Meet the Censored: Myanmar Writer Zaw Moe Shinn

A military junta shuts down the Internet every night, while plotting by day to impose draconian controls over dissent. A warning from Myanmar

Not long ago, TK was contacted by a young writer from the beleaguered country of Myanmar, named Zaw Moe Shinn. Zaw, who is well known in his country for translating English books into Burmese, had just called a mutual acquaintance from the capital city of Naypyitaw, where there were over 10,000 protesters on the streets at the time.

The country had just gone through a military coup, and Zaw wanted to share the unique story of Internet censorship that flowed from that event. We arranged to interview him for “Meet the Censored.”

Zaw’s is a little different from the other tales in this space, as it primarily involves a state authority, not oligopolistic tech firms. But it’s horrifying all the same, and holds some potent warnings for those who haven’t thought through the worst-case scenarios for Internet crackdowns.

In order to understand the context of our interview with the young writer and activist, some background is required.

On February 1st, military authorities in Myanmar overthrew the civilian government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The army, led by General Min Aung Hlaing, detained Suu Kyi on the grounds that her election was “marred by fraud,” and declared a one-year state of emergency.

Within hours after seizing power, the new “emergency” government cut the Internet, stalling information flow while the organs of the state were taken over. This temporary measure soon became a regular feature, as the government soon began imposing regular nightly blackouts of the Internet. As reported in Al Jazeera yesterday:

Every night for more than two weeks, the military has imposed an internet blackout from 1:00 a.m to 9:00 a.m. across the country. At the same time, it has also moved to grant itself sweeping powers to censor and arrest online dissenters. The regime has also banned access to websites, including popular social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The blackouts have inspired the spread of many rumors, including a popular theory that the nightly blackouts involve an attempt at “installing new tech,” perhaps with more tamper-proof controls on speech and dissent. Meanwhile, the new government has drafted a new Cybersecurity Bill, along with proposals for a series of changes to its Electronic Transactions Law.

Human Rights Watch was one of many international organizations to denounce the proposals, which would require online service providers to make a broad range of user data available to the military junta, while also blocking or removing several categories of information, including, “misinformation and disinformation,” “causing hate,” and “disrupting unity, stabilization, and peace.”

The Chambers of Commerce offices of eight countries, including ones representing the United States, Germany, and the U.K., signed a statement condemning the proposals:

Investors understand the importance of a robust cybersecurity framework and creating a secure digital environment for all, however… As currently drafted, it requires internet service providers to disclose user information to the authorities at any point in time and without justifiable reasons or an authorization from an independent judicial body of competent jurisdiction…

Note the phrase “without justifiable reasons.” The faraway Myanmar junta naturally attracts the opprobrium of offices representing Western powers with more established democratic traditions. But the type of arrangement the Myanmar army is proposing to enact out in the open already exists in secret in the United States, where we learned in a series of episodes (including via the whistleblower Edward Snowden) about “ongoing, daily” collaboration between agencies like the NSA and companies like AT&T, Verizon, and others.

The new junta’s authoritarian script should sound familiar. It combines a declared political emergency with professed concern for stemming misinformation, hate speech, and incitement, providing the rationale for turbocharged surveillance authority.

Reported plans to form an official body that would arbitrate truth as part of efforts to prosecute and jail those guilty of spreading “false information” look to be an obvious Orwellian canard. It should strike American readers how similar the language used by dictatorial generals and Western advocates for increased speech control sounds. Calls for censorship always come in the context of a proclaimed political emergency, and are always framed as being in the interest of protecting the citizenry from falsehood, hate speech, or political violence — the only difference is, it’s more obviously a lie in some contexts, versus others.

There is a lot of complicated background to this story, from the army’s repression of the Rohinga Muslim minority to the Suu Kyi government’s own fall from grace — Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, faced calls to strip her of the award after criticism of her role in the Rohinga massacres. Most of the story Zaw told to TK’s Emily Bivens, however, is self-explanatory:

TK: Can you describe the feeling that day, February 1?

ZMS: It was shocking and hopeless, the strongest hopeless feeling in my life. Since I was sixteen, I’ve had a lot of difficulties in my life. But February 1st was the hardest one. I felt hopeless, like “Oh, my life has gone.” We all know what will happen to us if we live under that military leadership.

It's obviously annoying to hear that they’re lying again and again. They said they will hold an election in a year. Yes, they might do that, but their main, idea is to get rid of Suu Kyi’s party, to get rid of that party completely. And the [National League for Democracy] won't be able to participate in the next election, that is the first thing that we want. That's why they are doing everything they can, like saying there’s been voter fraud, and they don't have proof. They are completely, shamelessly lying to the people of Myanmar, and to the international communities. 

TK: Do you worry about being arrested yourself? 

ZMS: Every day. Yeah. I could be arrested anytime, because I’m a sort of famous person on Facebook. I'm a writer myself, and people know me. And I’m still writing things against the military coup on Facebook. And I know I could be arrested anytime, but I can’t just keep silent. Because I wouldn't be able to live with that guilty feeling. So I speak out. And I know I could be arrested at any time.

TK: Is Facebook available in Myanmar?

ZMS: So far it is blocked, but people use it with VPN. It’s still blocked. The internet has some other websites blocked by the military. And we’re using Facebook with VPN, and every night, they cut off the internet. You know that, right, every night they cut off the internet from 1:00 a.m to 9:00 a.m… I think it’s been 20 days in a row or something, I'm not sure, but they've been consistently cutting off the internet. And then, you know, the internet is one of the few weapons that we have. We can go live on Facebook and people can see what we are facing and if they are, if they are around they can come to help. And so they take away our rights to use the internet freely.

TK: When did you become a political commentator?

ZMS: I’ve been writing political-related things for two years now, on Facebook. I didn’t have any problem. I wasn't afraid, or thinking I could be arrested any time before that coup, because I could write freely on Facebook, and I didn't know this coup would happen. But I thought that people, especially young people, need to know more about politics. What happened in the past 15 years is why our education system, has become the worst in Asia, maybe in the world. So, we’ve became more ignorant of the politics, and we’re afraid to talk about it.

My dad actually called me once and said, “If you want to keep writing those freaking political things, don't contact me again. Don’t call me again.”

TK: So, it’s created family strife for you? 

ZMS: Older people [here] are afraid to talk about politics.

TK: Are you saying the older people are afraid, or are they just more comfortable with the change in regime?

ZMS: I think the fear comes first. And, you know, the comfortability comes next… Maybe they are really afraid, because they know how brutal the military is, you know, they have killed a lot of people in the past. Maybe they’re afraid their sons and daughters will be killed in this revolution.

The parents don't want to let their children go out and protest, but the good thing about this younger generation is they don't care because they have tasted democracy. It’s really free and it's good and you can do whatever you want. But for this whole February, it was like hell for them. Internet censorship, they had never heard of that… Internet censorship and everything… that makes them disgusted. They might not have a lot of knowledge about political things in the past, but they know what is right and what is wrong.

That's why they are protesting going out every day, knowing that they could be shot.

Those interested in following Zaw Moe Shinn can follow him on Twitter at @zawmoeshinn.