‘Near-total internet shutdown’ in Myanmar as coup protests | Incredible Solutions Tech

Myanmar’s military rulers have cut access to the internet as tens of thousands of people took to the streets of cities across the country to denounce this week’s coup and demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Netblocks, a United Kingdom-based service that tracks internet disruptions, said on Saturday afternoon that “a near-total internet shutdown is now in effect” in Myanmar, with connectivity falling to just 16 percent of normal levels.

The broad outage followed Friday’s military order to block Twitter and Instagram because some people were trying to use the platforms to spread what authorities deemed fake news. Facebook had already been blocked earlier in the week — though not completely effectively.

The communication blackout has lent greater urgency to efforts to resist the coup. In Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, thousands of people – factory workers and students prominent among them – marched down a main street denouncing the coup on Monday.

The protesters – who were met by more than 100 police in riot gear – chanted, “Military dictator, fail, fail; Democracy, win, win”. They also flashed three-fingered salutes, a symbol of defiance adopted from protesters in neighbouring Thailand.

There was no violence reported.

Similar-sized demonstrations took place in at least two other areas of the city. At Yangon’s City Hall, protesters presented flowers to police, some of whom carried assault rifles.

A protester gives bouquets of flowers to a line of riot police during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on February 6, 2021 [Stringer/ AFP]
Demonstrators protest against the military coup and demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in Yangon, Myanmar, February 6, 2021 [Stringer/Reuters]

By evening, the protesters had mostly dispersed. But for a fifth night, a cacophony rose in the darkness as people banged on pots, pans and drums in a show of resistance even as power cuts affected many districts of the city.

Thousands more took to the streets in Myanmar’s second city Mandalay and its military-built capital Naypyidaw, home to the nation’s government servants, where demonstrators chanted anti-coup slogans and called for Suu Kyi’s release.

All day, the state-run broadcaster MRTV showed scenes praising the military.

‘Heinous and reckless’

Telenor Myanmar, a major mobile operator, confirmed it had received Friday’s order to block Twitter and Instagram.

In a statement, Twitter said it was “deeply concerned” about the order and vowed to “advocate to end destructive government-led shutdowns”. Its spokesman said the blockages “undermines the public conversation and the rights of people to make their voices heard”.

Facebook also urged the military to unblock social media platforms, which have been critical sources of independent news since the coup as well as organising tools for protests.

“At this critical time, the people of Myanmar need access to important information and to be able to communicate with their loved ones,” Facebook’s head of public policy for Asia-Pacific emerging countries, Rafael Frankel, said in a statement.

Amnesty International called the shutdown “a heinous and reckless decision” at a time when Myanmar was coping with the coup, years of civil conflict and the COVID-19 crisis. The United Nations human rights office also said on Twitter that “internet and communication services must be fully restored to ensure freedom of expression and access to information”.

Army chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power on February 1, accusing Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), of failing to act on its complaints that last November’s election was marred by fraud. The election commission said it had no found no evidence to support the claims.

The military announced a one-year state of emergency and has promised to hand over power after new elections, without giving a timeframe.

Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate, has been charged with illegally importing six walkie-talkies, while removed President Win Myint is accused of flouting COVID-19 restrictions. Neither has been seen since the coup. Their lawyer said they were being held in their homes.

A civil disobedience movement has been building in Myanmar all week, with doctors and teachers among those refusing to work. Every night people bang pots and pans in a show of anger.

Demonstrators said the protests in Yangon would resume on Sunday. One, who asked not to be named, said: “We will go and protest again tomorrow. If they arrest one person, we will try to pile in and fill up the truck as a group.”

Australian detained

The coup has sparked international outrage, with the United States considering sanctions against the generals and the UN Security Council calling for the release of all detainees.

It has also deepened tensions between the United States and China, which has close links to Myanmar’s military. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in a phone call on Friday to condemn the coup, the State Department said.

The generals have few overseas interests vulnerable to sanctions but the military’s extensive business investments could suffer if foreign partners leave – as Japanese drinks company Kirin Holdings said it would on Friday.

Meanwhile the office of Australia’s foreign minister said in a statement on Saturday that the government was “deeply concerned about reports of Australian and other foreign nationals being detained arbitrarily in Myanmar”.

The statement said the government was concerned in particular about one Australian who was detained at a police station.

The Reuters news agency identified him as Sean Turnell, an Australian economic adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest after leading pro-democracy protests against the long-ruling military junta in 1988.

After sharing power with a civilian government, the army began democratic reforms in 2011. That led to the election of the NLD in a landslide victory four years later.

November’s election was meant to solidify a troubled democratic transition.

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