In the wake of the Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar and the ensuing government crackdown on anti-coup protests, which has grown steadily more deadly, with more than 700 killed by the military so far, supporters of the protests around the world have taken to Facebook, using a new method that they call “social punishment” to fight back against the junta.
Social punishment is a form of protest that consists of essentially doxing family members of officers in the military (which is called the Tatmadaw in Myanmar). The revealed information often includes pictures of the person and details of their businesses and family connections.
In a struggle where, on the ground in Myanmar, protesters with slingshots are often pitted against soldiers and police with guns, social punishment is a powerful way to fight back. The only requirement is an internet connection and a social media account. But targeting individuals for the crimes of their relatives is also a controversial tactic, with a high risk of mob justice and unintended consequences.
The campaign’s most organized form involves a database set up by anonymous activists that lists targets in the military, their photos, their locations, and how they have offended. Offenders are ranked by “traitor level,” from “elite” to “low.” Individuals have also taken social punishment into their own hands by creating Facebook groups and viral posts that share the identities of military family members or supporters. For the anti-coup population living abroad, the main objective is to get generals’ family members living outside the country deported and their assets frozen. Within Myanmar, the goal is social and economic pressure, with boycotts on businesses and brands, and hopes that social shaming will convince military affiliates to work against their families and support the Civil Disobedience Movement.
This has played out in several cases across the United States, where the Burmese diaspora is uniquely positioned to target military associates living abroad, because often they personally know them. In Pennsylvania, the owner of an organic skincare line shut down her social media accounts after social punishers identified her as the daughter of the junta’s auditor general. Her former business, which still bears her name, has been the target of threats. A Goldman Sachs executive, who social punishers identified as the grandson of Gen. Ne Win, the military dictator in Myanmar from 1962 to 1988, and the cousin of Aye Ne Win, a military ally despised by anti-coup protesters, has had his address published online. The New York Burmese community has also targeted the deputy permanent representative of Myanmar to the United Nations, U Tin Maung Naing, whom the military named as the replacement of Myanmar’s envoy to the U.N., U Kyaw Moe Tun, after he signaled his support for the protests by giving the movement’s three-finger salute on the floor of the U.N.
“Many of us started punishing him and his family,” said Moe Chan, a leader of Burma Point, a community-based organization, who is involved in social punishment.
In addition to bombarding the deputy permanent representative’s Facebook page, Burmese activists in New York made plans to defend the mission should the Myanmar military attaché based in D.C. arrive in New York to force the ambassador out. (A similar situation happened in London in April). “I am ready for the Battle of 10 East 77th,” one of the protesters wrote on Facebook, referring to the address of Myanmar’s permanent mission on New York’s Upper East Side.
“Mind you, some of our people in the community and I have met with the deputy public representative before the military coup,” said Chan. “We knew him. … We dealt with him a few times. He was welcoming us to their mission. We even donated COVID money [to him] for the people of Myanmar.”
Naing has since resigned.
Social punishment is the latest result of the divided society in Myanmar, where the military has always been at odds with the civilians. Since military rule began in 1962, the military has killed, imprisoned, tortured, and displaced millions of people. As internet access increased in Myanmar, citizens were enraged to see not only the violence of the Tatmadaw but the wealthy and glamorous lifestyles of their families, while the population of Myanmar living below the poverty line has consistently been well over 20 percent. In 2006, a precedent to social punishment was set when dissidents published “Enemies of the Burmese Revolution,” a list of more than 1,300 “military hardliners” that were part of the “Tatmadaw (Creatures from Hell invaded in Burma since 1962.)” Later that year, there was nationwide furor when a grainy tape was leaked of the extravagant wedding of Thandar Shwe, the daughter of Gen. Than Shwe, the head of the junta.
“There’s a long history of this, but social media has totally changed it,” said David Scott Mathieson, an independent Myanmar analyst.
Over the past decade, internet access and cellphone ownership has surged in Myanmar. Up until 2011, when internet censorship began to loosen, only 0.25 percent of the population used the internet, there were fewer than 1 million cellphones in the country, and SIM cards, which were few and far between, cost hundreds of dollars. By 2020, after five years of democratic governance, internet access skyrocketed to 41 percent, there were more than 68 million cellphones (in a population of 54 million), and the price of a SIM card shot down to less than $2. Data shows that 21 million people are on Facebook. “In Myanmar, Facebook is pretty much where people get the news from, especially in the past 10 years or so,” said J, an activist from Myanmar who lives in the U.S. and is participating in social punishment with his wife, Y. (For concerns of the safety of their families still in Myanmar, J and Y asked that their full names not be used.)
The power of social networking, both within Myanmar and outside of the country, has made the 2021 strife different from previous times of turbulence. Social media has become a highly effective weapon in fighting the junta.
Online activism within the Burmese community expands past social punishment. Those resisting the coup have started deplatforming campaigns to take down Tatmadaw accounts, and after years of pressure, Facebook and Instagram announced a ban on Tatmadaw pages and ads. “If big tech can deplatform Trump, they should not have any problem deplatforming the junta and their websites,” said Keith, who works in cloud computing in the New York area and is involved in deplatforming efforts. People have turned to social media for less antagonistic ways of resistance as well—calling out and debunking fake news, creating parody accounts, and sharing information on public pages using the hashtag #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar.
In Myanmar, the Tatmadaw has cracked down and restricted internet usage, which has made efforts like social punishment more difficult. During the coup, the military cut off internet access, cutting wires and holding technicians at gunpoint. In the weeks that followed, the military shut off the internet overnight when protests were held in the streets and blocked Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, where demonstrators had been organizing online. At first, people got around the blockades by using VPNs, but on April 1, the Tatmadaw entirely cut off mobile data and broadband internet in the country.
With internet access limited in Myanmar, the diaspora has enthusiastically stepped in to help. For some, social punishment feels more useful than staging rallies abroad or nontangible methods of protest like donating money.
“Social punishment is something that we can definitely do in a more effective way than the people who are in the country, because the people who are in the country have a much higher risk of getting tracked down and arrested,” said J. “I think the advantage that people outside the country have is that we also have some kind of power and opportunity to track down these people who are being socially punished and living abroad.”
But leaders and analysts worry about the ethics of these tactics, and their impact on their targets’ livelihoods, social lives, and mental health.
“It’s different when you look into Gen. Min Aung Hlaing,” said Chan, referring to the junta chief, whose children have been not only socially punished but sanctioned. “But some junior-ranking military members, we don’t know their kids. … All of a sudden, they pop up on Facebook because somebody knows him or her. So do I go ahead and punish that major general’s daughter without knowing who she really is? It’s very sketchy at times.”
Proponents say these people are still worthy targets, pointing to their wealth, the ease at which they obtain visas to live safely abroad, and the generational nature of the military in Myanmar, where oftentimes the grandchildren of generals go on to support the military years down the road.
“The current situation right now in Myanmar is that the military’s killing everyone,” said J and Y. “They kill kids, they kill old people, they torture them. They don’t really care about who should be punished. So I think it’s very fair for us to keep doing the social punishment.”