A recent order requiring anyone buying a SIM card to register their identity is a bid by Myanmar’s military regime to crack down on anti-junta activities by leveraging personal data, analysts and pro-democracy activists said Monday.
On Sept. 19, the Department of Post and Telecommunications under junta’s Ministry of Transport and Communications announced that it will cancel all SIM cards that haven’t been registered with a national ID card and confiscate any remaining balance on the cards.
The announcement said that junta authorities will check the registered data against Myanmar’s census data, and warned that any telecom operators or SIM card vendors found in violation of the new registration system will be subject to prosecution.
Speaking to RFA Burmese on Monday, observers and analysts said that the military regime is trying to weaken anti-junta movements by cutting off their support network.
“They say this kind of thing is for the sake of the people’s security, but it is obvious that they don’t care about that,” said one participant in a resistance movement, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal.
“This is just an attempt to facilitate finding, arresting and suppressing those engaged in resistance activities. It’s all about making it easier to identify the user of a specific phone SIM card if [authorities] receive information about activities associated with that number.”
The resistance member noted that the military has also tightened its control over routes used for transporting food supplies to fighters with anti-junta People’s Defense Force (PDF) paramilitary groups that it has been unable to defeat militarily.
A resident of Mandalay, Myanmar’s second city, told RFA that while the governments of many countries require that people register their identity before they can purchase a SIM card, the junta intends to use the information to crush those who challenge its rule.
“It is crucial that this information is only in the hands of credible organizations,” the resident said.
“There is no more security [under the junta]. Anything could happen if this data is in the wrong hands. At the least, it could lead to extortion. We have heard of scammers contacting cellphone users to say that their number is on a wanted list and demanding money to remove it.”
Control of telecom sector
Nearly a year after the military seized control in Myanmar in a Feb. 1, 2021 coup, Norway-based telecom operator Telenor shut down its operations in the country, citing growing challenges in terms of compliance with rules and regulations.
In the months following the coup, the junta had barred senior executives of major telecoms, including Telenor, from leaving or entering the country freely without obtaining special permission. And in July 2021, the junta reportedly ordered the firms to track the devices of political dissidents and report on their behavior.
A company named Shwe Byine Phyu, with reported ties to top junta leaders, has since stepped in to provide telecom services in Telenor’s place under the brand “Atom.”
Recently, Qatar-based telecom operator Oredoo, which is the third most popular brand in Myanmar, also sold its investments for U.S. $576 million to Singaporean company Nine Communications, reportedly owned by a Myanmar national who is close to the military.
Junta authorities have allegedly pressured the two telecom operators to install surveillance software in their equipment that will allow them to identify users and intercept their signals.
Cellphone users in Myanmar now have no choice but to use the services of telecom providers MPT and Mytel, which are officially controlled by the junta, or Oredoo and Atom, which are believed to be controlled by military-aligned entities.
An IT expert who spoke on condition of anonymity told RFA on Monday that the new SIM card regulations will give the junta control of cellphone users’ personal data and make it easier for authorities to make arrests.
“They can’t use surveillance on individual citizens, so they are trying to collect all information related to SIM cards,” he said.
“I assume they have ordered software to be installed to tap phone conversations and track cellphone users. This is very dangerous.”
Activists at risk
Myo Swe, the director general of Myanmar’s Department of Post and Communications, which is now under junta control, dismissed concerns about the new SIM card registration system.
“This is normal procedure. We are cross checking the cellphone users’ information with that in the immigration database,” he said.
“We are only making this announcement so that users can register more accurately. This process will eventually allow for smoother transactions using mobile finance and other services.”
Myo Swe refused to comment when asked by RFA whether the regulation had been introduced to deter resistance activities.
Sai Kyi Zin Soe, a political analyst, told RFA that the new registration system will put activists at risk, noting that the junta canceled hundreds of accounts for mobile money transaction services in September.
“This is extremely dangerous for those engaging in anti-junta activities,” he said.
In addition to shutting down accounts used for mobile money transactions, the junta has also blocked cellphone and telephone services and humanitarian assistance in Sagaing and Magway regions and Chin state, where its troops have encountered some of the strongest resistance to its rule.
According to data provided by telecom operators in Myanmar – a country of 54.4 million people – 20 million people own MPT SIM cards, 18 million own Atom SIM cards, 15 million own Oredoo SIM cards and 10 million own Mytel SIM cards.
Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung for RFA Burmese. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.