The generals, who staged a coup a month ago, are now back in charge with a far more sophisticated arsenal at their disposal: Israeli-made surveillance drones, European iPhone cracking devices and American software that can hack into computers and vacuum up their contents.
Some of this technology, including satellite and telecommunications upgrades, helped people in Myanmar go online and integrate with the world after decades of isolation. Other systems, such as spyware, were sold as integral to modernizing law enforcement agencies.
But critics say a ruthless armed forces, which maintained a dominance over the economy and powerful ministries even as it briefly shared power with a civilian government, used the facade of democracy to enable sensitive cybersecurity and defense purchases.
In Myanmar, they are the digital weapons for an intensifying campaign in which security forces have killed at least 25 people and detained more than 1,100, including the ousted civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. On Monday, she was hit with new criminal charges — making a statement that could alarm the public and inducing someone to act against the state — that could put her in prison for years.
“The military is now using those very tools to brutally crack down on peaceful protesters risking their lives to resist the military junta and restore democracy,” said Ma Yadanar Maung, a spokeswoman for Justice For Myanmar, a group that monitors the Tatmadaw’s abuses.
The documents, provided by Justice For Myanmar, catalog tens of millions of dollars earmarked for technology that can mine phones and computers, as well as track people’s live locations and listen in to their conversations. Two parliamentary budget committee members, who requested anonymity given the sensitive political climate, said these proposed budgets for the Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Transport and Communications reflected actual purchases.
The budgets detail companies and the functionality of their tools. In some instances, they specify the proposed uses, like combating “money laundering” or investigating “cybercrime.”
“What you see the Myanmar military putting together is a comprehensive suite of cybersecurity and forensics,” said Ian Foxley, a researcher at the Center for Applied Human Rights at the University of York. “A lot of this is electronic warfare capability stuff.”
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Beginning in 2016, the Tatmadaw handed some authority to a civilian government led by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which won two landslide electoral mandates. Despite inching toward democracy, the military maintained significant control over spending, particularly for defense, law enforcement and other security affairs.
The documents indicate that dual-use surveillance technology made by Israeli, American and European companies made its way to Myanmar, despite many of their home governments banning such exports after the military’s brutal expulsion of Rohingya Muslims in 2017.
Even in countries that didn’t officially block such trade, many Western purveyors had clauses in their corporate guidelines barring their technology from being used to abuse human rights.
In the most egregious cases, firms supplied surveillance tools and weaponry to the military and the ministries it controlled, evading arms embargoes and export bans. In others, they continued to sell dual-use technology without conducting due diligence about how it might be used and who might use it.
Often, they depended on military-linked brokers who thrive in the shadowy interstices, allowing the Tatmadaw to acquire the tools of oppression indirectly from foreign companies.
Hardware that was sold to the police to catch criminals is being used to track opponents of the coup online and offline.
Documentation for post-coup arrest warrants, which were reviewed by The Times, shows that Myanmar’s security forces have triangulated between their critics’ social media posts and the individual addresses of their internet hookups to find where they live. Such detective work could only have been carried out by using specialized foreign technology, according to experts with knowledge of Myanmar’s surveillance infrastructure.
“Even under a civilian government, there was little oversight of the military’s expenditure for surveillance technology,” said Ko Nay Yan Oo, a former fellow at the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has studied the Myanmar military. “Now we are under military rule, and they can do everything they want.”
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The 2020-2021 Ministry of Home Affairs budget allocations include units from MSAB, a Swedish company that supplies forensic data tools for militaries around the world. These MSAB field units can download the contents of mobile devices and recover deleted items, according to notations in the budget.
Henrik Tjernberg, the chairman of MSAB, said that some of the company’s “legacy technology” had ended up in Myanmar a few years ago, but it no longer sold equipment there because of a European Union export ban on dual-use products that can be used for domestic repression. Mr. Tjernberg did not answer questions about how his products ended up in the latest budget.
U Thein Tan, another member of the parliamentary budget committee, said that fellow lawmakers felt uncomfortable with all the spyware in the budgets but that questioning anything to do with the security services was taboo for civilian politicians.
“To be honest, we did suspect that they were using the technological devices for bad purposes, like surveillance of the people,” said Mr. Thein Tan. “But the problem is we don’t know what kind of technological devices these would be because we lack knowledge of the technology.”
International scrutiny has made a difference. Last year, MSAB and Cellebrite, among other Western cyber-surveillance firms, pulled out of Hong Kong, where the police used phone hacking technology to monitor democracy activists.
Credit...The New York TimesMyanmar’s security forces have triangulated between their critics’ social media posts and internet hookup addresses to find where some of them live.
“In the extremely rare case when our technology is used in a manner that does not meet international law or does not comply with Cellebrite’s values, we immediately flag these licenses for nonrenewal and do not provide software updates,” the spokeswoman said.
Cellebrite hardware and software have been used by the police to secure evidence in court cases, according to U Khin Maung Zaw, one of Myanmar’s top human-rights lawyers who is representing Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the ousted civilian leader.
The technology was presented as central to the 2018 trial of two Reuters reporters who uncovered evidence of a Rohingya massacre the year before. Mr. Khin Maung Zaw represented the two journalists.
In court documents, the police said they had gathered data from the detained reporters’ phones using Cellebrite forensic technology. The data helped convict the reporters, in what human rights groups have said were politically motivated cases.
Cellebrite said that after the Reuters case was publicized, “these licenses were unequivocally not renewed.” The company now has the ability to remotely suspend the licenses, essentially erasing the software from its machinery and rendering the devices useless.
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