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BANGKOK, Thailand – On May 24, 2023, a popular rapper singer “Byuha” was arrested for criticizing on Facebook Live the Myanmar military junta power outages. He was later charged for defamation of state under Article 505(a), a new provision in the Myanmar Penal Code.
Prior to Byuha’s arrest, a message posted in the pro-military Telegram channel “Ka Ka Han” urged the junta to have the singer arrested because his opinion was critical of the junta military council, which seized power in February 2021.
Byuha’s case is not unique. At least 23,410 political prisoners in Myanmar have been arrested since the February 2021 coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), based in Mae Sot, Thailand. Many well-known celebrities, demonstrators, and political activists have also been detained, brutally interrogated, and thrown into various prisons after being charged with similar accusations.
Many of the arrests happened after posts they made, which were deemed critical of the junta, were reported to pro-military Telegram channels like Ka Ka Han.
For instance, a month before Byuha was arrested, popular Burmese singer May La Than Zin was also charged under the same law. Her crime: posting a ‘black profile’ sticker and on her social media account after commenting on the military bombing that killed 175 civilians, including women and children in Pazi Gyi village, Kanbalu Township in the Sagaing Region on April 11, 2023.
Telegram is currently considered one of the most indispensable social media platforms in Myanmar. Many people in Myanmar read it to stay updated on the latest news. It is popular because the platform can be accessed without a Virtual Private Network (VPN), unlike others.
This was not always the case. Before 2018, even the Myanmar military was on Facebook. Facebook then was criticized by various international bodies for its failure to prevent hate online. In August 2018, bowing to pressure, Facebook implemented a number of takedowns in Myanmar for coordinated inauthentic behavior.
In removing a total of 425 pages, 17 groups, 135 accounts on Facebook, and 15 accounts on Instagram which appeared to be independent news, entertainment, beauty and lifestyle pages, Facebook said the social media assets actually had links to the Myanmar military.
After the military seized power in February 2021, Facebook expanded the takedowns to include military-controlled businesses.
When protests against the coup were forcefully dispersed by the military, people resorted to using social media to communicate with each other, organize strikes, share information, and run high-profile campaigns.
All of this prompted the junta to impose restrictions on social media sites like Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, YouTube, and others, soon after the Myanmar Spring Revolution, and months after the 2021 coup.
They have been lifted for some sites but until now, without a VPN, Facebook and Messenger still cannot be accessed online.
Pro-military attack channels
There is little available information on the exact number of Telegram users in Myanmar. However, a 2022 study by consumer intelligence company Standard Insights showed that more than two out of every five respondents (41.6%) had discovered a new social media app. Of these newly-discovered apps, Telegram was the most popular social media app, figured out by more than one in every four respondents (about 25%).
Telegram became the military’s platform of choice in disseminating information and propaganda. One particular Telegram feature which has been used by military propagandists is channels – introduced by the platform in 2015 which allows users to broadcast public messages to large audiences.
There are at least 40 popular channels promoting military propaganda within the encrypted messaging app. These channels command between 10,000 to 90,000 subscribers each. The Ka Ka Han channel, which was created on October 1, 2022, is just one of these.
Usually, these channels provide viewers with a mix of battle news, phone bill lucky draw programs, movie links, and health information. These are typically blended into speeches and information about events and press conferences organized by the junta military council.
But this is not their sole purpose. The Myanmar junta has also been using these platforms to get reports from the public on people behind social posts that appear to be critical of the junta.
The Ka Ka Han channel was used to repeatedly attack members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party that won the 2020 elections and was previously in power before the military coup. The NLD has since been dissolved because it refused to comply with the new party registration law imposed by the Myanmar military.
The message below which was posted on October 1, 2022 in the Ka Ka Han channel, says, “Welcome to the team of Ka Ka Han, who will look for Ni Pate.”
Ni Pate is Burmese political jargon referring to “obstinate red individuals/groups.” It is often used by pro-military and ultranationalist people to refer to NLD members and NLD supporters in a derogatory way. Red (Ni in Burmese) is widely considered to be the political symbol of the NLD party.
Checks on TGStat, a tool that analyzes engagement in Telegram channels, show linkages between the different pro-military channels which routinely promote each other through mentions.
For instance, in its post, Ka Ka Han (accessible through https://t.me/KaKaHan777999) tagged five other Telegram channels (Kyaw Swar, Han Nyein Oo, Ba Nyunt, Ko Hla Shwe, and Linn Nay) to send NLD supporter information to them.
Another channel that repeatedly tags Ka Ka Han, is Ko Thet (@Kothetjournalist). It is one of the channels that has been posting attacks against critics. Launched on February 10, 2021 after the coup, Ko Thet has 69,000 subscribers as of writing.
The Ko Thet channel also benefits from repeated citations by Telegram channels Kyaw Swarmmmmmm, DGF21News, and Ba Nyunt. It also appears to be mentioned hundreds of times by other pro-military Telegram channels.
In turn, Ko Thet has also promoted over 200 channels through outgoing mentions. These channels include military lobby channels, state-specific channels, and news media channels that favor the military.
Doxing, data leaks
There have been a number of incidents wherein people who posted comments against the military on Facebook had their addresses, businesses, and other personal information revealed through these Telegram channels.
One such incident, which happened in February 2023, involved the leak of personal information of hundreds of students who were enrolled in the Free Online Education Institution Myanmar (FOEIM). Initially posted on the pro-military Ba Nyunt channel in Telegram, the post with the leaked personal data was eventually forwarded to the Ka Ka Han channel.
The FOEIM is the education unit of the National Unity Government (NUG). The NUG was formed by former elected members of the NLD. It is linked to the revolutionary movement that was formed, following the crackdown on the peaceful anti-coup protests in 2021.
The leaked information included the identities and other details concerning parents of the students whose data had been exposed. A number of those whose information were leaked were arrested.
Among those arrested was a 72-year-old woman Tin Ye Tun from Shwebo Town in Sagiang Region. She was charged under Section 52 (A) of the Counter-Terrorism Law for registering her grandchildren in FOEIM.
Following the leak, the military council announced that parents who send their children to NUG schools will be prosecuted under the Anti-Terrorism Act. Prior to this, the junta mandated that children may only be enrolled in schools recognized by the military council.
Aside from the individuals whose information were exposed in the FOEIM school case, there were hundreds more whose data have been exposed by the Ka Ka Han channel to authorities from January to May 2023. Within days of the posts on Telegram, 32 people were arrested.
“People who wrote about opposing [the] military coup on social media, supporting NUG/CRPH, advocating to participate in protests and fundraisers [were] mainly targeted [for] arrest and [imprisonment],” Zee Pe, director of Athan-Myanmar’s Freedom of Expression Activist Organization, said.
“Anyone who is against military junta or military coup can be arrested, and tortured at any time,” she added.
Violating human rights
Once a critic has been arrested, the law allows the police and military intelligence officers to detain the accused in military interrogation centers for as long as they wish.
Such harsh punishment for mere online comments by famous celebrities and media professionals could not help but make ordinary citizens feel afraid to express their opinions and comments on online digital platforms, according to Myanmar media development consultant Toe Zaw Latt.
“It is not acceptable that individuals or the majority of people are being watched, and hate is growing,” added Toe Zaw Latt, who is now based in Thailand. “What the military is doing is a violation of human rights. These are “completely against the law – local and international.”
“We have been facing different types of human rights violations every day in Myanmar. We don’t have the right to freedom of expression, which is a fundamental right,” according to Zee Pe.
She also said, “People in Myanmar are also in fear of being arrested when they express something against the military junta, even their daily life [faces] challenges.”
What is Telegram doing?
On March 11, 2022, Telegram took down some pro-military channels, including Han Nyein Oo’s channel, for violating the platform’s terms of service. The newly-opened Han Nyein Oo channel was taken down again on May 25, 2022.
Human rights advocates, however, said this is not enough. “Telegram is not doing enough to put down state-sponsored hate speech and incitement deliberately produced by SAC against civilians and dissidents,” Toe Zaw Latt said.
Indeed, despite the March takedown, many pro-military propaganda channels remain on the encrypted platform.
In March 2023, following the initial takedown, UN experts called out Telegram. “Since the coup, pro-junta actors have taken advantage of Telegram’s lax approach to content moderation and gaps in its terms of service. They have attracted tens of thousands of followers by posting violent and misogynistic content,” the experts said.
According to them, more needs to be done to address hate in the messaging app. “Unless Telegram fundamentally changes its approach to content moderation in Myanmar, it is likely that pro-military actors will simply open new accounts and continue their campaign of harassment,” they said.
“Even though [an account] is taken down… they can open it again,” Zee Pe said, referring to the pro-military accounts.
The only way the problem can be resolved, she said, is if Telegram establishes more rigorous processes for monitoring violations of privacy and human rights in its channels. – with Gemma B. Mendoza and Saw Pe / Rappler.com
Nang is a #FactsMatter Fellow. She reports for Myanmar’s Mizzima Media Group