Three years after the Myanmar military seized power in a violent coup, the junta is still carrying out brutal attacks against those resisting its authority. It also uses Internet shutdowns, surveillance, and disappearances to hide its atrocities and to maintain its grip on power.

In June 2022, the United Nations (UN) published a statement on Myanmar recognizing how “online access to information is a matter of life and death for many people”, who require access to forestall “indiscriminate attacks by the military” and to tackle an “economic and humanitarian crisis.”

The statement noted how Internet shutdowns “impede efforts by journalists, human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations” to monitor violations, as well as obstructing the UN human rights rapporteurs’ mandates which “depend on the collection of contemporaneous evidence of human rights abuses.”

A year and a half later, Access Now and local and international civil society actors issued a joint statement (31 January 2024) urging the international community to stand in solidarity with the people of Myanmar and to provide concrete resources to resist digital oppression. The statement said:

“The military’s complete control of Myanmar’s telecommunications network allows it to use Internet shutdowns and communications blackouts to facilitate vicious attacks and block humanitarian aid from reaching those who need it. In 2023, the military weaponised shutdowns and blackouts, especially in conflict zones where resistance is strong… This means that people seeking safe paths to flee the conflict are unable to communicate with each other, wounded people cannot seek medical assistance, and families are cut off from critical humanitarian support.”

In Gaza, in the wake of the International Court of Justice (ICJ)’s order for Israel to prevent genocide in Gaza, NGOs continue to document instances where Israeli soldiers openly mock Palestinians or brag about actions that may constitute war crimes.

In early February 2024, the Palestinian Digital Rights Coalition sent letters to Meta, X, Telegram, and TikTok condemning the proliferation of hate speech, dehumanizing words and images, and incitements to violence and genocide against the Palestinian people on their platforms.

Among other issues, the letter specifically called attention to the ICJ’s reference to UN concern over “discernibly genocidal and dehumanizing rhetoric coming from senior Israeli government officials, as well as some professional groups and public figures.” Many such statements by senior Israeli officials have been posted on social media platforms.

The situation in Gaza has become emblematic of how, in a conflict situation, reliable communication and trustworthy information constitute a form of humanitarian aid that is as vital as water, food, and medicine. Dictators know this and take steps to shut down communication infrastructures.

The free press is doing a magnificent job of telling the world about what is happening in Gaza, Ukraine, Myanmar, and elsewhere. Yet social media platforms are still failing to counter the weaponization of digital communications and thereby uphold people’s right to communicate. Such intransigeance plays into the hands of governments whose sole aim is tyranny and oppression.

Photo: February 7, 2021, Bangkok, Thailand, NLD supporters protest against the military in Myanmar. Credit: Kan Sangton/Shutterstock