The Myanmar junta’s partners in digital surveillance and censorship

June 19, 2024

The Myanmar military junta has accessed Chinese equipment, technology and support in its efforts to ramp up internet censorship and surveillance, putting lives at risk and further impeding the Myanmar people’s access to information and free expression.  

Following its illegal February 2021 coup attempt, the junta expanded the blocking of social media, news and civil society websites and has tried to implement a program of electronic surveillance to monitor communications and track the location of Myanmar users.

At the end of May 2024, the junta began using a new web surveillance and censorship system to increase its control of the internet. Leaked documents seen by Justice For Myanmar indicate that the system has capabilities to intercept and decrypt web traffic and block applications and websites, including the widespread use of virtual private networks (VPNs), which are commonly used to bypass junta censorship and surveillance. It can also monitor an individual's use of network applications communicating over the internet, including VPNs, which could be used for further arbitrary arrests.

Planning documents indicate that the system uses network hardware (a secure web gateway) with deep packet inspection for internet surveillance and censorship at internet service providers (including mobile network operators) and internet gateways. Deep packet inspection is a way of processing data that captures, decodes and analyses packets of data, which could include the content of messages and emails and the details of a user’s internet traffic.

According to the planning documents, the new system uses Tiangou Secure Gateway (TSG) and Cyber Narrator from Jizhi (Hainan) Information Technology Company Limited, also known as Geedge Networks, a Chinese private network security and intelligence equipment and solutions company.  

TSG is an internet surveillance and censorship product. According to the Geedge Networks website, “TSG performs deep packet inspection on network traffic, classifies their content using a stream-based analysis engine, and provides a simple, integrated security service”. TSG’s claimed features include the ability to decrypt and inspect traffic between the server and client that is encrypted with secure sockets layer (SSL) and transport layer security (TLS) encryption protocols. One way it does this is by monitoring and skipping security certificates on websites. Where decryption is not possible, the system is also able to capture metadata and analyse online behaviour.

Decrypted plain text traffic can then be mirrored to a third party for archiving and analysis.

TSG also features an application firewall to “deny or allow more than 1000 applications based on their behaviours and attributes”.  

Cyber Narrator is a network intelligence platform designed to monitor and analyse internet traffic and respond to “threats”. The product’s main features include network entity profiling, described as the “ability to profile your network entities, including application, IP address, domain name and subscriber; [and] Rich context for entity investigation, such as suspicious behaviours, related events, metrics and entity relations.” An example given is of the flagging of individual instances of VPN use as a high regulatory risk security event.

A screengrab of Cyber Narrator, showing the flagging of VPN usage. Source: Geedge Networks

Geedge Networks was set up in 2018. It is based in the Hainan Free Trade Port with a research and development office in Beijing. One of the company’s founders and chief scientist is Fang Binxing, the “father” of China’s Great Firewall. It is owned by two holding companies: Dongguan Hulian Network Security Investment Partnership (Limited Partnership) and Nali (Chengmai) Information Consulting Center (Limited Partnership), according to records from the company database Orbis. Geedge Networks’ operating revenue has steadily increased from US$11.1 million in 2018 to US$18.5 million in 2021. The company has associated itself with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, of which Myanmar is a participating country.

Geedge Networks’ claims its members come from the Chinese Academy of Science with extensive experience in deep packet inspection, big data and artificial intelligence.  

The internet surveillance and censorship system is being implemented for the junta controlled Information Technology and Cyber Security Department (ITCSD) of the Ministry of Transport and Communications by a team of technicians from China, according to reporting by Khit Thit Media, through the private Myanmar military broker Mascots Group. Justice For Myanmar could not confirm if the Chinese technicians were from Geedge Networks or other companies.

Geedge Networks did not respond to an email from Justice For Myanmar.

Mascots Group is also involved in a location tracking system for the junta controlled ITCSD, according to another Justice For Myanmar source with knowledge of the project. The proposed location tracking system is from another Chinese company, China National Electronics Import and Export Corporation (CEIEC).  

According to a confidential industry source in Myanmar, CEIEC is also a key supplier of air defence radar systems to the Myanmar military. According to a leaked classified letter sent by the Chief of the Bureau of Air Defence to the Directorate of Procurement in early 2019, CEIEC was seeking to present 37MM/57MM anti-aircraft artillery upgradation and refurbishment solutions, a Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) system as well as long range surveillance radar and multi-target drone systems to the Myanmar military. The same leaked letter listed CEIEC as a long-standing supplier for air defence.

Founded in 1980, CEIEC is a Chinese state-owned enterprise that designs, integrates, and constructs national defence electronics systems. Its defence electronics products include command and control systems, radar, electronic warfare systems and unmanned aerial vehicles.

The company has a registered branch in Myanmar and is represented by the CEIEC Myanmar managing director Zhang Anwei.

CEIEC is a subsidiary of China Electronics Corporation, whose chief scientist is also Fang Binxing, signalling a link between CEIEC and Geedge Networks.

Fang Binxin speaking at the 2024 opening ceremony of an academician workstation in his name at Hainan Ecological Software Park. The ceremony was presided over by Geedge Networks CEO Wang Yuandi. Source: Sohu

In November 2020, the USA sanctioned CEIEC for providing the Venezuelan government with a commercialised version of China’s “Great Firewall”.

CEIEC did not respond to an email from Justice For Myanmar.

Justice For Myanmar calls on governments to urgently impose sanctions against Geedge Networks, CEIEC and Mascots Group, its directors and related companies.

Justice For Myanmar calls on China and all other countries to block companies and individuals in their territory from providing the illegal junta with arms, equipment, technology, technical support and jet fuel.

The Myanmar junta’s digital dictatorship mascots

The internet surveillance and censorship system is the latest in a string of business deals between Mascots Group, its related companies, and the Myanmar military that makes the company complicit in the junta’s international crimes and undermines the Myanmar people’s struggle for federal democracy.

Dr Win Kyaw, his wife Khin Kay Khaing, and their close associates, Maung Maung Oo and Dr Htin Lin, have a sprawling network of at least 30 companies incorporated in Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand. This includes 18 companies identified by the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar as part of the overlapping King Royal Technologies network of companies brokering arms and equipment for the Myanmar military.

Mascots Group is a network of five companies led by Win Kyaw.

Mascots Technologies Company Limited, owned by Win Kyaw and Khin Kay Khaing, is a registered supplier of the Myanmar army’s Directorate of Procurement, having renewed its registration following the military’s illegal coup attempt.

An archive of the Mascots Technologies website from 2021 states that they provide products and services in electronics and communications including military communications equipment with satellite tracking that “enable ground forces to track and communicate with individual vehicles on the frontline”, radar technology, interception and monitoring systems and satellite communications.  

Mascots Technologies is the Mascots Group company involved in the brokering of location tracking technology from CEIEC. Mascots Technologies and related companies also won multiple police and prison department tenders from the military controlled Ministry of Home Affairs between 2017 and 2021, although Justice For Myanmar could not identify the details of items supplied.

In 2024, Mascots Group opened a company in Thailand with the name Mascots Technologies Company Limited, of which Win Kyaw is the sole director. The establishment of a Thai company raises risks that Thailand could be used by Mascots to access the international financial system and procure equipment and technology for the junta.  

Mascots Technologies and Mascots Didactic & Analytical Company Limited have been used for the purchase of scientific and telecommunications equipment from India since the military’s coup attempt, according to export records, which could be for the junta end use.  

Mascots Technologies & Telecommunication Company Limited is another Myanmar Mascots Group company that is reportedly responsible for brokering the internet surveillance and censorship system. The company holds an active network facilities service telecommunications licence.

Mascots Technologies, Mascots Technologies and Telecommunication and Mascots Didactic & Analytical were named by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar for being part of an arms brokering network.

While aiding the junta’s efforts to ban social media such as Facebook, Mascots Group is also trying to profit through the launch of a whitelisted social media network, MySpace Myanmar, that is fully under junta regulation. Mascots Group established My Space CNS Company Limited in Myanmar in November 2023 and launched its social media site shortly after with a website and mobile apps. While MySpace claims more than 20,000 active users, the product has been widely attacked online as part of the junta’s efforts to control the internet, and Myanmar netizens launched a campaign to report MySpace on Google’s Play Store, leading to the app’s removal.

National Energy Group of Companies (NEGC) operates in the oil and gas services sector with companies in Myanmar and Singapore. It was set up in 2007, under the former military junta, and the group lists the state-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) as its primary oil and gas client. NEGC was also awarded construction work for the China-Myanmar oil and gas pipelines. NEGC is chaired by Win Kyaw and Maung Maung Oo serves as a director of NEGC companies.

NEGC’s Singapore company, NEGC Pte. Ltd., and the associated company, PKE Singapore Pte. Ltd., were exposed by the UN Special Rapporteur for shipping over US$5 million of equipment to the Myanmar military since its coup attempt. In 2023, NEGC Pte. Ltd. and PKE Singapore Pte. Ltd. were both been deregistered in Singapore.

Win Kyaw, Maung Maung Oo and Htin Lin have one business that remains active in Singapore: MOI Offshore Pte. Ltd. Following the military’s coup attempt, Khin Kay Khaing opened a management consultancy with Htin Lin in Singapore, Super Knight Pte. Ltd., ensuring their continued access to the city state, which could be used for business with the junta.

Maung Maung Oo is also the owner of Interstellar Limited, a Myanmar military arms broker that was a sales agent of Ukraine’s Ukroboronprom, and has delivered Mi-2, Mi-17, and MiG-29 aircraft parts to the Myanmar Air Force. Interstellar’s arms brokering activities were first exposed by Justice For Myanamr in September 2021.

Despite the complicity of Win Kyaw, his companies and associates in the Myanmar military’s atrocities, no sanctions have yet been imposed on them, with the exception of the associated company King Royal Technologies, which was added to the US Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Science Entity List in 2021. King Royal Technologies business with the Myanmar military was first exposed by Justice For Myanmar in December 2020.

By allowing Mascots Group and related companies to operate in Thailand and Singapore, regional governments are aiding and abetting the Myanmar military’s efforts to ramp up digital surveillance and censorship and contributing to the deterioration of security in the region. Singapore and Thailand should take action against Mascots Group, its members and associates that are continuing to operate in their territory.  

It has been over three years since the military’s coup attempt and with the support of Chinese companies and Myanmar cronies, the junta has made significant progress in building a digital dictatorship. International complicity in the junta’s atrocity crimes and global inaction has severely curtailed the Myanmar people’s rights to privacy, free expression and information.  

Justice For Myanmar urges governments to change course and take decisive steps to support the Myanmar people’s courageous struggle for federal democracy by blocking companies and individuals in their territory from providing the illegal junta with arms, equipment, technology, technical support and jet fuel.

Correction (June 20, 2024): Infographic reissued with corrected photo of Dr Htin Lin.