World Myanmar’s military has a history of using deceptive tactics against protesters. Now it has social media, too.
Myanmar coup tests Biden's ability to work with allies in Asia, where China's influence is growing
Rallying U.S. partners in Asia to join in the condemnation of the military takeover in Myanmar could prove challenging, said analysts from think tank CSIS. Myanmar's military on Monday detained several elected officials including de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and declared a one-year state of emergency. © Provided by CNBC U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 25, 2021. SINGAPORE — The latest coup in Myanmar presents an early test to U.S. President Joe Biden's pledge to work more closely with allies in the Asian region where China's influence is expanding.
— known as the Tatmadaw — is taking clear steps to preempt large-scale popular resistance to its power grab. Within a week of , the military has arrested key civil society leaders, blocked Internet and phone connections, and imposed martial law across major cities.
On Monday, the Tatmadawof more than five people, but collective acts of civil disobedience and continue to gather momentum across the country with support from , likely leading to further repression by the Tatmadaw.
Myanmar’s Military Didn’t Just Overthrow Aung San Suu Kyi's Government. It’s Cracking Down on All Forms of Dissent
The arrest of activists and writers is a sign that the coup is an attempt to crush the fragile political liberalization that the military junta itself had opened the door to following its oppressive rule from 1962 to 2011. Activists living in fear © AP Myanmar's military stand guard at a checkpoint manned with an armored vehicle in a road leading to the parliament building Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar.
So what is the Tatmadaw likely to do?Myanmar’s military distrusts the country’s ruling party. That’s why it staged a coup and detained leaders and activists. on the urban pro-democracy movement gives some clues. During 2017-2018, I carried out 100 in-depth interviews with Myanmar’s residents, and gathered written testimony from local journalists and political activists who have experienced the Tatmadaw’s counter-mobilization strategies firsthand during previous periods of military rule. Here’s what I learned.
The Tatmadaw relied on three key strategies to suppress activism
During five decades of military rule, Myanmar’s generals employed three main strategies to discredit popular demonstrations and legitimize state repression, as shown in the figure below.
Noisy anti-coup protest reverberates in Myanmar's largest city
Noisy anti-coup protest reverberates in Myanmar's largest cityThe party of the detained Nobel Peace laureate called for her release by the junta that seized power on Monday and is keeping her at an undisclosed location. It also demanded recognition of her victory in a Nov. 8 election.
First, military regimes tried to frame protesters as “rioters” by spreading allegations about violence. Many residents recalled how Myanmar’s state-owned media became a rumor mill, spreading accusations that “rioters” were hiding among demonstrators to rob properties, poison food and water, burn cars and destroy factories and offices. At the height of thein 1988, the Burma Socialist Programme Party regime blamed rioters for shutting down government offices that the regime had closed. By broadcasting multiple unsubstantiated claims, the authorities wanted to make the public perceive an immediate threat from protests and refrain from supporting or participating in opposition gatherings.
Second, to buttress its rumors, the military deployed agents provocateurs to infiltrate peaceful protests and instigate riots. During the 2007, these agents attacked the security forces with bricks and rocks, allowing the military to justify shooting protesters later on. At the height of the Four-Eight Uprising in 1988, the Tatmadaw also had military agents to make local residents become hostile toward all suspicious-looking strangers, including protesters.
Myanmar’s coup and the waning of an Obama-Biden legacy
For many officials in the Obama administration, bringing Myanmar in from the geopolitical cold was a feat on which they hoped to hang their hats. That legacy matters now, in part because of the coup that took place Monday, turning the spotlight once more on the predations of Myanmar’s military. But it matters also because many of these same officials are again in leading policy positions under President Biden.
In dozens of countries, governments rely on Internet shutdowns to hide repression
Third, the military junta cracked down on protesters, using these unfounded accusations as a pretext. Even so, Myanmar dictators actively covered up scenes of mass repression to prevent public backlash. In particular, Yangon residents explained how, instead of cracking down en masse in daytime, the military had its spies photograph protesters, then arrest them after dark. To make sure that no one could witness state brutality, it imposed curfews and shut down electricity during night arrests.
These strategies are now being updated
In 2021, the Tatmadaw is adapting its tactics to deal with social media platforms, especially Facebook, which now reaches more than half of the country’s population. People talk about how Facebook and Twitter enabled mass protests during theand , but dictators, too, have learned how to harness social media to influence public opinion at scale.
Myanmar is a pioneer of these techniques. During the 2017and recent , evidence suggests that the Tatmadaw coordinated hundreds of fake social media accounts to spread hate speech and provoke violence against ethnic and religious minorities, incite mass condemnation of the independent press and promote allegations of election frauds. As it seeks to suppress online resistance campaigns in 2021, the Tatmadaw is likely to counter-mobilize against dissidents by spreading disinformation online or selectively blocking Internet access.
China and Russia blocked the UN from condemning Myanmar's military coup
Myanmar's military seized power on Monday, detaining politicians, and imposing a state of emergency as it made claims of election fraud.The 15-member UN Security Council met on Tuesday to vote on a joint statement after Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing on Monday seized control of the country, detaining hundreds of lawmakers including President Win Myint and the de facto head of government Aung San Suu Kyi.
It is plausible that the military will use fake social media accounts again, this time to monitor, infiltrate and spread disinformation against online groups and campaigns against the February coup. Social media platforms have a hard time regulating account registration and ensuring that people present themselves truthfully, instead putting the burden on individual users to detect falsehoods. But it’s also increasingly difficult for ordinary civilians to decide what to believe, given that Tatmadaw agents have become adept at spreading false information and impersonating local community members since 2017.
And the Tatmadaw may move further in selectively blocking Internet access across the country to impede online mobilizations for anti-coup protests. In the week since the coup, it has firstThis tiny African country got the U.N.’s top court to investigate Myanmar for genocide , Twitter and Instagram, and then intermittently .
Civil society groups still have some options
The communication disruptions present organizers of Myanmar’s civil disobedience and protest campaigns with some real challenges. These groups are likely to want to use various channels to raise public awareness about potential disinformation campaigns and encourage Internet users to verify news with trusted media and official sources. If they want to blunt the regime’s repression, they’re also going to have to stay alert to the possibility of infiltration of military agents — both online and offline — while providing protesters with guidance to protect their personal and digital safety.
With Aung San Suu Kyi and many other prominent civilian leaders stilland demonstrations growing across towns and cities, there is one ultimate weapon left in the Tatmadaw’s toolbox: large-scale violent crackdown. The military has in the past — and got away with it. Knowing might make military leaders think twice this time.
Van Tran, a researcher on social movements in Myanmar, recently received her PhD in political science from Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter.
Myanmar Youth Defy Military Ban as Thousands Take to Streets .
Thousands of protesters defied the military’s ban on public gatherings to take to the streets of Myanmar’s commercial capital of Yangon on Tuesday morning, just hours after the new regime imposed martial law. Live footage posted on social media showed demonstrators marching through Yangon’s downtown, putting them on a potential collision course with a military that has a history of deadly crackdowns against dissent.