Myanmar’s (Burma) military – the Tatmadaw – is planning to install surveillance camera systems with facial recognition capabilities in cities across all of the country’s seven states and seven regions, according to an 11 July report by Reuters. The military claims the projects will help maintain security and foster civil peace. However, recent reporting indicates that the military will increasingly rely upon surveillance technology in an attempt to strengthen its hold on power and oppose resistance efforts. This poses heightened safety risks for activists and resistance groups, including by making it easier for the military to track their movements.
Prior to the February 2021 military coup, some surveillance camera systems were already installed or planned in several major cities, including Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw. Local authorities have initiated new camera surveillance projects in at least five cities around Myanmar, including Mawlamyine, the country’s fourth-largest city; Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State; and Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. Local firms are sourcing the cameras and other related technology from Chinese companies – Dahua, Huawei and Hikvision – that are tied to the surveillance of the ethnic Uyghur population in China.
The surveillance cameras are part of a wider effort to monitor the activities of populations in Myanmar. Last month four UN experts condemned the military’s attempts to establish a “digital dictatorship” in Myanmar with tactics like sweeping internet blackouts, digital censorship and surveillance. According to the experts, telecommunications providers have been pressured to activate surveillance technology and hand over user data to police and military officials.
Since August 2021 at least 31 townships in seven states and regions across Myanmar have reportedly experienced internet shutdowns, and an additional 23 have faced severely slowed internet speeds. The internet shutdowns have targeted areas where the military faces strong resistance from opposition groups. The UN experts said, “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.” Notably, the imposition of internet blackouts in Sagaing Region coincided with the escalation of a military offensive characterized by arson and airstrike campaigns against civilian areas.
The UN experts also noted that “internet restrictions are being used by the junta as a cloak to hide its ongoing atrocities.” The barriers to internet access and lack of connectivity in many parts of the country are hindering the collection of evidence of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity by human rights monitors and journalists.
The military in Myanmar must respect the population’s right to privacy. Member states should support civil society efforts to combat censorship and surveillance and impose sanctions to restrict the sale or supply of dual-use surveillance technology.
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