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Telegram: An online battleground in Myanmar

Originally published on EngageMedia

By Mi-Kun from Visual Rebellion

This article was written by Mi-Kun of Visual Rebellion, a collective for Myanmar journalists, photographers, filmmakers, and artists to publish their productions following the 2021 military coup.

As in many parts of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns that began in 2020 has transformed the lives of the people of Myanmar. The health crisis shut down schools, businesses, and workplaces, and forced millions to stay at home for extended periods of time. With physical distancing in place, the use of digital technologies, especially social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, surged during the pandemic.

When the 2021 military coup took place on Feb. 1, millions of people went into the streets from all over the country to protest Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. As a consequence of increasing social media use, people naturally started organising anti-coup demonstrations online. An expression was coined to name those who participated in or planned online demonstrations or protests against the junta: “Keyboard fighters.”

Facebook is the internet in Myanmar, as over 14.50 million social media users in the country own one or several accounts on the Meta platform. As an army of keyboard fighters spread news on the internet, mostly on social media apps, the military moved to ban Meta’s Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp, along with Twitter, in a bid to stop the flow of information.

However, people found ways to circumvent this ban by using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). Keyboard fighters also started to use other messaging apps which did not need VPNs such as Telegram, Signal, and Viber to spread the news.

While Telegram is popular in the country as it is believed to be a free and secure messaging app, its weak content moderation policies are posing serious risks to human and digital rights. It has allowed propagandists to dox people, incite violence, and perpetuate online gender-based violence against women.

Telegram as an online battleground

As the military arrested thousands and killed peaceful protesters in its crackdown against dissent, people were gripped by fear, anger, and insecurity. Propaganda, disinformation, and other tactics to sow confusion shifted to digital spaces. The military forced its families to support the coup, as shown in this video, where they are pressured to watch military-controlled TV channels. As tensions escalated, both pro- and anti-military forces turned to Telegram, with both sides creating countless groups or channels.

Some jumped to Telegram to spread the personal information of known activists with the intent of having them arrested or attacked. Some pro-military online fighters took screenshots as evidence of support to the People’s Defense Force (PDF) or the National Unity Government (NUG). Even a simple “like” on a Facebook post or a black profile picture to honour the people who lost their lives in the protests is considered proof of support. They post screenshots to their Telegram channels, which often leads to the activist being arrested or harassed by the military.

“It’s so cruel to have other people arrested because they hold different opinions. People should take good care because no one can control those so-called keyboard fighters. Beware and stay safe if you support the military or identify as neutral. They are formed like a gang, are watching out for us, and are taking notes on our personal information all the time,” said a pro-military lawyer.

“You can trust nobody. Don’t post anything political online as long as you are in Myanmar,” he added.

Aside from monitoring social media pages, bank accounts and mobile wallets are also monitored to see who is supporting the resistance to military rule. Many accounts and mobile wallets, such as those from the popular KBZ Pay, were closed or frozen after financial donations were made to the anti-coup resistance. The account users were tracked down at their home addresses.

“Army supporters suspected that I was donating money to the revolutionary forces. So they sent my personal information to some of those Telegram channels. I had to run away from home after someone told me that my name was spotted there,” said Hannie, a Myanmar activist in exile.

Privacy breaches in Myanmar

In post-coup Myanmar, the exposure of people’s private information on Telegram channels is a massively growing phenomenon. The most infamous is the pro-junta channel Han Nyein Oo. This channel first emerged around 2017-2018 and focused on gossip or nude pictures of Myanmar celebrities along the lines of what has been dubbed ‘yellow journalism’.

A woman who has followed Han Nyein Oo since its inception said: “I liked him before. In his profile picture, he looked really good. And all the news he posted about Burmese stars was usually precise. I found out later that his profile picture was fake. And since he is very openly pro-coup, I found him too disgusting.”

Since the 2021 coup, the Han Nyein Oo Telegram channel has been doxxing activists involved in protests or pro-democracy activities, publishing posts that target a specific person by posting their name, address, photos, and social media screenshots. In the case of women activists, the posts sometimes include nude pictures and sex tapes, often fabricated.

Many people were arrested because their personal information was published on the Han Nyein Oo channel, such as a pregnant woman from Bahan Township in Yangon. Since being arrested on April 11, 2023, she is still in prison to this day and is now six months pregnant, according to her mother-in-law.

“She posted a black profile picture on Facebook after a military airstrike targeted a school in Pazigyi village [Sagaing Region on April 11]. The same day, military forces came to our house and arrested her. It was because our address was posted on the Han Nyein Oo Telegram channel. Addresses of certain people who changed their Facebook profile pictures to black during those days were posted on that channel and most of them were arrested later that day,” added the mother-in-law.

A senior journalist, an actress, and two actors were also detained for the same reason in the aftermath of the airstrike that killed 168 people, marking the highest death toll in an attack since the coup.

No one knows exactly who Han Nyein Oo is, what he looks like, or if the name represents one of several individuals. The void leaves space for diverse theories and conspiracies. Ei Pencilo, a well-known political activist and writer currently living in exile, claimed in a post to have published personal verified information about Han Nyein Oo.

Some of the private channels operated by pro-military users such as Han Nyein Oo are recreated as soon as they are reported and deleted. This one and this channel are some of the Telegram links operated by Han Nyein Oo. As a disturbing side note, they include the number 969, likely a reference to the ethnic nationalist Buddhist 969 Movement. From 2013, this movement of senior monks supported by military officers led anti-Muslim campaigns across Myanmar under the guise of protecting the country from ‘foreign’ influence.

“Pro-junta individuals usually create those groups, channels, or pages with the help of the military council. It seems that the initial purpose is to share fun and entertaining content. But after getting a certain amount of followers, they would completely flip the type of content and start spreading fake news broadcasted by military-owned TV channels,” said a former political prisoner living in Thailand.

Targeted attacks against women

Due to doxxing and other digital threats translating into real-life arrests, people in Myanmar should avoid posting personal information on social media as much as possible, according to a social media expert living in Yangon.

“Social media accounts cannot be 100 percent safe. Nothing is safe on the internet, to be honest. Even though we, social media experts, have been telling people how or what to do to keep social media accounts safe, it [is not] fully effective to protect them,” said the expert.

Among all the privacy violations, one of the worst is the publication of sex tapes allegedly featuring anti-coup female activists. First, some adult-only channels posted videos on Telegram that have surged since the coup. They were then shared through Telegram, TikTok and Facebook to reach viewers. As these accounts get more followers from posting this kind of pornographic content, they accept online gambling and advertisements to profit off of it.

The problem is exacerbated by the increasing interest and use of artificial intelligence (AI), especially after ChatGPT 4 was launched late last year. A 19-year-old girl who lives in Yangon recounted how a nude picture of her was spread on Telegram.

“It was all fake. It was edited using AI. I didn’t know about it at first, though. I was told what was happening on Telegram by my friends. As soon as I knew, I was crying all night long,” she said.

“I was infamous for a while even though it was not my pic. I even took a break from social media because everyone was texting me asking about it,” she added.

AI-related human rights violations are becoming widespread in Myanmar, prompting the U.N. to urge social media companies to “stand up to the junta’s online terror campaign.” 

According to UN experts, “pro-junta accounts have taken advantage of Telegram’s lax content moderation rules and are posting violent and misogynistic content, causing women to retreat from public life.”

Digital threats persist in online spaces

As the political fight is happening offline and online, those who participate in the revolution have to take care of their security not only in real life but also on social media.

“Before I go anywhere, I must delete all the texts and photos on my phone. If soldiers find something in my phone, I would be gone. They usually start to check your Facebook, Messenger, and others. If you post something related to politics, you’ll surely be arrested. I don’t know much about how to solve this problem. But the best way is to delete everything,” said a PDF member.

The surveillance regime has also gone beyond social media monitoring, as there are reports that personal information fed into accounts has reached the military through telecom operators.

A man who uses Mytel, a telecoms operator co-owned by the Myanmar and Vietnam militaries, said: “When I called the hotline of the operator for a complaint, they told me how much credit I have topped up to my SIM card and what applications I have used recently. That shocked me. They know everything about it. Who can guarantee that they don’t know about our privacy?”

Currently, both sides are using social media as a political weapon, with no clue of how that situation will be handled. More and more people are getting killed or harmed due to information leaked on Telegram.

Pro and anti-coup forces are afraid of being exposed and are hoping that some organisations would offer a way out of this coercive method of silencing opponents. Until then, the people of Myanmar continue to live under surveillance, privacy breaches, and continuous threats to human and digital rights.

Visual Rebellion is a collective of journalists, photographers, filmmakers, and artists who came together in the aftermath of the 2021 Myanmar military coup. Our aim is to provide young creators with the necessary resources to keep producing factual stories about what is happening on the ground. We partner with international organizations and media outlets to fund and spread our work. We also offer diverse ways that you can support the project.


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