Residents find ways to stay connected, skirt Internet curbs

YANGON • Sidestepping a crackdown on Internet use since the military seized power almost two months ago, hundreds of thousands of people 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 send messages and turned to lesser known social media platforms to stay connected, according to Recorded Future, a closely held cyber-security 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,offering tips on how its citizens can stay connected.

"In the history of Myanmar and all the coups... 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 Ms Charity Wright, cyber threat intelligence analyst at Recorded Future.

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

Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun, a spokesman for the military junta, told reporters 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 alternative ways to communicate online followed a Feb 1 military coup and arrest of Ms 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.

The youth-led protest movement is demanding the release of civilian leaders including Ms Suu Kyi, recognition of the 2020 election results that her party won 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," said United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday.

In the first 48 hours following the coup, some 1.4 million people across Myanmar downloaded the messaging app Bridgefy, according to the company's chief executive officer Jorge Rios. 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.

By Feb 13, 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 (VPNs) in the country that day, said Ms Wright.

Myanmar citizens also switched to the Tor browser, which enables access to the underground Internet or Dark Web, 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.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2021, with the headline 'Residents find ways to stay connected, skirt Internet curbs'. Subscribe