Words by Giancarlo Morrondoz
On the 1st of February, the military arm of Myanmar, the Tatmadaw, staged a Coup d’etat on the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Myanmar is one of the youngest democracies in Southeast Asia, holding its first general election in 2010.
Protests were quickly organized across the country to resist a return to military rule. One of the first things the Tatmadaw did was to cut internet access across the country. This and the arrests and enforced disappearances of critics and journalists are the Tatmadaw’s tactics to cow its citizens from mobilizing.
However, internet shutdown did not bar Myanmar’s citizens from communicating as they utilized alternative media sources and underground networks, further escaping from the imposed censorship. (Read: Myanmar citizens use protester toolkit to sidestep Internet ban)
With Myanmar’s parallelisms to that of our country’s situation, imagine if it was our internet access that was shut down that day.
4 out of 5 Filipinos have social media accounts, two out of three have internet access. On average, Filipinos spend 4 hours and 15 minutes a day on social media. The time we spend on our devices averages at around 11 hours a day, a full hour difference from the closest country, Brazil. In Myanmar, less than a half of their population have internet access, yet it only took them four days after the coup, before nationwide protests were held.
Military control and invasive technology
After years of civil unrest and the need for economic reform, Myanmar’s military junta, the Tatmadaw, released a “roadmap for democracy” in 2003. The roadmap laid out plans to bring democratic rule to the country and to lift Myanmar from its isolation. For this purpose, the 2008 Constitution of Myanmar was enacted.
But in 2010, the Tatmadaw held elections, with the Union Solidarity Development Party—the military-backed party—claiming a resounding victory. This election was widely considered a sham but nonetheless, the government declared this election as the “end of military rule” and the start of a civilian government.
In its constitution, the Tatmadaw made sure to maintain their power. They retained control over all ministries concerning security. These include jurisdiction over Defence, Myanmar’s borders, and Home Affairs. They also hold some control over the Parliament, with a provision stating that 25% of the seats must be held by officers who served in the military.
Two attempts have been made to amend the constitution, with the goal to demilitarize state institutions. Both attempts failed to do anything significant. The civilian government has no hold over the military. They couldn’t prevent the Rohingya Massacres, and they can’t prohibit the military from arming themselves using government funds. In the end, the fate of Myanmar’s democracy depended on the hands and “sincerity” of the military junta. The coup on February 1 is only one incident in a long history of the military’s mixed signals.
Budget records back in 2015 show that the Tatmadaw were already arming themselves with surveillance technology. These include tech that could be used to covertly mine information from cellphones and computers.
These surveillance technologies were bought from foreign corporations under the premise that they will be used to track cybercrime and graft cases. Recent events, however, show otherwise.
Critics and journalists are being detained, all while a new cybersecurity bill is being drafted. Under the military junta’s “Safe City” initiative, surveillance cameras capable of facial recognition, are being distributed across different towns. This technology is sourced from Huawei, a Chinese-owned company, wherein this kind of pervasive surveillance technology could be found across their country.
The civilian government of Myanmar was unable to prevent the use of government funds for this because it is taboo for civilian politicians to bring up “defense” matters for discussion.
Cyber libel and social media crackdown
The Philippines has its own version of issues concerning cybersecurity and its exploitation. The Cybercrime Prevention Act, and more recently, the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 2020 both pose queries and contentions due to its usage and implementation. This is because between the two of these laws, the line that the government draws between sedition and legitimate criticism has only grown more vague. (Read: Four Aetas first to be charged under Terror Law)
The ATA legalizes wiretapping and surveillance on civilians, a provision the military junta of Myanmar is infamous for. Instances wherein the armed forces policed social media activity was used as an avenue to crackdown on dissent, putting us a step closer to becoming a completely militarized state.
The use of various cyber libel cases against Maria Ressa pushes the definitions of cyber libel into the disingenuous. Her conviction set a precedent that could be used to further silence critics. The exploitation of cybercrime laws to silence legitimate concerns has only increased during the pandemic. A free press is the lifeblood of a democracy. Enabling the rule of law to silence legitimate criticism and meddling with the media to spread propaganda is a threat to both free speech and transparency.
On March 31, 2020, a 55-year-old teacher was arrested without warrant for sedition after criticizing her local government unit (LGU) for the insufficient supply of relief goods. On May 12, another teacher was arrested for his post on Twitter, inciting a reward to the person who would be able to kill Duterte. He was arrested without warrant and a public apology was coerced from him without legal counsel. A Taiwanese overseas Filipino worker (OFW) was threatened with deportation after she posted criticisms involving the Duterte administration.
This is all happening while companies like Twinmark media earn millions with their massive disinformation campaigns and the NTF-ELCAC are red-baiting activists and other critics of the government on Facebook. (Read: Stars, influencers get paid to boost Duterte propaganda, fake news)
Misinformation and online propaganda
The use of social media has been part and parcel of Duterte’s strategies ever since his bid for presidency back in 2016, and it has become quite the profitable machine. Being a social media coordinator became so profitable, hundreds and thousands of millions were being paid to the “most influential partners.”
Mocha Uson, one of the most fervent and influential supporters of Duterte, has held three different government positions despite public mistrust of her qualifications and previous track record when it came to misinformation.
The use of social media in election campaigns proved its potency to influence voters in the last presidential election. Bannering posters across various locations, the “Run Sara Run” campaign has been active despite Sara Duterte stating that she has no desire to run for presidency.
Social media endorsements and advertising by candidates is barely checked, with only half of our political parties in the last senate election complying to the social media regulations of the Commission on Elections (COMELEC). Traditional campaigning, such as through TV ads, newspapers, and on ground campaigning, might be overtaken by social media campaigning in the upcoming elections, considering the remote set up right now.
Social media campaigning was used by most candidates during the 2019 senatorial elections. By then, a social media presence was nearly required for senatorial candidates. It goes without saying that social media will play a big part in our presidential elections next year as candidates will increasingly incorporate it into their strategies due to the pandemic’s physical restrictions. Opting out of traditional campaigning might become a reality in the near future, as traditional politicians like Juan Ponce Enrile have thought about opting out of traditional campaigning entirely.
Parallels between Myanmar and the Philippines
Myanmar and many other countries in the Global South share the same issues with the Philippines. Despite being one of the oldest democracies in Southeast Asia, we are still one of the least stable democracies.
Myanmar is a cautionary tale of a military with too much monopolized power.
In our country, former military officials are already being tasked and are running for high-ranking offices, bringing with them the vested interests of the military establishment and its ideals. Now they’re busy solidifying control using intensified state-sponsored attacks and arbitrary arrests.
In two months, at least 550 civilians have been killed in Myanmar. At the pace the government is at, we might soon match their numbers.
Increasing militarization in many of our institutions and shrinking democratic spaces are some of the things we share with Myanmar. They are vigorously protecting their democracy after fighting for its attainment nearly fourteen years ago. We fought for our democracy too, 35 years ago.
Today, let us remain vigilant and steadfast. We must not falter if we wish to prevent another life lost and we must continue to seek justice for all the victims of state-sponsored killings and attacks through constant clamor and mobilization. [P]
Photos from Presidential Communications Operations Office
Design by Patrick Josh Atayde