Safety and Security During a Coup

Khing Hnin Wai not putting in place emergency communications protocols as the coup kicked off.

How to protect yourself and your team during (and after) a coup.

On 1 February 2021, the Tatmadaw executed a coup in Myanmar, thoughtlessly ruining Khing Hnin Wai’s outdoor aerobics session (while also making her famous). We live in strange times.

Anyway, the point of this post is not to commentate on aerobics. Rather, it’s to provide a plan you can implement in the hours and days after a coup to keep you and your people safe. The aim is to provide a blueprint for responding to a coup. In this article, I’ll cover the following topics:

  • What actions to take immediately after a coup.
  • What actions to take to protect your people.
  • How to assure ongoing communications.
  • How to manage / support team members who attend protests.
  • When to consider an evacuation.

This list is potentially non-exhaustive and, as I’m sure you’re aware, different coups come in different flavours. Some coups may be non-violent (at least initially), while others may be extremely violent. Every country has different dynamics, most particularly in terms of the roles and capabilities of the military and police.

First things first

The minute you learn that a coup is underway, your first priority is to account for your people and get them to a safe location. If you’re at the workplace, you may want to stay there until you have more information on what’s going on. For anyone outside at the time, your priority is to guide them to a safe and secure location.

This initial period after a coup will be a vulnerable and confusing time. There will be a lot of uncertainty about military (or militia) locations and intentions. You don’t want people moving about where they may run into checkpoints or skirmishes.

There’s also a real risk that the coup plotters will take control of communications networks and either block the internet or block certain applications. In this recent coup in Myanmar, the military were quick to restrict access to the internet and to certain applications. Accordingly, the sooner you can reach out to your team, the better.

Losing communications is a problem. If you and your team can’t communicate, you can’t organise or call for assistance. More on communications shortly. Before getting to that, the focus is on making sure your people are okay.

Wrangling your people

Your first priority in a coup situation is to make sure your people are safe. You need to get them to a safe location and do whatever you can to stay in communications. From there, you’ll need to make a plan to assure their safety in the days and weeks ahead.

As a first step, consider implementing movement restrictions. For the first 72 hours after a coup, it’s sensible to restrict movement. The reason for these restrictions is because the situation will be highly uncertain. It may be difficult to provide specific advice on areas or streets to avoid, particularly if communications are blocked or communication channels are flooded with disinformation. As the situation becomes clear, you’ll be able to ease off restrictions and give your team more specific instructions to avoid certain locations locations.

Set up a secure group chat (using Signal, Wire or Threema) and implement a process of check-ins. As a start point, you can ask team members to check in twice a day. You’ll need to prepare a plan of action for situations where people fail to check in. This plan could involve shifting to an alternate means of communication or sending someone to check in on a person at their residence.

As a team leader, make a point to call your team members every couple of days to check in on them and see if there’s anything they need. Any high-risk situation demands a high-touch approach.

If you have any people who are vulnerable (e.g., need ongoing medical treatment or have mobility restrictions), you’ll need to provide them with specific attention. As an expedient measure, you may co-locate them to another team member’s residence. You may even decide to evacuate vulnerable people (more on evacuations below).

Finally, advise your team to stock up on essential supplies. Water, food and fuel (for generators or stoves). Panic buying and hoarding are likely in the aftermath of a coup, so be prepared for shortages of essential supplies. Each household should also have a comprehensive first aid kit.

Now that your people are safe and secure, you’ll need to think about your workplace.

The workplace

Consider closing the workplace, at least temporarily. By closing the workplace, you’ll avoid a situation where people need to move about, which will expose them to risk. If your workplace is close to a government facility, military post or protest venue, it will be safer to close the workplace until the situation outlook becomes clear.

If you do close the workplace, ensure you harden any access points against forced entry. If you have a video surveillance system installed in the workplace, it’s useful to ensure you can access this system remotely.

Secure any key documents in a fire-proof safe or remove them and secure them in a residence. Power down all computers and move backups off site to a secure location.

If you think you’ll be leaving the workplace unattended for a period of time, apply tamper-evident labels on the access points. These labels will provide evidence of a more sophisticated attempt at entry.

Once the workplace is secure, you’ll need to consider communications.

Communications

Some of the challenges with communications during and after a coup were described above. It’s essential for safety and security that you and your team can communicate with each other, with your headquarters (which may be in a different country) and with other resources, such as hospitals.

As a start point, you’ll need to enable secure communications via mobile phone. Stay away from normal chat applications (which may be less secure or could be blocked by the government). Also avoid applications that are popular with protestors as these are the most likely to be blocked or monitored. Instead, stick with secure apps like Signal, Wire or Threema. Whatever app you choose, set up another app as a backup. Use these applications for messaging and voice calls.

Of course, always use a VPN with your phone.

You’ll need to be prepared for the cellular network and the internet to be disrupted. Monitor Netblocks.org to stay on top of the current situation.

Internet connectivity in Myanmar from 3–4 March 2021. Source: Netblocks.org

You may also want to have access to ‘feature phones’. While these phones don’t have apps and typically won’t connect to the internet, they often remain usable in complex situations when other devices are failing. Plus, the battery life is awesome.

Because of the risk of communications disruption, it’s useful to have satellite communications tools available to you. A simple satellite phone (such as the Iridium 9555 or Iridium 9575 Extreme) will suffice for most situations. If you need to communicate via data, consider a BGAN terminal.

In the context of Myanmar, the use of satellite phones is restricted. You could either take the risk and bring one in (you won’t be the first to have done so) or request a permit with the Ministry of Transport and Communications.

An alternative to satellite phones is a satellite communicator, such as the Garmin inReach series or the Iridium GO! device.

Overall, communications will be one of your biggest challenges during and after a coup. You’ll need to be prepared by having the equipment you need already in place. Actively monitor the availability of the cellular network, the internet and different communications applications.

Attending protests

We’ve already seen protests escalate in many parts of Myanmar, with the military killing several protestors. It’s possible these protests may escalate, which will almost certainly result in an escalation of the military response. Aside from clashes at protest areas, there’s also the possibility that the military or police may target anti-junta elements and protestors by raiding their homes and places or work.

It’s entirely possible that people on your team may want to attend the protests. Whether or not this is okay will depend on your organisation’s approach to the situation. Of course, members of your team may attend protests outside of business hours, in their own time. Are you responsible for their safety if they do attend protests? Should you give them advice on how to stay safe? These are difficult questions to answer for many organisations.

If your team members do decide to attend protests, they should remain on the sidelines. They should carry a phone with them for safety reasons, but should turn the phone off while in the vicinity of the protest. They should also avoid filming events, in case they are mistaken for media (members of the media may be targeted by the military or the police).

You should also anticipate monitoring of social media and avoid posting anything in your personal or work social media accounts that’s associated with the current political situation. In such cases, it’s better to keep a low profile and stay off the junta’s radar. By all means use social media to track the ongoing situation, but carefully manage your reliance on these networks as they can often be taken down.

Platform restrictions in Myanmar on 3 February 2021. Source: Netblocks.org

If the situation escalates until it represents unacceptable levels of risk, there’s always the option of evacuation.

Evacuation

If violence is occurring or is likely to occur, you may consider evacuating some or all of your team (and their families, if present). You have several options here. You could move to a more secure location in the same country, or you could leave the country altogether (an option for expatriates and foreign travellers). If someone has political exposure, you should consider them for immediate evacuation.

COVID-19 has complicated the prospect of evacuating from Myanmar, but it’s still possible with effective planning. Given the current level of risk, an evacuation isn’t immediately necessary. However, organisations should definitely be dusting off (or writing) evacuation plans. The situation is unpredictable, and it’s impossible to know how it will evolve.

Aside from the logistics involved with executing an evacuation, your biggest challenge will be deciding when to pull the trigger and actually evacuate. How bad does the situation have to become before an evacuation is necessary? What events will trigger different stages of preparation and execution for your evacuation? You’ll need to work through your decision triggers to ensure you get your evacuation timings right and your people aren’t unnecessarily placed at risk.

Coups can expose organisations to a host of different risks and threats. The sections above have detailed some of the more fundamental aspects of how your organisation might respond to a coup. Treat the recommendations above as a start point for your planning and work through a disciplined process of risk analysis and mitigation to derive other actions. Be conservative, particularly in the first few days after the coup. As we’ve seen in Myanmar, there may be a lull in the period immediately after the coup as people orientate to the situation and start to mobilise a community response. Don’t allow this lull in activity to deter you from planning for a potential deterioration in the situation.

Hopefully you’ve found this article useful.

Thanks for reading!

Founder, Spartan9.