Myanmar junta using social media to track its opponents

Pro-military ‘influencers’ post names, addresses of military critics days before their arrest.
By Soe San Aung
The logo of the mobile messaging and call service Telegram is seen on a smartphone screen in Moscow, Russia, Nov. 8, 2021.

Myanmar’s military regime has turned to digital messaging accounts operated by nationalist supporters to target and track down opponents, more than a year after it seized control of the elected government of former leader Aung San Suu Kyi, watchdog groups and political activists said.

Well-known social media users of the messaging app Telegram have provided information to authorities about the profiles and activities of pro-democracy anti-junta activists, journalists and rights activists.

When junta supporters and the Myanmar military were removed from Facebook, the most widely used social media platform in Myanmar, after the Feb. 1, 2021, coup, they switched to the less regulated Telegram social network, which is based in Russia.

Military authorities now use Telegram both to disseminate junta propaganda and for intelligence from supporters who list the profiles, activities and locations of pro-democracy celebrities, anti-junta activists, journalists and rights activists, activist groups said. Authorities have come to rely on the online information to help them plan crackdowns on anti-junta activists nationwide, they said.

The regime apparently heavily relies on popular pro-military social media personalities Han Nyein Oo, Kyaw Swar and Thazin Oo to target anti-junta civilians for arrests.

Han Nyein Oo’s channel openly requests that the military target the civilian protesters, Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Committee of Representatives (CRPH) supporters and shadow government National Unity Government (NUG) members that it names.

Activist groups said that over the past two months, the arrests of regime opponents was preceded by posts on the channels just a few days before.

The connection has led some regime critics to believe that the social media accounts are actually run by military officers, Aye Myint Aung, a protest leader from Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, said.

“If they want to find out some information, it will not take long as they have a long reach in many places,” she said. “I think the account owners of these channels are from military intelligence.”

London-based Burma Campaign UK added Telegram to its blacklist of businesses over the links to the Myanmar military, saying that the company allows military propagandists to use its platform and allows the spread of hate speech.

Telegram and the owners of the popular pro-military accounts did not respond to requests for comment.

Many followers on Telegram

Junta forces have used information on the pro-military accounts since late 2021 to promote distorted doctrines, and attacks on democracy, human rights activists, and opposition politicians in the interest of the junta, observers and political activists said.

“Following the coup, Facebook paid more attention to monitoring content, and these people switched to Telegram where they gained many followers,” said a spokesman for a Yangon-based civil society watchdog, who requested anonymity because of safety concerns.

“There are popular channels like those of Kyaw Zwar, Thazin Oo and Han Nyein Oo,” he added. “We are now closely watching the Han Nyein Oo Channel.”

RFA monitored the channels of these users and found that they re-posted pro-junta news and propaganda, although it was not clear if the Telegram channels are controlled by a single person or a particular group.

Thazin Oo, a reporter who regularly attends junta press conferences, has more than 36,000 subscribers to his account, while Kyaw Swar has more than 50,000 followers, and Han Nyein Oo has over 100,000.

Han Nyein Oo posted the home addresses, businesses and property owned by anti-military dissidents and CRPH and NUG supporters who usually post messages on Facebook.

There also are reports of political activists who had been arrested and their property confiscated by the military in the past two months after their whereabouts were disclosed on Telegram.

On Feb. 1, Han Nyein Oo’s account posted the personal information of people who wrote posts supporting the anti-military Silent Strike on Facebook and called for their arrest. More than 200 people were detained by the military council after the post.

“Han Nyein Oo posted a statement on her account stating that she was in support of the Silent Strike, and my husband was immediately arrested,” said a Mandalay-based housewife who did not want to be named for safety reasons.

She said that her husband’s business had to close and that he had been charged with causing fear, spreading false news and agitating crimes against a government employee. He faces up to three years in prison.

‘It is meant to intimidate the people’

Another Yangon resident who ran an online small business and spoke on condition of anonymity told RFA that after Han Nyein Oo published a screenshot of her profile and business location, she was afraid to stay at home and fled to the border. On the day she left, junta forces searched her home and sealed off the house because she was a NUG and PDF supporter.

After Kyaw Swar’s Telegram channel accused the owner of Yangon Lanmamyer, a book publishing house, of leaking information on Facebook about Air Force servicemen who led a nationwide air raid campaign against PDFs, the regime confiscated the business. The owner escaped arrest, however.

Award-winning film director Htun Zaw Win, whose professional name is Wyne, was arrested in February hours after the same Telegram channel posted information about him, according to local media reports. The junta had placed him on a wanted list nearly a year before after he encouraged government employees to join the protests against the Myanmar military.

There were also reports that model and actress Thin Thin was arrested after a similar posting on a Telegraph channel.

Many people whose personal information have been posted on the Telegram accounts also have had homes and property confiscated.

Pencilo, a pro-democracy political activist and well-known influencer on social media now living in the United States, said her home in Yangon was taken in February.

“When the military wants to confiscate a house, they will let the Han Nyein Oo channel post something about it, even though they already have the required information from their intelligence services,” he told RFA. “Only after that, will they shut down the house or make arrests. It is meant to intimidate the people, kind of psychological-war style. They want to hinder or stop people’s agitations through Telegram.”

Han Nyein Oo states on her Telegram account that he is a citizen who tries to find out information that pertains to the national interest.

Junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun told RFA that the Telegram channels were not affiliated with the military and that the junta did not monitor them.

“There are individuals who monitor pages on social media,” he said. “They may be people who are doing research on their own. The military does not have to form such a group. Some of the information just comes up through their sharing of posts.”

Zaw Min Tun did not deny that the military had arrested those who wrote anti-military messages online, however.

Translated by Khin Maung Nyane for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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Mar 10, 2022 07:28 PM

the junta are losing the fight , its just a matter of time now before other nations move into myanmar to end the days of the junta ,,