In the latest draconian crackdown by the military regime in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), it has been revealed that fresh moves to ban VPN use are being proposed.
The regime plans to bring back the country’s new cybersecurity law, which was abandoned last year, and use it as a means to outlaw the use of VPNs across the country.
Unpopular cybersecurity law returns
According to Nikkei Asia, which first reported the news, the redrafted legislation includes a punishment for using a VPN of between one and three years.
They cite a letter which has been sent by the military regime to industry representatives. It was dated 13th January and signed by Soe Thein, permanent secretary of the military’s transport and communications ministry.
It appears that the main target of this new law is the National Unity Government (NUG). This new pro-democracy group which has been set up by elected legislators who have been removed from office by Myanmar’s military junta.
The NUG has proved hugely popular with the people of Myanmar. Last August, it launched an online contribution campaign in the form of a lottery which sold out within an hour and raised over US$60,000.
The majority of opposition fundraising and organisation takes place online with activists and politicians using VPNs to protect themselves from reprisals from the junta. This new law is designed to try and stop such activity from taking place.
As well as the threat of jail time, the new bill will also require internet service providers to hand over the personal information of users, including such things as names, addresses and access history to the military authorities when asked for it.
There are many other unpopular provisions included in the law.
Myanmar’s military dictatorship is likely to get its own way given the direction of travel the political system in the country is moving in at the moment.
Prominent pro-democracy politician Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent many years under house arrest before returning to frontline politics in the country, was deposed again in February last year.
She was handed a new jail sentence earlier this month and will serve four years on trumped up charges for the illegal possession and import of walkie-talkies and breaking Covid-19 rules.
But despite Myanmar’s descent back towards military dictatorship, the cybersecurity law had provided the country with a glimmer of hope.
It was first proposed last year but was quietly dropped after a furious backlash from the sector, the Myanmar business community, and the public.
The UMFCCI, Myanmar Computer Federation and over 150 civil society organizations led the campaign against the scheme and they were backed by the vast majority of Western Chambers of Commerce.
As one Yangon industry source told Nikkei Asia, the campaign was “One of the very few successful advocacy efforts by businesses following the coup.”
They were also optimistic that the revival of the bill would receive a similar response this time too. “I think it will probably get a similar level of opposition this time,” they added.
The wider implications of the cybersecurity bill
While the principle objectives of the bill in the mind of the military junta might be to restrict the activities of opposition activists in the country, the implications of the new law proposed will be far more widespread.
It would have an implication on all sorts of different businesses, including financial institutions, tech companies, international businesses operating in Myanmar and more. All of these businesses rely on VPN services to access their files safely and communicate freely with the outside world.
Individuals in Myanmar also use VPNs for far more than simply supporting democracy in their country.
As well as the core online security and privacy protections that a VPN offers to all users, they are also popular in Myanmar for such things as accessing news sites not readily available, accessing social media sites that can be heavily censored or blocked, and even accessing various business services.
Indeed social media may well be the trigger for the revival of this law. Facebook, which was the most popular social media platform in Myanmar before the latest military coup in February last year, is blocked across the country.
This has seen a significant spike in VPN use in Myanmar as people are keen to restore access to Mark Zuckerberg’s social media behemoth.
As one analyst explained to Nikkei Asia, “This is just the latest futile battle between the regime and Facebook… Their instruction to internet services to block the social media site converted the country overnight to VPNs.”
The decision on whether the cybersecurity law will go forward is not yet certain.
The military regime has sent the new proposals to no fewer than thirteen different government departments, as well as the Union of Myanmar Chamber of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI), the Myanmar Computer Federation, the Central Bank of Myanmar, a wide range of banking and financial services providers, and the country’s main telecoms companies.
They have requested a response from all of them by January 28th, after which a decision will be made. It is fair to say that, while a lot of those businesses won’t want to rock the boat, few will welcome the new law and many will explain the likely implications it will have.
If it does go ahead, Myanmar will become, almost overnight, one of the most dangerous places in the world to use a VPN. Its shaky position on the Freedom on the Net rankings, which saw it drop faster than any other nation in 2020, will also likely be badly hit.
But as with most country’s, it is unlikely to stop many people from using a VPN to enjoy their online rights and freedoms in Myanmar. Even if the consequences of being caught doing so are particularly dire.