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Junta threatens prison terms for unregistered SIM card users

Myanmar’s junta-controlled Ministry of Transport and Communications is threatening mobile phone service sellers and users with six months in prison if they don’t register, or fraudulently register, SIM cards, state controlled newspapers said Wednesday.

A ministry statement carried by the media, citing Section 72 of the telecommunications law, told users they needed to submit their personal information to register the cards.

One Yangon resident told Radio Free Asia he had mixed feelings about the announcement.

“This kind of systematic registration is good under normal circumstances but security has become a concern following the [Feb. 2021] military coup,” said the person, who declined to give his name for security reasons.

A technology expert who also requested anonymity said the junta could use artificial intelligence to eavesdrop on calls and texts in order to spot anti-junta conversations.

Just over a year ago, the Department of Post and Telecommunications under the junta’s Ministry of Transport and Communications said it would cancel all SIM cards that hadn’t been registered with a national ID card and confiscate any remaining balance on the cards.

The ministry said all SIM cards must be registered by Jan. 31, 2023.

Although the practice is common in many countries, critics say Myanmar’s military intends to use identity registration as a way to crack down on pro-democracy activists and the People’s Defense Forces.

In July 2021, the junta reportedly told major mobile operators to track the devices of dissidents and report on their behavior. The move prompted Norway’s Telenor to abandon its Myanmar operations a few months later.

A company named Shwe Byine Phyu, with reported ties to top junta leaders, stepped in to provide telecom services in Telenor’s place under the “Atom” brand.

Last year, Qatar-based telecom operator Oredoo, which is the third most popular brand in Myanmar, sold its investments for US$576 million to Singapore’s Nine Communications, reportedly owned by a Myanmar national close to the military.

The other two operators have even closer military ties.

Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) came entirely under the junta’s control following the 2021 coup.

Mytel is a joint venture between the Myanmar military and Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense.

Aung Pyae Sone, son of junta leader Min Aung Hlaing, holds Mytel shares.

According to the list of telecommunications operators in 2021, there were 20 million Myanmar Posts and Telecommunication (MPT)  SIM users, 18 million Atom users, 15 million Ooredoo users and 10 million Mytel users.

Translated by RFA Burmese. Edited by Mike Firn and Elaine Chan.