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HomeLong ReadsInnovative fundraising and old school repression on Myanmar's digital frontline

Innovative fundraising and old school repression on Myanmar’s digital frontline

Guest contributor

Zach Abuza

The National Unity Government (NUG) deserves credit for their tech savvy, creative and licit fundraising which has earned them over $140 million in the past two years, through a mixture of lotteries, bond sales, auctions of property and mining rights, donations, and taxes. This has allowed them to sustain military operations, arm some 300 People’s Defense Forces (PDF), spreading the Myanmar military thin. 

Since a meeting of the State Administration Council (SAC) – as the military regime in Naypyidaw calls itself – Anti-Terrorism Committee in December 2022, it has prioritized the targeting of NUG funding. While targeting the purchase of crypto bonds or property at auction, especially by the diaspora community, is well beyond the technical means of the SAC, they are stepping up their hacking. They’ve also been trying to interdict funds within the country through a number of means.

At the most basic level, security forces physically examine phones to see if they have the NUG Pay app or a popular video game, War of Heroes – the PDF Game, whose proceeds have been donated to the NUG. Possession of either app is now criminalized. The SAC installed a loyalist as the head of the Central Bank of Myanmar, Than Than Swe, who survived an April 2022 assassination attempt. Last July, the SAC dispatched six lieutenant colonels to monitor transactions full time at the Central Bank. It froze over 18,000 accounts in the first 18 months after the 2021 military coup.

Since then, the SAC has inserted uniformed personnel at all banks, both public and private, to monitor both domestic and international transfers. Last August, it issued a directive ordering banks to increase their surveillance of clients and to require additional personal information. Last December, the Central Bank announced that it would investigate any transfer of more than 100,000 Kyat (roughly $47 USD). Control of the banks forced the NUG to suspend its Spring Lottery, which they had hoped to be a steady monthly revenue stream. The first lottery alone raised 100 million Kyat ($61,000 USD). But its success required access to the banks.

Immediately after the coup, the SAC imposed restrictions on mobile payment services in a bid to stem the flow of donations to the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). But the mobile banking sector was simply too large and important for the overall functioning of the economy, especially with cash runs at banks. The Central Bank relented, but the seven mobile payment firms are under much greater oversight, especially the two that dominate the market: Wave Money and KBZPay

The SAC demanded that mobile payment firms keep a complete record of transfers and have all the personal identification, including their government identification number, name, address, and photograph, for all customers. The amount of money that can now be transferred by mobile payment platforms is restricted by the user’s “level”; each level requires additional bank vetting and more personal information. Accounts of anyone suspected of transferring money to the NUG, CDM, or the PDF have their accounts suspended. 

Last year, the SAC started to make all citizens register their SIM cards, and ordered any account that is not linked to a registered SIM card to be frozen. KBZ Bank, alone, fields some 300 “requests” daily from the Central Bank to freeze accounts. Beyond that, the Central Bank has an additional tool to surveil KBZ customers, as Huawei owns and administers the mobile payment platform. 

The SAC wages psychological warfare, using its control over all telecommunications providers to send messages to all 46 million active SIM cards warning them not to support the NUG or CDM. It has new legal tools to use to punish and deter supporters of the resistance to its rule. On Aug. 1, 2021, the SAC rubber stamp parliament amended the 2014 Counter-Terrorism Law to increase the sentence for funding “terrorist organizations” to a maximum life sentence. We’ve seen a sharp uptick in the use of the law since March 2022 to charge opposition supporters.

On March 1, 2023, the SAC amended 20 chapters and 120 articles of the Counter-Terrorism Law to give itself sweeping new powers to conduct surveillance, seize assets, and target both unarmed and armed opposition. The imposition of draconian prison terms is another deterrent. Courts routinely sentence people, including students for 10-year terms for supporting the opposition. Hundreds of people have been arrested for providing financial support to the NUG, CDM, and the PDF. 

The SAC has gone after large donors and businesses found paying taxes to the NUG; whether those who are genuinely sympathetic or simply hedging their bets. For example, last August the SAC arrested one of the largest Burmese gem dealers for providing funds to the NUG, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA/KIO), and the Chin National Front (CNF/CNA). They seized his home, corporate assets, and gem stocks. Other business executives have been arrested in a random manner; creating unease.

The NUG is trying to evade controls on the traditional banking system through the establishment of their online Spring Development Bank, which will provide not just for-profit banking services, but also allow it to fundraise by being a one stop outlet for the purchase of bonds, lottery tickets, auctioned real estate, and potentially shares in military-owned corporations. The SAC is aware that once the Spring Development Bank is up and running, it will provide the NUG with a steady revenue stream. And they have already tried to interfere. 

Earlier this month, a parallel website to the one used to set up a Spring Development Bank account, http://springdevelopmentbank.com/, using the same graphics and interface, was established through a Vietnamese IT company, https://crypto-bank.niw.com.vn/login, though now no longer working. Since the bank isn’t open yet, this was probably a phishing expedition so that the SAC could get the names and contact information of people trying to sign up, in order to arrest them to deter others from doing the same. 

As the conflict settles into a quagmire, with no side able to gain the upper hand in the short-term, resources will be a key factor. The SAC has stopped the free fall of the economy, expected to grow at three percent this year, and just gave itself a 51 percent increase in its defense budget, now $2.7 billion USD. The NUG, for all its success, has a fraction of that. But the SAC is aware of this and still attempts to stop funds from flowing into their coffers.


Zach Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington, DC. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the opinions of the National War College or Department of Defense.

DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]

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