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How VPNs are helping fight online censorship in Myanmar

Myanmar was plunged into chaos in early 2021 after a military coup overthrew the elected government and seized control. Internet censorship and freedom of speech violations became the new reality for millions of Burmese, but VPNs can help activists and free speech advocates push back.

How VPNs are helping fight online censorship in Myanmar

How did it all start?

In February, the military detained elected members of the country’s ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). They also arrested other influential figures, including ministers, the president, opposition politicians, and activists. The new government claimed that the elections of November 2020 were fraudulent, and began a year-long state of emergency.

As the military took power, it suspended TV broadcasts, telephone lines, and internet access.

Following the coup, protests broke out across the country, with many innocent people killed and imprisoned. While the international community condemned the military’s actions and the ongoing violence, as of writing the situation in Myanmar is still tense.

Restricting the internet

Since the beginning of the coup nationwide restrictions on the internet were introduced, so people wouldn’t be able to organize protests, access news, and spread information.

Most internet users in Myanmar rely on mobile data and Wi-Fi, which is now regularly blocked or restricted. Hardwired internet access is still available, but is mostly used by banks, corporations, and regime officials.

The military stated that they had no plans to ease the restrictions as violence is allegedly being provoked online.

How are Internet companies involved?

Reports say that in the months before the coup, Myanmar’s telecom and internet service providers were forced to install spyware. This allowed authorities to view text messages, listen to calls, and track users’ location.

Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and other websites were blocked to suppress any critical voices. The Facebook ban is extremely important — the service is used by half of the country, as the primary means of communication. Anonymous sources inside the protest movement have said:

“The situation in Myanmar is getting worse day by day, the death toll is increasing. Many social media platforms, some useful websites for education, and Google services are banned and they still want to control all our activities. Moreover, the internet is cut off from 1am to 9am everyday.”

How a VPN helps you bypass censorship

Being able to communicate with the outside world is crucial during times of civil unrest. However, when the internet is restricted and major services banned, the entire country is left in the dark. This is where a VPN can help.

A VPN, or virtual private network, encrypts your traffic and hides your IP address. That means that nobody can see what you do online, what websites you visit, and where you’re located. Your ISP or your government would only be able to see that you’re using a VPN.

NordVPN has 6400 servers in 111 countries. Since Facebook is inaccessible in Myanmar, you can connect to a server in a country where it’s available and use it without any limits.

NordVPN even has obfuscated servers that hide the fact you’re using a VPN, benefiting users in restrictive environments.

NordVPN’s support for social causes

Everyone deserves the right to freedom of expression and secure internet access. And yet millions of Burmese live in terror with no opportunity to be heard. NordVPN provides free Emergency VPN assistance for human rights activists, NGOs, and journalists facing online censorship.

In 2020, NordVPN received 7,100 Emergency VPN requests from Iran, Hong Kong, Venezuela, and other countries known for heavy surveillance.

When the situation in Myanmar started to escalate, Emergency VPN requests were arriving every day from journalists, political activists, doctors, researchers, and others. Since the beginning of the coup, almost 10,000 Myanmar citizens have contacted us and asked for VPN access. According to testimony from a protester in Myanmar:

“The military is attacking press freedom in Myanmar. They revoked licenses of five local media companies and arrested journalists. We, Myanmar citizens, now have to take the role of journalists.”

A long battle awaits Myanmar to retrieve its rights and restore peace. NordVPN’s Emergency VPN program is just one small gesture to support this fight.

One year after the coup (Updated: 2022/02/01)

At the beginning of 2022, Myanmar’s military junta drafted a new cybersecurity law that would criminalize the use of VPNs. Anyone caught using a VPN would face jail time and fines of up to 5 million kyats ($2,800). Since many Burmese rely on VPNs to access social media platforms and banned content, the law could require both regular users and local businesses to significantly change their online behavior.

It’s been one year since the beginning of the coup, and things in Myanmar are not looking good for freedom of speech. The country has already lost $3 billion in revenue because of internet shutdowns. Myanmar’s military heavily controls the internet, and the new law will give it even more tools for censorship.

Digital right activists speculate that the new cybersecurity law may be passed in February.