Myanmar citizens use protester toolkit to skirt Internet ban

Protesters use binoculars to monitor security forces in Yangon on March 20, 2021.
Protesters use binoculars to monitor security forces in Yangon on March 20, 2021.PHOTO: NYTIMES

YANGON (BLOOMBERG) - Sidestepping a crackdown on Internet use since the military seized power almost two months ago, hundreds of thousands of protesters and citizens in Myanmar are finding different ways to communicate online, downloading tools to bypass censorship restrictions and turning to alternative media sources and underground networks, according to new research.

They have moved to a mirror site of Facebook on the Dark Web, used apps that rely on Bluetooth technology to continue messaging each other and turned to lesser known social media platforms to stay connected, according to Recorded Future, a closely held cybersecurity firm based near Boston, Massachusetts.

Myanmar citizens are following the lead of protesters in Hong Kong, Belarus and elsewhere who have found creative ways around government Internet restrictions. Protesters from some of those countries are now providing guidance and support to Myanmar, and online forums are offering tips on how its citizens can stay connected.

"In the history of Myanmar and all the coups they've experienced and all this political upheaval, it looks to be the first time the people really had this type of access to alternative platforms, and have used it to reach out to international organisations and other countries for help," said Charity Wright, cyber threat intelligence analyst at Recorded Future, who has been studying the impact of the crackdown on the Internet for the past month and a half.

The situation in Myanmar is evolving, as the government seeks to block different types of communication and citizens try new methods. That means what's working now to evade government restrictions may not work in the coming weeks, said Anissa Wozencraft, a Recorded Future analyst who worked with Wright on the research.

Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun, a spokesman for the military junta, told reporters in the capital, Naypyidaw, on Monday that the military had "no plan to restore mobile data at this point because some people are using the mobile Internet to instigate destructive acts."

The search for alternate ways to communicate online followed a Feb 1 military coup and arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her civilian government.

The Internet was temporarily shut down entirely, and now coup leaders are cutting it off from 1am to 9am, according to Recorded Future and news reports from the country.

The youth-led protest movement is demanding the release of civilian leaders including Suu Kyi, recognition of the 2020 election results that her party won in a landslide and the military's removal from politics.

"The junta continues its attempts to overturn the results of a democratic election by brutally repressing peaceful protesters and killing individuals who are simply demanding a say in their country's future," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on Monday.

In the first 48 hours following the coup, some 1.4 million people across Myanmar downloaded the messaging app Bridgefy, according to Jorge Rios, the company's chief executive officer. Bridgefy allows users to send offline messages to others within a certain range by using a phone's Bluetooth. It was used by protesters in Hong Kong as well as in Turkey.

By Feb 13, almost two weeks after the coup, Internet use in Myanmar dropped to 15 per cent of its normal traffic, according to Recorded Future.

Coup leaders banned Facebook on Feb 4, prompting a 7,200 per cent increase in the use of virtual private networks, or VPNs, in the country that day, said Wright. Since then, only those with access to VPNs - which encrypt Internet traffic and disguise identities - have been able to use Facebook, said a 26-year-old student, speaking to Bloomberg from Yangon. She requested anonymity for fear of being tracked and detained by the authorities.

Myanmar citizens also switched to the Tor browser, which enables access to the underground Internet or Dark Web. They scoured forums for information on how to avoid detection, Recorded Future found.

When various forums indicated that the military was searching for anyone with Tor installed on their device, its usage dropped, according to the report.

"Normally we don't talk about VPN, we don't talk about Tor, but since the coup we've been using them," the student said. "I think it is partly our generation, also partly because a lot of Burmese have been to foreign countries to get educated and they were exposed to such technology."

Myanmar citizens are also getting help from beyond their own borders.

Protest movements in countries including Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong coalesced under the umbrella of the Milk Tea Alliance to show their support and to share documents and tips, including how to set up anonymous Web chats, Wright said.

Hacktivist organisations from around the world recommended applications that bypassed censorship restrictions, including Signal, Briar, Tails operating system and the Brave Browser, according to Recorded Future.

Pro-democracy conversations about Myanmar have sprung up on Reddit and other online forums, Wright said. Among the items shared online are tips and techniques about protesting, such as how to deal with tear gas, promote events, administer first aid and stay safe.

Wright and Wozencraft shared images and links in their report, but hid the identities of the protesters they studied to prevent the military from being able to track them down.

The movement in Myanmar "seems like the protesters are consolidated and are one voice reaching out to everyone saying: 'We need someone to step in on our behalf because we have no control here,'" said Wright.

"They were very creative in their ways of skirting around the restrictions in a way, to find the truth."