Censorship in Myanmar: Circumventing Military Restrictions

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Quick Guide: How to Get Around Censorship in Myanmar

Myanmar knows one of the most censored media environments in the world. After the military coup of February 2021, expressing political dissent has effectively been made into a crime. Protesters face violent attacks, journalists are thrown in jail, and internet access gets restricted often.

Because cybersecurity laws are so strict, it’s a real risk to get a VPN in Myanmar. The military uses spyware to surveil the population and police are known to confiscate phones to check for circumvention software.

We recommend you use a VPN with caution. A good VPN for Myanmar has to have the following characteristics:

  • Excellent encryption and security features
  • A strict no-logs policy
  • The possibility of signing up anonymously

We highly recommend NordVPN if you want to circumvent military restrictions in Myanmar.

If you want to learn more about censorship in Myanmar, read the full article below.

Censorship in Myanmar iconMyanmar is considered one of the least free countries in the world in terms of censorship. Freedom House scores it a mere 9 out of 100 on the Global Freedom Index and categorizes it as “not free.”

For internet freedom, Myanmar scores just 17 out of 100. After a period of relative media freedom between 2012 and 2020, the military junta overthrew the democratically-elected government in February 2021, claiming electoral fraud.

Ever since then, the internet has been severely censored in Myanmar. To suppress dissent, the junta regularly shut down telecommunications services, block major social media platforms, and increase military surveillance.

In spite of these heavy restrictions, the people in Myanmar continue to use digital means to voice their opposition to the military dictatorship.

Virtual private networks (VPNs) are officially banned by the military, but they’re an important tool for journalists, civil society groups, and regular civilians to get access to independent media and protect their identity online.

This article will take a look at censorship in Myanmar and list the VPN providers that are best suited to circumvent the heavy censorship within the country.


Military Censorship: Limitations to Free Speech

On February 1, 2021, the Myanmar Armed Forces, also known as the Tatmadaw, took control of the government in a staged coup. The military junta claimed that the democratic elections won by Aung San Suu Kyi were fraudulent. They immediately declared a state of emergency, which is still ongoing.

The imprisonment of Aung Sang Suu Kyi caused a widespread protest movement called the Civil Disobedience Movement. The Tatmadaw continues to respond to opposition forces with human rights violations and strict censorship.

Freedom of press in Myanmar

Freedom of the Press iconCensorship is used to restrict people’s access to diverse media and impose a state-approved narrative instead.

In Myanmar, the post-independence Constitution granted the right to freedom of expression. In the 1950s, the press in Myanmar (formerly Burma) enjoyed one of the freest environments in Asia.

However, with several military coups in the decades after, censorship has only increased. Save for a brief period of relaxation of censorship laws in 2012, Myanmar is one of the most restricted places for the independent press. The Committee to Protect Journalists identifies it as one of the worst jailers of journalists.

Military officials have instructed the press to only report on the coup in a supportive manner. Those who refuse, face severe punishment. Public attacks against reporters are not uncommon, nor is the use of torture, and imprisonment, and there have also been forcible disappearances.

Chan Bu, a journalist working for The 74 Media group, was tortured, deprived of food and sleep, and was threatened with murder if she didn’t answer questions about her news organization. She is but one of hundreds of journalists that have been detained, harassed, and abused.

Internet censorship

Internet censorship in Myanmar iconNot even a decade ago, mobile phones and internet access were a luxury only a few in Myanmar could afford. The vast majority were completely unfamiliar with mobile connections.

In 2020, about 35% of the population had access to the internet. That’s in stark contrast to 2011 when the internet penetration rate was less than 1%.

Internet users, however, are often prosecuted due to Myanmar’s strict censorship legislation. Between the start of the military coup in February 2021 and June 2021, 86 journalists were charged, in many cases for online publications.

Many bloggers, social media influencers, and tech entrepreneurs have been added to military blacklists.

In the first weeks of the coup, Myanmar’s junta repeatedly shut off the internet in order to stop the flow of information and control the narrative. Telecommunication companies were also ordered to block Facebook in an attempt to stop protesters from being able to organize themselves.

Crackdown on democratic protests

Crackdown on democratic protests iconHuman rights organizations and civil society actors have expressed grave concern about the way military forces have treated pro-democracy protesters in the aftermath of the military coup.

Those who participate in the Civil Disobedience Movement risk the worst kind of mental and physical torture.

In the year since the coup, air assaults have been carried out, entire villages have been burned, and more than 1,500 people have been killed. The Tatmadaw stick to their narrative of electoral fraud and don’t tolerate any opposition.


Why Does Myanmar Censor the Internet?

Censorship is a weapon of oppression. For many people in Myanmar, the internet is an important place for connection, despite the fact that it may not be as widely used as in other parts of the world. Facebook is the main source of communication for over 50% of the population.

The Tatmadaw controls and censors internet traffic in an attempt to keep the Myanmar population under control. The military has been Myanmar’s most powerful institution for many decades.

Between 2011 and 2012, some space for democratic reform was created. Independent news outlets were allowed to gain some ground and pre-publication censorship was abolished. However, the 2021 military coup marks a drastic reversal of these liberalizing policies.

By oppressing political dissent, the junta pushes back against the spread of pro-democratic information. Any content that is considered harmful to state security or content that is viewed as immoral is blocked.

Self-censorship

Self censorship iconWith the growing risk of imprisonment and abuse, many social media users, reporters, and regular citizens have chosen to self-censor on online platforms. It is common to hide your identity online, use acronyms or nicknames for sensitive terms, or use encrypted messaging software.

While self-censorship was practiced before the coup, primarily with regard to discussing the treatment of women and minorities, the extent of it has grown significantly over the course of the last year.


What Content Is Being Censored in Myanmar?

Censorship touches many elements of Myanmar society. As a result, many journalists have been forced underground or into exile in order to report freely.

The Electronic Transactions Law bans the distribution of any information that could be detrimental to state security, law and order, and national culture.

Below is an overview of content considered a threat on moral or security grounds.

Infographic showing what content is being censored in Myanmar

Illegal content

Myanmar’s society is relatively conservative. Any content related to alcohol, drugs, or gambling is similarly censored.

Pornography is widely blocked, as are online dating websites. Sex education is not provided at schools. Under Article 68 of Myanmar’s newest cybercrimes law, “sexually explicit speech” is punished with a three-year prison term.

In a very twisted way, explicit and material is sometimes deployed by the junta itself as a weapon of oppression. Since the coup, the Tatmadaw has used revenge porn to discredit and shame young female activists opposing the coup. In return, similar material has circulated the web targeting women associated with military leaders.

Same-sex sexual activity is illegal in Myanmar. The gender identity of trans people is not recognized by the state. Members of the LGBTQ+ community can face up to 20 years in prison. Visibility in media is purposefully restricted.

Political dissent

Any content critical of the military authorities is subjected to censorship. Post-coup amendments now incriminate hatred, disobedience, or disloyalty toward the military government.

Additionally, “any attempt to cause fear, spread false news or agitate directly or indirectly a criminal offense against a government employee” can lead to imprisonment. A 2020 draft cybercrime law states that “verbal statements against any existing law” are to be removed by online service providers.

Independent reporting has effectively turned into a crime. The military authorities revoke media licenses at will. By restricting internet access, the Tatmadaw makes it near impossible for reporters to share footage, news, and information.

With regard to the coverage of the military’s takeover, “incorrect words” such as “coup,” “junta,” and “regime” were banned by the Ministry of Information. The same applies to foreign correspondents.

Satirical political dissent is not welcome either. In February 2020, members of the Peacock Generation poetry group were sentenced to six months in prison for live-streaming performances in which they satirized the Tatmadaw.


Big Tech Censorship and Information Control

Tech giants such as Google and Facebook have a complicated relationship with online censorship. Content generally needs to comply with local guidelines or social media companies risk being blocked in the country.

Since the coup, video platforms such as TikTok and YouTube have increased their removal of content. This is primarily aimed at military-controlled channels. Other social media platforms, including Facebook, also continue to push back against military accounts.

However, content moderation can unintentionally compromise internet users’ right to information and disappear evidence of human rights abuses that is relevant for human rights protection agencies.

Moreover, the algorithms of a social network like Facebook often inevitably and ironically amplify the very content that they wish to see removed.


How Does Myanmar Censor the Internet?

Infographic showing how does Myanmar censor the internet

With the internal conflict in Myanmar ongoing, government forces are employing a wide range of censorship techniques. This makes it extremely difficult for activists, journalists, and civilians to communicate, resist and protest.

Control of the telecom sector

In Myanmar, the Telecommunications Department (PTD) is responsible for managing and regulating the telecom sector. They are in charge of licensing, inspection, and supervision of providers.

The majority of the telecommunications infrastructure is managed by mobile operator Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT), which is responsible for the mobile internet service throughout the country.

Before the coup, the PTD and MPT were already pretty vulnerable to government — that is, military — interference. At the moment, they fall completely under Tatmadaw control.

The Ministry of Transport and Communications (MoTC) frequently orders telecom services to block content. If a telecommunications company doesn’t comply, they risk losing their license.

Internet restriction

The MoTC can shut off the internet at will, without any oversight or prior notice. Shortly before the coup, the military began disrupting the internet. On February 1st, it was cut off completely. While it came back later that day, another 30-hour internet shutdown occurred six days later.

Ever since then, it has been common to order internet shutdowns when the MoTC feels the narrative is getting out of hand.

Webpages and social media

A common censorship tool governments use is to block access to certain websites or social media platforms.

On February 3, 2021, all Internet service providers (ISPs) received an order from the military authorities to block Facebook and all its associated platforms such as WhatsApp and Messenger.

The military justification to block websites was that these websites were contributing to “instability” in society. Restrictions were ostensibly meant to stop “fake news from spreading misunderstanding.”

On February 5, orders to block Twitter and Instagram followed.

Wikipedia was also blocked in an attempt to further stop the flow of information.

Law and regulation

In order to support censorship, the Tatmadaw has been making amendments to cyber security law, including the Electronic Transactions Law. Legal experts claim that rule of law in Myanmar has essentially collapsed since the 2021 military coup.

All members of the Constitutional Body, possibly the only governmental body in Myanmar that could have held the junta responsible, were replaced by the military days after they seized power.

A set of post-coup cybercrime laws place all private data under military control. Service providers have to store private data on servers made specifically accessible to the military.

Additionally, the new laws have wide, extra-territorial reach: it creates international offenses and applies to Myanmar citizens outside of Myanmar. Things are so strict that those who use false names on social media platforms can be imprisoned for up to three years.

Surveillance

The scope of Tatmadaw surveillance of the Myanmar population is growing. Internet service providers have been ordered to install interception spyware and allow the military access to private communications. This allows the armed forces to view private messages, listen in on phone calls, and track users’ locations.

The Myanmar military government has acquired hacking and extraction technology for tens of millions of dollars since 2018. These purchases include MacQuisition forensic software that can hack Apple products and MSAB Field units that can extract even deleted content from devices.

Prior to the 2021 coup, the Myanmar government was apparently working on biometric SIM-card registration. Furthermore, there have been plans to create a database for biometric data, including fingerprints and facial-recognition information, to be received from mobile service operators.


Stricter Control of Information

Censorship is a double-edged sword. Governments can restrict online access, block pages, and make sure citizens can’t see what they would like to see. However, in most cases, this technique is paired with a deliberate effort to influence what people do see.
The way to do this is through the intentional spread of disinformation on military-controlled media outlets, and through government-backed hacking.

Disinformation

Disinformation iconWhen independent media are hard to reach, state-controlled outlets hold significant power to spread false or misleading information. In Myanmar, the military strictly censors what they consider disinformation. At the same time, they are accused of spreading false information themselves.

The junta’s deliberate manipulation of the media has played a big part in the oppression of religious minorities such as the Rohingya. In 2018, the United Nations released a report that outlines exactly how the Tatmadaw has created a hate frame around minority groups through state-controlled broadcast media and shaping public opinion on social media, where content is amplified by military accounts.

With regard to military power, systematic campaigns to create and manage fake Facebook accounts have furthered a pro-military narrative. Bot systems and troll farms are used to spread content even further.

Malware and hacking

Hacking and malware iconUnder current military rule, journalists and activists continue to report junta attempts at hacking private communications and online activity.

Additionally, Microsoft has expressed concerns about the high number of technological devices in Myanmar that are infected by malware. Myanmar is one of the highest-ranking countries in the world for virus infections.

Both government-backed hacking and spreading malware are Tatmadaw’s attempts at establishing themselves so firmly in people’s lives that there’s no way out.


How to Get Around Censorship in Myanmar

Because various censorship circumvention tools are banned in Myanmar, it can be difficult for people to find access to an open internet or communicate anonymously.

In March 2021, virtual private networks (VPNs) were officially banned. In an attempt to push back against use, the military authorities have instructed telecom providers to block hundreds of IP addresses.

Still, people continue to use VPNs, as well as other digital tools to stay safe online.


Using a VPN in Myanmar

After the coup, VPN use in Myanmar increased by more than 7000%. If you’re going to use a VPN, you want to make sure that its encryption features are top-notch, especially considering how strict Myanmar’s military surveillance is.

You might be tempted to get a free VPN, but for Myanmar, this is strongly discouraged. With a free VPN, the chance that your data ends up in the wrong hands is significantly higher. In general, it helps to be aware of the risks of using a free VPN.

Does a VPN make you completely anonymous?

A VPN increases your privacy online but it doesn’t give you complete anonymity.

When you connect to the internet through a VPN, an encrypted tunnel is created to protect your data. The connection between the server and the website is not encrypted, however.

The reason VPNs still increase your privacy is because they make it virtually impossible to trace any activity back to you since you’ll be connected to a different IP address.

But this is not the same as anonymity. As soon as you leave any personal information anywhere — a name, email address, payment information — you’ll be leaving a digital fingerprint.

Those who have the know-how will still be able to trace these bits of information. A VPN gives you increased privacy but doesn’t make you invisible on the internet. You also have to make sure that you don’t leave a digital footprint behind.

In a politically-charged society like Myanmar, it’s important to keep this in mind.

VPN use is illegal in Myanmar and punishable by law. This is why it’s absolutely essential that people are aware of the risks. In January 2022, the military junta was looking to adopt a new law that would make it possible to jail anyone who uses a virtual private network.

However, because VPN traffic is difficult to identify, people continue using VPNs even in places where it’s illegal. In order to push back, the Myanmar police go as far as confiscating people’s phones on the street and checking for VPN software.

This makes Myanmar one of the most dangerous places in the world for using a VPN.


The Three Best VPNs for Myanmar

Best VPNs for Myanmar iconTo make it absolutely clear: using a VPN in Myanmar is very risky. That’s why you should always use a VPN that offers top-notch encryption and takes extra steps to secure your connection. Some important features to look out for include:

  • Top-notch security features: this includes 256-bit AES encryption, as well as DNS leak protection, a kill switch, and a robust security protocol such as OpenVPN.
  • A clear no-logging policy: with the amount of surveillance in Myanmar, it’s absolutely essential that you choose a VPN that doesn’t log your activity.
  • The opportunity to get an account anonymously: you don’t want to be leaving any personal information anywhere. Ideally, your VPN allows you to sign up anonymously and pay using cryptocurrency.
  • Additional features such as obfuscated servers or multiple server connections to protect your activity.

Keeping this in mind, here are our recommendations for the top three VPNs for Myanmar.

1. NordVPN: Ideal for circumventing internet restrictions in Myanmar

Screenshot of NordVPN website homepage with logo added

NordVPN is a trusted VPN provider. Besides AES 256-bit encryption, it has several strong security features, including a private password manager and secured cloud storage. It has a strict no-logs policy and good customer service.

It offers obfuscated servers and Double VPN connections as well as dedicated IPs. It also has an extensive server network with more than 5,000 servers across 60 countries.

If you want to get a NordVPN subscription at a heavy discount, click the button below.

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2. Surfshark: An affordable VPN for use in Myanmar

Surfshark VPN provider website homepage with added logo to the corner

Surfshark has made quite a name for itself over the past few years. Surfshark is one of the most affordable VPNs in the industry right now, and it offers excellent value for your money. You get top-of-the-line AES-2560-GCM encryption, a strict no-logs policy, and a kill switch.

Surfshark also offers DNS leak protection, a dedicated NoBorders mode, MultiHop connectivity, and a choice of 3,200+ servers in 65 countries.

If you want an affordable VPN for use in Myanmar without compromising on security features, go with Surfshark.

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3. CyberGhost: The ideal VPN for Myanmar with countless servers

Screenshot of CyberGhost website page with logo

To round off our list, we recommend CyberGhost. It offers all the same security features as others like NordVPN and Surfshark, but it really excels when you factor in server choice.

CyberGhost has more than 6,800 servers spread across 90 countries. You can also choose from multiple protocols including OpenVPN and the considerably faster and leaner WireGuard.

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Other Censorship Circumvention Tools

Besides VPNs, people are looking at encrypted communication apps to protect themselves. Bridgify was reported to have been downloaded over a million times in the first few days following the coup.

Psiphon, a proxy service, reached 1.6 million users after the coup. It is used by people in similarly restricted regimes such as China and Iran. You can also choose from a list of free proxy servers, though this isn’t recommended for sensitive searches.

Another way to protect your privacy online in Myanmar is by using the Tor Network.


Final Thoughts

Censorship in Myanmar has been enforced with gross disproportionality and abhorrent human rights abuses.

Since the coup of February 2021, it is one of the most dangerous environments for the free press and for individual users of the internet. Speaking up against the military regime is punishable by law. Human rights violations against dissidents are common and political prisoners can face long sentences.

Because the ban on VPNs is strict and police forces have been known to confiscate people’s devices at random to check for censorship circumvention software, it’s important that you read up on the risks before connecting to a VPN.

However, access to information is a human right, especially during a civil war. If you do use a VPN service, make sure it’s a premium one with excellent encryption, such as NordVPN. Stay cautious and don’t reveal anything personal about yourself online.

Censorship in Myanmar: Frequently Asked Questions

Do you have any questions about censorship in Myanmar and how you can stay safe online? Check out our frequently asked questions below.

The Myanmar military forces block the internet from time to time. After the armed forces overthrew the democratic government in early 2021, they’ve shut down the internet multiple times, sometimes for days on end.

Moreover, the internet in Myanmar is heavily censored. This means you can’t access any websites or platforms the military government has not approved.

At the moment, it is unsafe to try and bypass Myanmar’s censorship. Surveillance has increased significantly during the last year. The government uses advanced spyware to keep the population under control. Using censorship tools, such as VPNs, can put you in prison for up to three years.

If you do want to get around censorship, you have to be extremely careful. Here’s what people might do to get around it:

  • Download a premium VPN with strong encryption, such as NordVPN.
  • Don’t reveal any personal information online.
  • Use encrypted messaging apps.

If you want to use a VPN in Myanmar, we recommend NordVPN. It is a secure VPN with a large server network that’s suitable for both beginners and expert users.

Be very cautious when using a VPN in Myanmar and keep in mind that circumvention tools are banned by law.

Censorship in Myanmar targets content that is considered a threat to state security. This includes political dissent, but also “immoral” content such as pornography, gambling, and content related to drugs or alcohol.

International Censorship & Security Journalist
Lauren Mak is an internal censorship and security-focused journalist with a keen eye for how technology affects society. With a background in International Relations and North American Studies, Lauren brings a unique perspective to the VPNOverview team. Lauren has a passion for helping others understand the importance of privacy, freedom, and internet safety and brings that passion to VPNOverview.