Chambers Again Condemn Junta Cyber Security Law, Defying Increasing Risk of Repercussions

Chambers Again Condemn Junta Cyber Security Law, Defying Increasing Risk of Repercussions

International and domestic business groups yesterday once again revealed their strong opposition to a junta-proposed Cyber Security Law. The groups’ statements were issued on the last day that stakeholders, invited by the junta to comment on a new draft, were able to raise objections before the law is expected to be pushed through.

The document, in which the military again attempts to both limit and monitor digital activity, was proffered to groups after being signed by Ministry of Transport and Communications secretary Soe Thein on Jan. 13.

The draft includes draconian measures which rights groups say would seriously impact on both civil liberties and the business environment, and outlines punishments — fines of up to K5 million (US$2,800) or imprisonment — for VPN usage, bans on cryptocurrency and gamblining (both current pet projects of the parallel National Unity Government), and enhances the military’s powers to snoop on users of telecoms operating within the country.

On Friday, the American, Australian, British and European chambers — in addition to several individual European nations, the Asia Internet Coalition, and the US ICT Council for Myanmar — issued a statement expressing their concerns over what the restrictions would mean for foreign investment.

“If enforced, this current draft disrupts the free flow of information and directly impacts businesses’ abilities to operate legally and effectively in Myanmar. Access to information, technology and services is essential to operations and a healthy national digital economy,” the group said, adding that VPNs are a “legitimate security device” to help businesses protect themselves from financial and cyber crimes and to access files and servers outside the country.

“Adoption of the draft law as-written creates significant challenges to businesses operating in Myanmar. Supporting the free flow of information is an essential condition for businesses and communities to operate in Myanmar.”

The pushback is reminiscent of outrage expressed early into the coup, when the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI), Burma’s most powerful business lobby and a party to the military’s deliberations of such legislation, voiced its stern opposition to certain provisions in a previous draft of the law (which partially passed in Feb. 2021, leading to the highly restrictive “whitelisting” of Burma’s IP addresses). Experts had told DVB that, this time around, they expected the chambers would be cowered following a year of arbitrary violence — both physical and economic — unleashed by the junta.

Despite the risks to its members, the UMFCCI yesterday reiterated its position, revealing that it is still in stark opposition to the measures.

“We see the development and strengthening of the digital economy is of utmost importance in the current business environment as well as in relation to the global economic landscape,” they said in a statement released yesterday. “The UMFCCI would like to urge the government to remove or reconsider restrictions on VPN since it has become an integral part of doing business, not only domestically but internationally as well.”

Anecdotal reports suggest that, even before the passing of the new law, soldiers across Burma had begun taxing those caught at checkpoints with VPNs installed on smartphones — another arbitrary and unevenly applied provision which will allow authorities to further criminalize (and monetize) digital activity. Burma’s citizens rely on VPN usage to access social media (an integral tool for both information and economic exchange in Burma) since the introduction of the military’s intensely restrictive whitelist.

Another area of concern raised by the draft law is its apparent codification of the military’s snooping on the user data of telecommunications providers. Norwegian telecom Telenor had previously expressed that they had been asked to cooperate with the junta in this respect, precipitating the firm’s exit from Burma. Internet security advocacy group, Access Now, say that the imminent sale of Telenor to junta cronies, Shwe Byain Phyu, and mirky Lebanese provider, M1 Group, only increases the importance of dissenting voices.

“If you look through this draft law, there are so many prohibitions that are quite problematic — things which will make people’s access to the internet quite difficult,” said Access Now Asia Pacific policy analyst, Wai Phyo Myint. “They will find every reason, they can criminalize every activity, even just being on the internet.”

The threatened law is but the latest prohibition established by the military to limit Burmese citizen’s access to online services. Aside from the outright cuts on internet access imposed in regions were conflict is now endemic, an enforced doubling in the price of data packages and a junta-imposed K20,000 (US$10.50) tax on the activation of SIM cards (plus the new necessity of registering the national identification number of SIM owners), has already meant that internet services are increasingly off-limits for many of Burma’s citizens.

A number of other major business lobbies, including the Indian, Singaporean,  Malaysian, Japanese, Chinese and South Korean chambers of commerce, could not be reached for comments — raising further questions over the groups’ commitment to responsible business and free market activity within post-coup Burma. The South Korean Chamber of Commerce blocked DVBs reporter on social media.

“Thank you to all those chambers (and the separate input from Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry) who have spoken up about this draft law, which would destroy the emerging digital economy by criminalising VPN usage, and therefore usage of Facebook or any other social medias that the authorities block,” shared the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business’s Vicky Bowman on Facebook. 

“Disappointed by those international chambers who did not join this.”