How Myanmar’s military junta controls the media narrative three years after the coup

Over the past three years, the military rulers of Myanmar have waged a war not only on their population, but also on the narrative.

As the third anniversary of the coup in Myanmar is marked today, the war fought with guns and helicopters is not exactly going according to the military’s plan. Various armed opposition groups are more coordinated and more determined, and the fluid control over states and regions looks set to change further in 2024. However, as three new reports this week from Myanmar organisations show, the war on the narrative is another story – one where the military is perhaps gaining ground rather than losing it.

The stakes are uneven; over 200 journalists have been put behind bars since the coup, 64 of them still serving sentences of up to 20 years in one recent case mentioned by research-based organisation Athan in a report on journalism and media safety in 2023. Six journalists have been killed since 1 February 2021, and free and independent media are all but a memory inside the borders of Myanmar.

As Athan shows, the military regime is weaponising the internet by closing it down when and where it serves their purpose. The judiciary is used as a constant threat to free speech by considering even the most trivial of opposition such as writing or even sharing social media posts criminal offences punishable by draconic prison sentences. The regime-run Ministry of Information is actively looking for journalists to carry their message and discredit others. Messaging is now even being outsourced beyond the borders – the Russian news agency Sputnik is in an information sharing agreement with the military.  

The ministry even started its own “factchecking” group, being invited to regional disinformation events to further the regime version of events. As shown by the aptly titled Dictator’s Propaganda Playbook and Online Terrorization reports by two Myanmar organisations, the military regime relies on many platforms to spread its message, ranging from ultra-nationalist groups to its own controlled media. Two emerging trends from 2023 are that discrimination based on ethnicity, religion and gender is promoted by the military, basically to escalate tension and foster conflicts and, second, that the military consistently and effectively labels all resistance as terrorist movements and – somewhat ironically – as violators of human rights.  

The key information battlefield is on social media, by far the most important news venue for Myanmar’s population. Three years after the coup, Myanmar’s media have found their footing and are continuing to publish – and are relying on the social media platforms to do so. It is a fragile relationship. But civil society organisations, especially from Myanmar, have a long tradition working with Facebook and other members of dominant tech platforms and advocating for greater awareness and care. As the reports show, TikTok is also now being used as a tool by the military to bypass independent media. Telegram has become the military’s main artery to pump out disinformation and keep their own supporters hooked up to the official messaging through entertainment and games.   

Unlike the early days after the coup, it is no longer amateur hour in the Nay Pyi Taw, the regime-controlled capital city. The military and their backers are using creative new keywords, constantly shifting platforms, creating multiple assets and coordinated distribution to avoid being restricted by content moderators or algorithms. It is an uphill fight for the media and CSOs – and one fought as the attention and associated funds of the world have turned to other conflicts. What remains is for pro-democracy media and CSOs to work together with international actors – such as IMS, INGOs, countries, the UN – to build coalitions to make sure the message is heard and, even more importantly, that action is ultimately taken.