Myanmar Coup: Junta generals shut down internet as thousands protest against coup

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Myanmar’s junta shut down the internet in the country on Saturday as thousands of people took to the streets of Yangon to denounce this week’s coup and demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

In the first such demonstration since the generals seized power on Monday, activists chanted, “Military dictator, fail, fail; Democracy, win, win” and held banners reading “Against military dictatorship”. Bystanders offered them food and water.

Many in the crowd wore red, the colour of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) which won Nov. 8 elections in a landslide, a result the generals have refused to recognise claiming fraud.

As the protest swelled and activists issued calls on social media for people to join the march, the country’s internet crashed.

Monitoring group NetBlocks Internet Observatory reported a “national-scale internet blackout”, saying on Twitter that connectivity had fallen to 54% of ordinary levels. Witnesses reported a shutdown of mobile data services and wifi.

The junta did not respond to requests for comment. It has tried to silence dissent by temporarily blocking Facebook and extended a social media crackdown to Twitter and Instagram on Saturday.

Norwegian mobile phone company Telenor Asa said authorities had ordered internet providers to deny access to Twitter and Instagram “until further notice”.

Many had sidestepped the ban on sites such as Facebook by using virtual private networks to conceal their locations, but the more general disruption to mobile data services would severely limit access to independent news and information.

“Internet already down but we will not stop raising our voice,” wrote a Twitter user with the handle Maw Htun Aung. “Let’s fight peacefully for democracy and freedom. Let’s fight until the last minute for our future.”

Myanmar civil society organisations appealed to internet providers and mobile networks to challenge the junta’s orders blocking internet access.

“By complying with their directives, your companies are essentially legitimising the military’s authority, despite international condemnation of this very body,” a coalition of groups said in a statement.

Telenor said before the internet shutdown it was legally obliged to follow the order to block some social media, but “highlighted the directive’s contradiction with international human rights law.”

Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for Campaigns, Ming Yu Hah, said shutting down the internet amid a coup and the COVID-19 pandemic was a “heinous and reckless decision”.

Army chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power alleging fraud although the electoral commission says it has found no evidence of widespread irregularities in the November vote.

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

REUTERS