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Myanmar Junta Utilizes Telegram as Tool to Silence Criticism Online

Darren Maung
Darren is an aspiring writer who wishes to share or create stories to the world and bring humanity together as one. A massive Star Wars nerd and history buff, he finds enjoyable, heart-warming or interesting subjects in any written media.
Published: July 3, 2023
Members of the Myanmar military take part in a parade to mark the country's 78th Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw on March 27, 2023. (Image: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Stepping up their hold on Myanmar, the country’s military junta has utilized the messaging app Telegram as their online weapon. Supporters of the regime have taken to the app to report on critics, resulting in several arrests, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported.

Several Telegram users have fallen victim to the junta and its supporters’ usage of Telegram, pinning them into scandal, silence and repression. In one instance, actress Poe Kyar Phyu Khin was arrested after she posted a video called “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (Our True Leader)” on TikTok, celebrating the birthday of the jailed former state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi on June 19. 

Using Telegram, supporters of the junta called for authorities to arrest her, who obliged by confiscating her phone and sending her to answer for her supposed offenses. Fifty others were also detained as well for “sedition and incitement” after celebrating Suu Kyi’s birthday.

Another celebrity, rapper Byu Har, was arrested on May 24, after speaking out against electricity shortages and voicing the opinion that “life was better” under a more democratic government; one that the military replaced.

Other personalities like journalist Kyaw Min Swe, actress May Pa Chi and more were detained following reports by pro-junta Telegram users after they changed their profile pictures on Facebook to black to mourn the loss of 170 people to an airstrike in April.

Similar acts were conducted when pro-military channels began moving to have celebrities and other users arrested after blanking their profile pictures in response to the execution of four pro-democracy champions.

“Military lobbyists and informers go through these comments and… report the owners of the accounts to Han Nyein Oo, who is a major pro-junta informer on Telegram,” an anonymous activist in Yangon said. “Then, because of a small comment, the poster and their families are in trouble.”

CNN reported that the junta released a sex video to “shame and silence” a woman who fled abroad to avoid reprisal from the government.

“They wanted to destroy my life,” the woman, Chomden, told CNN.

Her plight is reportedly shared among thousands of “politically active” women in Myanmar, CNN added.


Weaponizing social media

While not a stranger to online censorship, Myanmar’s internet freedom has been threatened further since the military coup of Feb. 21, 2021. Aside from a crackdown on opponents and critics, the junta also resorted to tactics that restricted media freedom in a desperate attempt to maintain their authority.

At one time users found solace in encrypted messaging apps like Telegram and Signal to protect them from retribution after the military blocked many news sites and galvanized pro-junta propaganda and news on state media. Unfortunately, supporters of the military have since filed into those apps, exposing criticism and other acts of believed sedition.

Several pro-junta channels were made, each with tens of thousands of subscribers, ready to report and take action against other users.

“To report in a manner is our duty, and to take action against them is the duty of ‘Shwe Ba’ [the  military],” social media personality Han Nyein Oo posted on Viber.

Authorities have continued to prowl through the country, hunting down dissenters by snatching cell phones and harassing people for content on social media or installing VPNs. It has come to a point where the United Nations human rights experts have called out the junta in a statement, accusing them of starting a “digital dictatorship” in Myanmar.

Ever since Meta (formerly Facebook) banned the Myanmar military and its outlets from its platform, supporters have retreated to Telegram, taking advantage of weaker moderation policies to harass and attack dissenters.