorship, surveillance and other barriers to internet access.
“The international community must not stand quietly by while the people of Myanmar are systematically denied their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, access to information and privacy, which are guaranteed by international human rights law,” said the experts.
“Online access to information is a matter of life and death for many people in Myanmar, including those seeking safety from indiscriminate attacks by the military and the millions trying to navigate a devastating economic and humanitarian crisis. The junta is using internet shutdowns and invasive surveillance to undermine widespread public opposition and prop up its attacks on the people of Myanmar.”
The experts urged UN Member States to condemn the junta’s policies to curtail fundamental freedoms on and off-line, and to adopt targeted sanctions against the military and military-linked companies, including sanctions restricting the sale or supply of dual-use surveillance technology. They also urged UN Member States and international donors to support civil society initiatives to counter censorship and surveillance in Myanmar.
Following the 1 February 2021 military coup in Myanmar, the junta imposed rolling nationwide internet blackouts and blocked access to social media and messaging platforms. More recently, the junta has imposed targeted internet shutdowns in areas where it faces strong resistance from opposition groups. Since August 2021, 31 townships in seven states and regions have reportedly experienced internet shutdowns, with a further 23 townships experiencing the throttling of internet speeds. The imposition of internet shutdowns and throttling on many townships in Sagaing Region in early March coincided with the launch of a major military offensive and campaign of violence and arson against the civilian population in the area.
“Internet restrictions are being used by the junta as a cloak to hide its ongoing atrocities,” said the experts. “The barriers to internet access impede efforts by journalists, human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations to collect evidence of human rights violations committed by the military or serve at risk populations.”
“The lack of connectivity in large parts of the country also poses a challenge to our mandates, which depend on the collection of contemporaneous evidence of human rights abuses.”
The junta continues to block access to websites and social media platforms, including Facebook, a primary channel for communication and sharing information in Myanmar. It has forced internet service providers to increase data prices and has imposed new taxes on data and SIM cards, making internet access unaffordable for many. Three out of four telecommunications companies operating in Myanmar have direct links to the military following the Norwegian telecommunications company Telenor’s sale of its Myanmar operations in March. Telecommunications providers have come under heavy pressure to activate surveillance technology and hand over user data to police and military officials.
Two weeks after the coup, an amendment to the Electronic Transactions Law expanded access to personal data by government agencies and law enforcement personnel and created new, broadly defined crimes relating to online speech. A draft Cybersecurity Law would further empower authorities to block online content or restrict internet access without judicial oversight and would ban the use of virtual private networks (VPNs), with VPN users facing up to three years’ imprisonment. Although the law has not yet been enacted, police and military officials have already begun looking for VPN applications when searching the phones of suspected opposition members and other detainees.
“The people of Myanmar need and deserve a strong international response to the junta’s assault on freedom of expression and access to information and violations of the right to privacy, which threaten the lives and wellbeing of millions. Member States must act swiftly to curtail the junta’s efforts to drag Myanmar back to a digital dark age.”
*The experts: Mr. Thomas Andrews, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar; Ms. Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression; Dr. Ana Brian Nougrères, Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy; and Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association
The Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
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