Myanmar Junta Blocks Internet Access As Coup Protests Expand

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Myanmar’s new military authorities appeared to have cut off most of Internet access on Saturday as they faced a growing wave of protests over the coup that toppled the elected civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Many Internet users noted a slow disappearance of data services, especially mobile service providers, which accelerated dramatically on Saturday morning. The broadband connection also failed later, while there were mixed reports on whether landline service and mobile voice connections were still working.

Netblocks, a London-based service that tracks internet outages and shutdowns, said Saturday afternoon that “a near-total internet shutdown is now in effect” in Myanmar, with connectivity falling to just 16%. than normal levels. The major disruption followed Friday’s military order to block Twitter and Instagram because some people were trying to use the platforms to spread what authorities considered to be fake news. Facebook had already been blocked earlier in the week, though not completely effectively. The communications blackouts are a stark reminder of the progress Myanmar is in danger of losing after Monday’s coup once again plunged the nation under direct military rule after a nearly decade-long move towards greater openness and democracy. . During the previous five decades of Myanmar’s military rule, the country was isolated internationally and communication with the outside world was strictly controlled. Suu Kyi’s five years as leader since 2015 had been Myanmar’s most democratic period despite the military retaining broad powers over the government, the continued use of repressive colonial-era laws and the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority. The blockades are also adding more urgency to efforts to resist the coup, and Saturday saw some of the largest street protests against the inauguration. In one of the largest, some 1,000 protesters, including factory workers and students, marched down a main street in Yangon, the country’s largest city, and were greeted by more than 100 policemen in riot gear. Members of the crowd shouted “down with the dictatorship” and other slogans. They marched with their hands in the air, formed in three-fingered salutes, a symbol of defiance adopted by protesters in neighboring Thailand, who borrowed the gesture from the “Hunger Games” movie franchise. The demonstration ended peacefully without any clashes. It dispersed when communications were cut off, and it was unclear if the protesters later regrouped. Demonstrations of similar size were held in at least two other areas of the city, and they were also tense but peaceful. People at a protest at Yangon City Hall presented flowers to the police. Other reports escaping the communications blackout said the protests took place in other areas, including Mandalay, the country’s second-largest city. Telenor Myanmar, a major mobile phone operator, confirmed that it had received an order on Friday to block Twitter and Instagram. In a statement, Twitter said it was “deeply concerned” by the order and vowed to “advocate for an end to the destructive government-led shutdowns.” “It undermines the public conversation and people’s right to have their voices heard,” said its spokesperson. Since the coup, social media platforms have been important sources of independent news, as well as organizing tools for protests. Amnesty International said that shutting down the Internet as the country faced the coup, people displaced by years of civil conflict and the COVID-19 crisis was “an egregious and reckless decision.” Opponents of the coup and the arrests of activists and politicians have also been gathering at night on windows and balconies around Yangon to make a cacophony of noise in protest by banging on pots and pans. The action was not limited to aggrieved citizens on the street. On Friday, nearly 300 elected lawmakers from the Aung San Suu Kyi National League for Democracy party who gathered in an online meeting declared themselves the only legitimate representatives of the people and called for international recognition as the country’s government. They were supposed to take their seats on Monday in a new session of Parliament after the November elections, when the military announced that they would take power for a year. The army accused Suu Kyi and her party of failing to act on their complaints that last November’s elections were marred by fraud, although the electoral commission said it had found no evidence to support the claims. Suu Kyi and President Win Myint are also under house arrest and have been charged with misdemeanors, seen by many as a mere legal appearance of their arrest. In addition to the 134 officials and lawmakers who were detained in the coup, some 18 independent activists were also detained, the Myanmar Political Prisoners Assistance Association said, adding that some have been released. Australia’s foreign minister’s office said in a statement on Saturday that the government was “deeply concerned by reports that Australians and other foreign nationals are being arbitrarily detained in Myanmar.” The statement said the government was particularly concerned about an Australian who was detained at a police station. The statement did not provide details on the identity of the detainees or the reasons for their detention. In New York, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres promised on Friday that the United Nations will do everything possible to unite the international community and create the conditions to reverse the military coup in Myanmar. Guterres said Christine Schraner Burgener, the UN special envoy for Myanmar, had first contact with the army since the coup and expressed strong UN opposition to the inauguration.