Myanmar junta shutting down internet access to citizens

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Myanmar’s new military authorities appeared to have cut most access to the internet on Saturday as they faced a rising tide of protest over their coup that toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected civilian government.

Numerous internet users noted a slow disappearance of data services, especially from mobile service providers, that accelerated sharply late Saturday morning. Broadband connection also later failed, while there were mixed reports on whether landline telephone service and mobile voice connections were still working.

Netblocks, a London-based service that tracks internet disruptions and shutdowns, said 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 blockages are a stark reminder of the progress Myanmar is in danger of losing after Monday’s coup plunged the nation back under direct military rule after a nearly decade-long move toward greater openness and democracy. During Myanmar’s previous five decades of military rule, the country was internationally isolated and communication with the outside world 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 minority Rohingya Muslims.

The blockages are also adding greater urgency to efforts to resist the coup, with Saturday seeing some of the largest street protests against the takeover. In one of the bigger ones, about 1,000 protesters — factory workers and students prominent among them — marched down a main street in Yangon, the country’s biggest city, and were met by more than 100 police in riot gear.

Members of the crowd shouted “down with dictatorship” and other slogans. They marched with their hands in the air, formed into three-fingered salutes, a symbol of defiance adopted from protesters in neighboring Thailand, who borrowed the gesture from the “Hunger Games” movie franchise.

The demonstration ended peacefully with no clashes reported. It dispersed around the time communications were cut, and it was unclear if the marchers later regrouped.

Similar-sized demonstrations took place in at least two other areas of the city, and likewise were tense but peaceful. People at a protest at Yangon’s City Hall presented flowers to the police.

Other reports that slipped through the communications blockade said protests were held in other areas, including Mandalay, the country’s second-largest city.

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.”

“It undermines the public conversation and the rights of people to make their voices heard,” its spokesperson said.

Since the coup, social media platforms have been major sources of independent news as well as organizing tools for protests.

Amnesty International said that to shut down the internet while the country was coping with the coup, people displaced by years of civil conflict and the Covid-19 crisis was “a heinous and reckless decision.”

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