Like many 20-year-olds in Burma, Yadana Kyaw Thu* has had a Facebook account for several years to share her thoughts and photos, and to stay in touch with friends.
But then, earlier this year, she started receiving disturbing phone calls from unknown men and after a while she realised someone had created a fake Facebook account in her name that publicised her phone number and falsely claimed she was selling sex.
Panicked and embarrassed, she quickly changed her phone number, while telling friends and family in Rangoon’s Mingala Taung Nyunt Township she lost her phone.
“My friends and I reported the abusive account to Facebook, but I didn’t want to file a case at the police station. If the court case lasts too long I would be absent from work a lot,” Yadana Kyaw Thu said. “Also, I don’t want my parents and relatives to know about this.”
She said she had no idea who was behind the abuse, adding that it took several months before Facebook removed the fake account.
Khine Thu Zar, a 30-year-old married women from Tamwe Township, recalled how she suffered harassment after she lost her mobile phone last year.
A man who found her phone tried to extort 100,000 kyat (about US$85) from her, threatening to otherwise release her private pictures on Facebook with her name and photoshop them to make her appear nude.
Khine Thu Zar tried to file a police complaint but after spending a day waiting at the local station she realised police were not going to take any action. She was distraught for weeks until the threats stopped.
“I worried that photos would appear on other websites, or that my husband would divorce me,” she told Myanmar Now.
Women’s rights and tech-focused activists say such online abuse cases are quickly becoming more frequent after Internet and mobile phone use increased in Burma in recent years, reaching 11 million Internet users and 43 million SIM cards sold.
‘Revenge porn’ abuse hits Burma
Burma’s exposure to the downsides of social media networks includes hate speech, cyber-bullying, sexual harassment, and, most recently, the unauthorised online publication of intimate photos and videos.
The latter phenomenon — dubbed “revenge porn” in Western countries, where it has become a growing problem — has recently emerged in Burma, said Aye Thada Hla, a communications coordinator of the Gender Equality Network.
She said a growing number of victims of this abuse, mostly young women and girls, experience its devastating social and psychological impact.
“Private video clips are found on social networks, but most of the victimised girls did not seek legal help,” Aye Thada Hla said, adding that it was common for the perpetrator to try to extort money.
Sometimes photos are taken by ex-boyfriends or stolen from devices, she said, while pictures are also shot of couples’ intimate moments in the park.
Nay Phone Latt, an online activist and a Rangoon Division parliament member for the National League for Democracy, said the revenge porn phenomenon appeared to be spreading.
“In the past it was only a problem for celebrities, but now we heard it is happening to many normal girls on Facebook,” he told Myanmar Now.
Ei Myat Noe Khin, programme associate of Phandeeyar, a Rangoon-based organisation for tech start-ups, said victims often felt stigmatised in Burma’s conservative society, even by other women.
“Some women put the blame for cyber abuse on the victim,” she said.
Sexual violence facing women, such as rape and domestic abuse, are often surrounded by a culture of silence in Burma, and victims struggle to find justice in a law enforcement and court system that is ineffective and corrupt.
Government should raise awareness
Some urged the government to work with NGOs to raise public awareness about online abuse and its prevention, and toughen penalties for abuses.
Nay Phone Latt said, “The Ministry of Information should run education programmes on the effective and proper use of social media.”
Ei Myat Noe Khin, of Phandeeyar, echoed his remarks, saying, “Cyber abuses should be prevented through measures improving security and privacy.”
Yatanar Htun, programme coordinator of Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation (MIDO), said, “Few people understand cyber abuse and that Internet technology can be used in many ways, including the spread of false information on social media.”
Yatanar Htun said it would help if victims participate in campaigns and publicly speak out to warn others against abuse and loss of private photos.
Shin Thant, a network coordinator with Colours Rainbow, which advocates for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender rights, said men’s conservative attitudes on women’s roles and sexuality should also be addressed.
According to MP Nay Phone Latt, the government could develop tougher laws against cyber abuse and law enforcement should investigate serious cases.
Revenge porn has become a public concern in many countries in recent years, prompting legislation that specifically criminalises non-consensual sharing of intimate photos or video. In Asia, the Philippines government passed the Anti-Photo and Video Voyeurism Act in 2009.
Activists said Burmese police could take action under the 2013 Telecommunications Act‘s Article 66(d), which sets a fine and prison term of up to three years for extortion, threatening or defaming someone “by using any telecommunications network.”
Criminal laws punishing physical and sexual abuse could also be amended to include online abuse, Aye Thada Hla of the Gender Equality Network said. She added that the long-awaited National Prevention of Violence against Women bill includes online abuse as an offence.
An officer at the Tamwe Township police station in Rangoon said police were, however, reluctant to take action in cases of cyber abuse and need district-level approval to accept a complaint due to a lack of IT knowledge in the force.
“We can’t accept an official complaint on cyber abuse in the absence of our police officer-in-charge,” said the policeman, who asked not to be named.
Human rights lawyer Robert San Aung said authorities only ever prosecuted online offenses dealing with theft of government data or with social media posts allegedly defaming the military or government.
He added it would be hard for a civilian plaintiff to know how to file digital evidence of online abuse with the police.
“Actions are being taken against only for national-level cyber crimes at the moment. I don’t know of any prosecution for cyber-related complaints by ordinary people,” he said.
*Some names in this article were changed to protect the identity of abuse victims.
This article was originally published by Myanmar Now on 6 October 2016.