Myanmar's military deploys digital arsenal of repression in crackdown

Critics say Myanmar's armed forces used the facade of democracy to enable sensitive cybersecurity and defence purchases. PHOTO: AFP

YANGON (NYTIMES) - During a half century of military rule, Myanmar's totalitarian tools were crude but effective. Men in sarongs shadowed democracy activists, neighbours informed on each other and thugs brandished lead pipes.

The generals, who staged a coup a month ago, are now back in charge with a far more sophisticated arsenal at their disposal: Israeli-made surveillance drones, European iPhone cracking devices and US software that can hack into computers and vacuum up their contents.

Some of this technology, including satellite and telecommunications upgrades, helped people in Myanmar go online and integrate with the world after decades of isolation. Other systems, such as spyware, were sold as integral to modernising law enforcement agencies.

But critics say a ruthless armed forces, which maintained a dominance over the economy and powerful ministries even as it briefly shared power with a civilian government, used the facade of democracy to enable sensitive cybersecurity and defence purchases.

Some of these "dual-use" technologies, tools of both legitimate law enforcement and repression, are being deployed by the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, to target opponents of the Feb 1 coup - a practice that echoes actions taken against critics by China, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and other governments.

In Myanmar, they are the digital weapons of repression for an intensifying campaign in which security forces have killed at least 25 people and detained more than 1,100, including the ousted civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. On Monday (March 1), she was hit with new criminal charges - making a statement that could alarm the public and inducing someone to act against the state - that could put her in prison for years.

"The military is now using those very tools to brutally crack down on peaceful protesters risking their lives to resist the military junta and restore democracy," said Ma Yadanar Maung, a spokesperson for Justice For Myanmar, a group that monitors the Tatmadaw's abuses.

Hundreds of pages of Myanmar government budgets for the last two fiscal years viewed by The New York Times show a voracious appetite for the latest in military-grade surveillance technology.

The documents, provided by Justice For Myanmar, catalog tens of millions of dollars earmarked for technology that can mine phones and computers, as well as track people's live locations and listen in to their conversations.

Two parliamentary budget committee members, who requested anonymity given the sensitive political climate, said these proposed budgets for the Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Transport and Communications reflected actual purchases.

The budgets detail companies and the functionality of their tools. In some instances, they specify the proposed uses, like combating "money laundering" or investigating "cybercrime."

"What you see the Myanmar military putting together is a comprehensive suite of cybersecurity and forensics," said Ian Foxley, a researcher at the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York. "A lot of this is electronic warfare capability stuff."

The assembly of Myanmar's modern surveillance state has depended partly on patrons like China and Russia that have few qualms about equipping authoritarians. It has also relied on Western companies that saw the country's five years of hybrid civilian-military rule as an opening, legally and politically, to build a frontier market in what appeared to be a nascent democracy.

Beginning in 2016, the Tatmadaw handed some authority to a civilian government led by Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, which won two landslide electoral mandates. Despite inching towards democracy, the military maintained significant control over spending, particularly for defence, law enforcement and other security affairs.

The documents indicate that dual-use surveillance technology made by Israeli, American and European companies made its way to Myanmar, despite many of their home governments banning such exports after the military's brutal expulsion of Rohingya Muslims in 2017.

Even in countries that didn't officially block such trade, many Western purveyors had clauses in their corporate guidelines barring their technology from being used to abuse human rights.

In the most egregious cases, firms supplied surveillance tools and weaponry to the military and the ministries it controlled, evading arms embargoes and export bans. In others, they continued to sell dual-use technology without conducting due diligence about how it might be used and who might use it.

Often, they depended on military-linked brokers who thrive in the shadowy interstices, allowing the Tatmadaw to acquire the tools of oppression indirectly from foreign companies.

Hardware that was sold to the police to catch criminals is being used to track opponents of the coup online and offline.

Documentation for post-coup arrest warrants, which were reviewed by The Times, shows that Myanmar's security forces have triangulated between their critics' social media posts and the individual addresses of their internet hookups to find where they live. Such detective work could only have been carried out by using specialised foreign technology, according to experts with knowledge of Myanmar's surveillance infrastructure.

"Even under a civilian government, there was little oversight of the military's expenditure for surveillance technology," said Ko Nay Yan Oo, a former fellow at the Pacific Forum of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies who has studied the Myanmar military. "Now we are under military rule, and they can do everything they want."

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