Myanmar’s growing doxxing problem

More than two years ago, as Myanmar’s coup unfolded, open-source content provided unique insight into what was happening in the country and the battlelines that were soon to emerge. Live from a roundabout in the capital of Naypyidaw, exercise instructor Khing Hnin Wai unwittingly captured and disseminated live footage of the coup taking place via Facebook. For a brief period, images of Khing Hnin Wai dancing in front of a military convoy became symbolic of Myanmar’s struggle to maintain democracy.

Here at Myanmar Witness, we use user-generated, openly available content like this to identify, verify and report on events across Myanmar involving abuses of human rights and contraventions of international law. We let the evidence speak for itself when we publish the results of our investigations, collaborate with media and share evidence with justice and accountability mechanisms.

Content we examine is rarely as innocuous as Khing Hnin Wai‘s video. Since our inception as one of the witness projects at the Centre for Information Resilience, we have used imagery from social media, geospatial providers, and other forms of ‘open’ sources to contribute towards accountability for crimes being committed. These include horrific beheadings, the widespread intentional use of fire, the impact of the conflict on sites with special protections, and at a scale and sophistication beyond what we see in our other witness projects — hate speech and doxxing.

Doxxing exposes the private information of individuals, such as addresses, phone numbers and more, without their consent. In Myanmar it is done with the intent to intimidate, spread fear and suppress voices. Doxxing has become the digital manifestation of the real-world violence faced by thousands of people in Myanmar everyday. Our findings have repeatedly shown that in Myanmar, the internet is being used as a weapon – and this is steeped in history. Facebook was widely used as a vehicle for the promotion of hate speech and incitement to violence during the Rohingya crisis, which led to the social media company admitting failings in the way it handled content on its platform.

In January this year, following an investigation into online abuse against Burmese women, we released our Digital Battlegrounds report, which showed how the situation is worsening. Its findings were damning: Facebook and Telegram were hosting politically-motivated abuse targeted at Burmese women. Abuse included real-world threats of violence, gendered hate speech and sexually violent commentary. The source of this content was clear – pro-Myanmar Military accounts and users.

To their credit, and in response to Myanmar Witness and BBC outreach, both Meta and Telegram removed a large amount of content which violated their respective terms of service. However, in the case of Telegram, soon after some accounts were removed or suspended, new ones emerged to take their place. Identifying online abusers and their violent content continues to be painstaking and tedious work.

The online information environment in Myanmar has been, and continues to be, part of the conflict. In the wake of an airstrike by the Myanmar Air Force against Pa Zi Gyi village in April 2023, the darkness of Myanmar’s digital conflict resurfaced. With some media reporting more than 160 dead it was one of the worst airstrikes seen in Myanmar and led to an outpouring of domestic and international sympathy and condemnation.

In Myanmar, a ‘black profile’ campaign emerged online, mourning the victims of the attack. Today’s report by Myanmar Witness investigators shows just how the military regime retaliated with a brutal crackdown — online and offline — against those who dared to show sympathy. For engaging in non-violent online protest, individuals were met with arrests, threats and physical violence. Both their digital and real-world voices were silenced.

Pro-junta groups doxxed those who protested digitally as online sympathy grew in the wake of the airstrike. We found a link: at least 11 of the 20 individuals who were doxxed were then arrested for their activities on Facebook within days of being exposed by pro-junta Telegram channels. They were among a total of 69 people who were arrested within three weeks of the airstrike. In the vast majority of cases, social media activity was the stated reason for their arrest by the authorities.

Some months following their arrest, five individuals who were influential and well-known — a former journalist and several celebrities — were released. Multiple pro-junta Telegram channels hinted at their release before it occurred, indicating information sharing, if not coordination, between these channels and the military authorities. The fate of the more than 60 others detained in the same period remains unclear. Our research only scratches the surface of the vicious digital and physical conflict in Myanmar, and there are no signs of it abating.

While those who incite and intimidate online are ultimately responsible, inadequate moderation of content by social media platforms is part of the problem, as is the protracted war in Myanmar which recycles and reinforces the online violence. While others go online to perpetuate conflict, we at Myanmar Witness will continue to use digital content to identify, verify and report on the conflict, and to ensure that those at risk of being silenced have their voices heard.

Shortlists announced for the 2023 Freedom of Expression Awards

For the last 22 years Index on Censorship has been proud to host the annual Freedom of Expression Awards. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the brave artists, journalists and campaigners from around the world who fight for freedom of expression in the most challenging of circumstances. There are some truly incredible nominees for the awards this year, who more than ever, are challenging the repressive regimes they live under to fight for the rights of ordinary people.

2023 has seen the continuation of Russia’s war on Ukraine with its horrific consequences for the people of Ukraine and the severe repression for those speaking out against the war in Russia. The CCP in China continues to repress journalists, particularly those who attempt to uncover the crimes against the Uyghur people, and activists and protesters for women’s rights in Iran and Afghanistan face vicious attacks from the authorities.

The shortlisted candidates for the Arts award are Visual Rebellion, a platform for sharing the work of photographers, filmmakers, and artists documenting the protests in Myanmar; Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi, who sings about injustice and the abuse of civil society by the authorities, for which he has been imprisoned; and Ukrainians, curator Maria Lanko and artist Pavlo Makov, who have worked to protect Ukrainian art in the face of Russian war crimes.

The shortlisted candidates for the Campaigning award are Matiullah Wesa from Afghanistan who has worked to ensure all children, but especially girls, have access to education and educational materials; Russian student Olesya Krivtsova who has publicly opposed Russia’s war on Ukraine and has fled the country to avoid up to 10 years’ imprisonment; the Xinjiang Victim’s Database, which records the incarceration and persecution of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang province; and the Africa Human Rights Network which works to support and protect human rights defenders across the Great Lakes region of Africa.

And the shortlisted candidates for the Journalism award are Bilan Media, Somalia’s first women-only media organisation and newsroom; Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of the Indian fact-checking platform Alt News which has led to threats after challenging misinformation; and Afghan Mortaza Behboudi, in exile in France, who continues to travel to Afghanistan every month to work with different media outlets to ensure the voices of Afghans are heard.

The Freedom of Expression Awards are a time to remind ourselves of the importance of freedom of expression and to commit ourselves to protecting our own freedom of expression. It is easily lost but hard fought for. We must not forget that.

Nominees for the 2023 Freedom of Expression Awards – Arts

Visual Rebellion (Myanmar)

Visual Rebellion was established in December 2021 as a platform to showcase and support the edited work of journalists, filmmakers and artists across post-coup Myanmar.

Launched on International Human Rights day on 1 December 2021 by a team led by Nadja Houben (Human Rights in the Picture foundation) and Laure Siegel (Mediapart), Visual Rebellion is a platform to showcase and support the edited work of journalists, filmmakers and artists across post-coup Myanmar. The activities of Visual Rebellion consist mainly of a free public information service on what is happening in Myanmar and in Thailand, continuing education for their members in English, Thai and Burmese language on a range of topics including cybersecurity, investigations, photojournalism, as well as coordinating the production of photo exhibitions, documentary screenings and book publications to finance their studies or visas.

Toomaj Salehi (Iran)

Toomaj Salehi is an Iranian rapper who has been singing about injustice and abuses by the Iranian authorities against civil society. In 2022, during the ongoing protests, he was arrested and charged for his work.

Salehi is a well-known Iranian hip-hop artist who has released protest songs including Mousehole, Turkmenchay and Pomegranate. Many of his songs explicitly reference the human rights situation in Iran, as well as threats to civil society. This has led him to being targeted by the authorities, long before his recent detention.

Following the release of Mousehole, Toomaj was arrested in the middle of the night on 12 September 2021. He was charged with "spreading propaganda against the state," but after more than a week he was released on bail. In January 2022, he was sentenced to six months in prison but was released on a suspended sentence in February. He later appeared in front of the prison where he had been imprisoned as part of a music video for a song written in memory of the victims of Aban.

Due to Toomaj’s support of the the protests that erupted after the killing of Mahsa Amini while in custody, he was violently taken into custody on 30 October 2022. In November, Iran's judiciary charged Salehi with a number of crimes, including spreading "corruption on Earth," a charge that could see him sentenced to death, as well as charges that each carry 1-10 years of imprisonment: “propaganda against the state,” “formation and management of illegal groups with the aim of undermining national security,” “collaboration with hostile governments,” and “spreading lies and inciting violence through cyberspace and encouraging individuals to commit violent acts.”  While in detention, state media published a video purporting to show Salehi blindfolded, with bruising on his face, apologising for his words. Family members and human rights organisations have accused the authorities of torturing Salehi in prison to force him to make a false confession.

In July 2023, Toomaj was sentenced to over 6 years in prison for “corruption on earth”, as well as being banned from leaving Iran for 2 years. He is also banned from preparing, singing and producing music for 2 years. It has also been reported that he has been acquitted of two other charges - “insulting the supreme leader” & “communicating with hostile governments”.

Maria Lanko and Pavlo Makov (Ukraine)

In the midst of Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine, the artist and curator worked to secure and transport Ukrainian art out of the warzone to ensure it could be protected and presented as part of the Venice Biennale. 

Maria Lanko (right) was a co-curator of Kyiv-based gallery, The Naked Room, who was selected to co-curate the Ukrainian national pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale. The piece selected to represent Ukraine was entitled ”Fountain of Exhaustion” by artist Pavlo Makov (left), which is a kinetic sculpture consisting of 78 bronze funnels, arranged in the form of a pyramid. The water poured into the top funnel divides into two streams, feeding the funnels below. “Only a few drops reach the bottom, symbolizing exhaustion on a personal and global level,” the curators said in a press release.

On the evening of 24 February 2022, the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, Lanko packed the installation into her car and she drove, heading for Venice. The journey took three weeks, after taking a week just to make it to the border between Ukraine and Romania. Due to Maria’s decision, the piece was able to be presented at the Biennale to enable Ukrainian art to be seen in this unique and important showcase of international art. The importance of this was highlighted by Lanko in an interview with Deutsche Welle: “When the sheer right to existence for our culture is being challenged by Russia, it is crucial to demonstrate our achievements to the world".

Don’t give up on Myanmar

There is a common misconception, even held by media editors, that Myanmar is just a military country now and that’s the end of its story. And yet this couldn’t be further from the truth, says Oliver Slow. The journalist, who lived in Myanmar between 2012 and 2020, tells Index that people in Myanmar have "got a taste of democracy". "They want to at least have a free choice in their matters, they don’t want to be controlled by this very violent military, they want to have leaders who they have chosen for themselves," he says. Slow is talking to Index in light of his newly released book Return of the Junta: Why Myanmar's military must go back to the barracks, an excerpt of which is featured below. For Slow, getting across this message is one of his hopes for the book. As he says, he wants everyone “to not give up on Myanmar, to understand that there is a vibrant future there." Return of the Junta blends first-hand accounts with wider research into the background of the military. The result is an accessible, informed read on the 2021 coup d'état, and ultimately on this very complex country. While there are lighter moments in the book, it is not a sugar-coated retelling. Struggle for basic rights – nay survival – is a constant and unifying thread. Early on Slow writes about how doctors have been a primary target of repression, persecuted in large part because they were central to the civil disobedience movement that formed in the immediate aftermath of the coup. "That angered the regime and they decided essentially that they would punish doctors in many ways," Slow tells Index. "I remember from the time some pretty horrendous videos of soldiers just beating doctors in the streets." He says that when a third wave of Covid hit a few months after the coup the authorities would call doctors out to what they described as bad cases of Covid only to then arrest them. Slow says "it speaks to the violence of the Myanmar military that doctors were specifically targeted" and shows "their lack of respect for international norms". Such violence against doctors not only punishes them, it punishes the population more broadly. Two years on hospitals are in a parlous state in Myanmar. Doctors have fled. "There is this feeling that they don’t want to work for any institution which aligns with the military," says Slow. A friend of Slow’s who recently visited a hospital in central Yangon described the conditions as “horrendous”. Slow – who wouldn’t return to Myanmar right now because it would be too risky – finds it tougher and tougher to communicate with people there. "Most of my contacts have left because they’re journalists." Instead Slow relies on secure messaging apps to reach people on the ground. According to Slow the main resistance is in the form of armed militia in the border areas. Many of the people in these militia were university students in 2021 and were enraged over the disappearance of their promising future. He says these militia are making some advances. Of course it’s not just in the border regions that protest exists. On the anniversary of the coup this year Twitter was filled with images of a silent protest - streets of towns and cities across Myanmar were empty as people stayed at home to make a statement. There are also flash protests, very short protests where people “walk through the streets, do a photo, it goes on social media, they’re usually wearing a mask (for obvious reasons) and then they disband." These anecdotes, combined with rising discontent over the military, give Slow hope. "Can the military ever rule again in that country with any legitimacy? It’s a resounding no. Whether that means the resistance will win is a different matter as the military has made itself powerful over 50-60 years. The resistance is up against a pretty monumental machine," he says before adding: "But I do see a time at some point in the future where the military will be defeated or removed from power.”

Excerpt from Return of the Junta

Despite the increased investment, even in pre-coup Myanmar life was still incredibly difficult for most teachers, especially those living in rural areas. Myat Kyaw Thein is a secondary school teacher close to the town of Monywa, in central Myanmar. “We have so many things to worry about as teachers, especially our safety and salary,” said Myat Kyaw Thein, who told me in an interview conducted before the coup that he earned the equivalent of about US$150 per month. “It’s not enough, especially when you compare it with other countries in Southeast Asia. No wonder so many people leave teaching to go to better paying jobs.” “It’s a rotten salary, but whenever we raise it with authorities, they tell us it’s because of the low budget for education. Well, if you want to improve the education in this country, then increase the budget,” he said. A similar story was told by a teacher in a remote village of Myanmar’s Nagaland. The teacher had worked at a school in her local village for more than ten years, and although the resources had improved in recent years, life was still difficult for her and her colleagues. She told me they often used their own money to provide things such as pens and books for their students. “It’s difficult for us because we don’t have much salary, and sometimes have to use our family’s [money],” she said. “But then we want [the students] to be happy and to come to school. That’s why we provide these things for them.” Even before the coup, it was clear that those tasked with overhauling Myanmar’s education system had an unenviable task ahead of them, including bringing together the dozens of different stakeholders – national and foreign – involved in such a monumental task and forming a cohesive strategy that pleases everyone. Even what some may regard as the successes of the past decade in terms of reforms to education did not please everyone. For example, a recognition by the government about the need to switch from a teacher to a child-centred approach was a welcome step for those hoping to encourage more critical thinking, but parents who have only ever been exposed to the former their entire lives were understandably sceptical. ‘When a parent passes a school and doesn’t hear students chanting in unison what the teacher has written on the board, they think, ‘What’s going on in there? They aren’t learning’”, said an educator involved in the reforms. Since the coup, however, much of the progress made over the last decade or so in Myanmar’s education sector has gone swiftly into reverse. With many teachers refusing to work under this junta, and parents not wanting to send their children to schools – either due to legitimate security concerns or because they don’t want them taught under this regime – the SAC has resorted to many of the tactics of past military juntas to try and portray an image of normalcy in schools and universities. Like in 1962 and 1988 it has closed universities and fired teachers not supportive of the coup. Thousands of teachers have been sacked, and hundreds jailed, for participating in the civil disobedience movement against the junta. To fill these teaching ranks, the military-controlled education ministry has encouraged applicants with lower qualifications to apply for jobs, and even been accused of dressing up army wives and female members of pro-military organizations in teachers’ uniforms and transporting them to schools. Like under the SLORC government [the military State Law and Order Restoration Council that ruled the country between 1988 and 1997], teachers have been sent on month-long ‘refresher courses’ where they are urged to ‘pay attention to the preservation of Myanmar culture and traditions’ as well as ‘speak and behave respectfully and to be disciplined’, almost certainly euphemisms to discourage teachers from imbibing any form of revolutionary thinking into their students. Before the coup, despite some bumps, the general trajectory of the education system in Myanmar was on a positive path. The changes were also made largely free of the military’s sphere of influence, an indication of the potential Myanmar has as a whole if the Tatmadaw’s own interests are not directly threatened. Like almost everything in Myanmar, however, the 2021 coup has created considerable concerns about what happens next. If the current situation continues, and the military manages to maintain an albeit loose grip on power, it is the next generation of young people in Myanmar, and others beyond that, who will be the ones to suffer the most, through a lack of investment, or care, in their education, a lack of capabilities to think critically and problem solve, and a lack of skills to prepare them for the working world. This could well manifest, as it has in the past, of creating a general feeling among the population that Myanmar’s remarkable diversity is something to be feared, not celebrated. Return of the Junta was published by Bloomsbury in January 2023. Click here for more information on the book.