Governments worldwide continue to deploy network disruptions and internet shutdowns to forestall election losses, quell mass protests, cut off conflict areas from the outside world, or reinforce military coups.
Today, Myanmar is among the most censored countries in the world. Freedom House categorizes it as ‘not free‘ with a score of 9 out of 100 on the Global Freedom Index. Sadly, the country also scores 17 out of 100 on internet freedom. These statistics represent the increasing online censorship in Myanmar.
The region got its first internet connection in the year 2000. However, the military regime limited and controlled internet access by different means, including laws and regulations with heavy punishment for violators. Initially, there was relative media freedom between 2012 and 2020, even reaching a rank of 20 in the Press Freedom Index. However, this collapsed when the military junta overthrew the democratically-elected government in February 2021.
Consequently, the world witnessed the worst restrictions on free internet use in Myanmar today. The military junta shut down the internet, took control of the telecommunication infrastructure, blocked social media platforms, and increased intrusive surveillance to maintain power and crush dissent.
Thankfully, Myanmar citizens can still evade this censorship and access the internet anonymously. Although the military government bans it, the most effective method is a virtual private network (VPN). This essential online tool enables regular civilians, journalists, and civil society groups to protect their identities online.
In this article, we will look at the censorship situation in Myanmar and the best VPNs to evade the restrictions.
Military censorship: Limitation to Freedom of Speech
The National League for Democracy (NLD) won the November 2020 parliamentary elections, defeating the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). However, the military claimed the election was fraudulent and overthrew the civilian government. They then declared a state of emergency that is ongoing.
A protest movement known as Civil Disobedience Movement is spreading after the imprisonment of NLD leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi. Sadly, the Myanmar military junta continues to enforce strict censorship and violate human rights to respond to opposition forces.
Freedom of the press
Myanmar’s (formerly Burma) post-independence constitution grants freedom of expression, and there was relative freedom of the press in the 1950s.
There was a coup d’état in 1962. Since then, the government remained under direct or indirect military control until 2011. After that, the country enjoyed a period of liberalization between 2011 and 2021 with relatively relaxed censorship laws. However, matters became worse after the February 2021 military coup, and now the country has one of the most suppressed press freedom. The Committee to Protect Journalists claim Myanmar is among the worst jailers of journalists.
The region obliges the media to portray the military government positively, failure to which attracts severe punishment. Usually, journalists face public attacks, torture, imprisonment, and forcible disappearances. For example, Chan Bu, a journalist at The 74 Media group, was denied food and sleep, tortured, and even threatened with murder for not answering questions about her company. She is among the many journalists going through hardships in the country.
A decade ago, only a few Myanmar residents could afford mobile phones and the internet, and most people were unaware of mobile connections. However, about 35% of the population had internet access in 2020, a complete contrast to 2011, when the penetration rate was less than 1%.
Despite the increased internet usage, the country has strict censorship legislation, and people often face prosecution. For example, during the military coup, over 86 journalists were charged for online publications between February 2021 and June 2021.
Moreover, the military has added many social media influencers, bloggers, and tech entrepreneurs to a blacklist database. At the initial stages of the coup, the military repeatedly switched off the internet to control the narrative and stop the spread of information. In particular, it blocked Facebook from stopping the organization and mobilization of protestors.