Myanmar's embattled military government cracks down on free flow of news by blocking VPNs

BANGKOK (AP) — Myanmar’s military government has launched a major effort to block free communication on the Internet, shutting off access to virtual private networks, or VPNs, which can be used to circumvent blockages of banned websites and services.

The attempt to restrict access to information began at the end of May, according to mobile phone operators, internet service providers, a major opposition group and media reports.

The military government that took power in February 2021 after ousting the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi has made several previous fitful attempts to throttle traffic on the internet, especially in the months immediately after their takeover.

Reports in local media say the attack on internet usage includes random street searches of people’s mobile phones to check for VPN applications, with a fine if any are found, though it is unclear if payments are an official measure.

On Friday, the Burmese-language service of U.S. Government-funded Radio Free Asia reported that about 25 people from Myanmar’s central coastal Ayeyarwady region were arrested and fined by security forces this week after VPN apps were found on their mobile phones.

As the army faces strong armed challenges from pro-democracy guerrillas across the country in what amounts to a civil war, it has also made a regular practice of shutting down civilian communications in areas where fighting is going on. While this may serve tactical purposes, it also makes it hard for evidence of alleged human rights abuses to become public.

According to a report released last month by Athan, a freedom of expression advocacy group in Myanmar, nearly 90 of 330 townships across the country have had internet access or phone service — or both — cut off by the authorities.

Resistance that arose to the 2021 army takeover relied heavily on social media, especially Facebook, to organize street protests. As nonviolent resistance escalated into armed struggle and other independent media were shut down or forced underground, the need for online information increased.

The resistance scored a victory in the cybersphere when Facebook and other major social media platforms banned members of the Myanmar military, because of their alleged violations of human and civil rights, and also blocked ads from most military-linked commercial entities.

This year, widely used free VPN services started failing at the end of May, with users getting messages that they could not be connected, keeping them from social media such as Facebook, WhatsApp and some websites. VPNs connect users to their desired sites through third-party computers, effectively making it almost impossible for internet service providers and snooping governments to see what the users are actually connecting to.

Internet users, including online retail sellers, have been complaining for the past two weeks of major slowdowns, saying they were not able to watch or upload videos and posts or send messages easily.

Operators of Myanmar’s top telecom companies MPT, Ooredoo, Atom and the military-backed Mytel, as well as fiber internet services, told The Associated Press on Friday that access to Facebook, Instagram, X, WhatsApp and VPN services was banned nationwide at the end of May on the order of the Transport and Communications Ministry.

The AP tried to contact a spokesperson for the Transport and Communications Ministry for comment but received no response.

The operators said VPNs are not currently authorized for use, but suggested to users they try rotating through different services to see if any work.

A test by the AP of more than two dozen VPN apps found that only one could hold a connection, and it was very slow.

The military government has not yet publicly announced the ban on VPNs.

The military government in late 2021 drafted but did not enact a cybersecurity law to punish anyone who uses a VPN without permis sion from the Transport and Communications Ministry. It calls for a maximum three-year prison sentence and a fine of 5,000,000 Myanmar kyats ($1,125 at the free market exchange rate) or both.

Khit Thit, an online news service sympathetic to the resistance movement, reported earlier this month that army generals from the Transport and Communications Ministry, along with a Myanmar technology company and Chinese communications experts, collaborated on measures to block VPNs.

China is infamous for having a very tight firewall to control Internet traffic and has warm relations with the military government.

The National Unity Government, a major opposition organization that calls itself the country’s legitimate government, issued a statement on June 8 condemning the actions of the military government “that limit and block the basic human rights of the people” and vowed to continue “to build an independent internet network in places free from the control of the terrorist military.”