Technology has emerged as a crucial factor in political struggles around the world, playing an outsized role in helping regimes maintain power. A recent manifestation of this dynamic has emerged in Myanmar, where the military, known as the Tatmadaw, seized power in a coup in February. For its leaders, a key component to sustaining the coup is to prevent soldier desertions. To that end, they are using digital tools to spread online propaganda to strengthen soldiers’ resolve, to identify dissent in the ranks, and to sequester troops from the outside world.
An insular and paranoid organization since its founding, the Tatmadaw has always prioritized building an isolated and segregated information ecosystem in order to enforce organizational unity among its members. Senior operatives skilled in psychological warfare routinely spread disinformation and conspiracy theories in Facebook groups frequented by soldiers. Even before the military coup, generals had regularly used Facebook to incite ethnic violence against Muslim Rohingya. The Tatmadaw’s viral disinformation campaigns and online coordination sparked mass killings and genocide against the group. More recent disinformation campaigns have portrayed opposition groups protesting the military takeover as a “Muslim cabal” attempting to destroy the Buddhist faith or as George Soros-backed Westerners aiming to undermine the country. Interviews reveal that this onslaught of propaganda has led most soldiers to believe that their country will crumble without their intervention. Online disinformation in Myanmar is so pervasive that Facebook announced it was shutting down Tatmadaw news pages and leader accounts due to the proliferation of false and inciting material.
But the Tatmadaw’s digital strategy is not limited to spreading disinformation. Another tactic is the deployment of surveillance technology. Soldiers and their families live in military compounds, allowing their superiors to scrutinize their every move. Soldiers’ online activities are under constant surveillance by overseers, who monitor Facebook groups for any sign of dissent. In combination with the Safe City technology—which tracks individuals’ movements—installed by Huawei in the capital, Naypyidaw, these digital tactics allow officers to identify and root out dissent, and they exert a chilling effect on all soldiers.
The Tatmadaw also deploys internet shutdowns to restrict soldiers’ online access. While shutdowns are used by regimes around the world to deprive protesters of tools to organize and share information with the outside world, reporting suggests that the Tatmadaw’s internet stoppages have soldiers in mind. In particular, the blackouts are designed to stop them from questioning orders, planning defections, or witnessing abuses committed by fellow soldiers. Without the internet, soldiers have been forced to rely upon their commanders and state media as gatekeepers for information.
However, despite a decades-long investment in building a closed digital environment, the Tatmadaw is far from infallible, in part because Myanmar lacks the resources of more advanced digitally authoritarian nations such as China. Civil society has had success in engaging the Tatmadaw in a game of technological cat and mouse. Civilians have developed significant technical skills over the past decade and are able to nimbly adapt to internet restrictions, using their grassroots digital capabilities to build solidarity with other protest movements in Southeast Asia and to even to doxx Tatmadaw members and their families. However, while social media appears to have influenced the few soldiers who have deserted, meaningful defections have yet to occur, showcasing the powerful combination of online indoctrination, surveillance, and shutdowns.
While analyses of digital repression frequently focus on state usage of technology to suppress citizens and maintain power, the coup in Myanmar presents a unique example of a military using digitally repressive techniques to preserve organizational cohesion. The Tatmadaw case offers insights into the lengths to which militaries in the digital era may go to deter defections and withstand pressure from outside actors.