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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar junta builds 'walled garden' of internet services

Banking apps go back online but the regime maintains its authoritative grip

The junta has chosen a path that minimizes the impact of its internet restrictions while allowing it to maintain tight control on the flow of information. (Source photos by Reuters)

YANGON -- Myanmar's junta has relaxed internet restrictions on selected business apps, signaling the return of an old censorship board that this time will control who can access what on their digital devices.

Some telcos have enabled internet access to banking and business mobile applications. Consumers using service providers such as state-run MPT can now access Office 365 email and messaging applications run by Microsoft as well as local banking applications. The junta has also recently lifted the nightly internet blackout for fiber-to-the-home providers.

"What we are seeing is essentially the re-establishment of the old censorship board, but for the internet space this time," said Oliver Spencer, legal adviser to digital rights group Free Expression Myanmar, referring to a body that inspected and censored news publications before being disbanded by President Thein Sein in 2012 as part of his political reforms. "It empowers the junta to control the internet, offering businesses, media and social platforms access only if they abide by military diktat.

"For the banks and businesses, it's short-term benefits and long-term costs."

Spencer warned that the junta can "take down internet access of companies or banks at whim." Businesses have been feeling the heat from the regime, with tycoons, bank staffers and supermarket employees threatened or detained by the security forces in recent days.

According to telecom industry representatives who asked for anonymity, the relaxation came upon instructions from the authorities, and reconnections began during the weekend.

The decision indicates the junta might change its approach to regulating the internet. In recent years, the authorities could block individual websites; now they are set up to allow access only to platforms they approve.

People wait to withdraw cash on April 27 in Yangon, Myanmar. The junta recently allowed banking apps to go back online.

The "whitelist" method, which opens connections only to specific IP addresses, is mainly designed to facilitate services necessary for banking operations. The list of approved apps has not been made public.

Since the coup on Feb. 1, the regime has, at various points, imposed total blackouts and a nightly internet ban, blocked mobile and wireless services, and censored social media platforms and websites. Going dark has severely hurt businesses and helped push the economy toward collapse, with service providers who rely on digital platforms paralyzed and local banks struggling to carry out digital transactions.

Investors have repeatedly complained. On March 19, all foreign chambers of commerce representing Western businesses, except the British and Australian chambers, jointly condemned the military's atrocities and repeated their calls for unrestricted information access and a free flow of information. The Australian and British chambers joined the chorus on March 30.

The move reflects that the junta is "at least listening to their own people," said a senior internet service industry source, referring to local banks and big businesses disrupted by the internet restrictions.

Selectively allowing business apps to operate is intended to minimize the impact on commerce while allowing the junta to retain a firm grip on communications and information access. The move could ease pressure on the junta to resume internet services, the source added, calling it "the Chinese and North Korean way" of regulating cyberspace.

"Are they trying to build a 'Walled Garden of the Internet?'" the source wondered.

Said Vicky Bowman, Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business director: "Obviously telecom operators want users to have full internet access, and not just to a limited number of apps, otherwise the Myanmar people are denied their rights. I would expect the companies with a commitment to respect for human rights to continue to press the government for a lifting of all restrictions."

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