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Myanmar's generals shut down the web over 1000’s of protest coups

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Protesters hold up the three-finger salute during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on February 6, 2021.

STR / AFP via Getty Images

Myanmar's junta shut down the country's internet 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.

At the first such demonstration since the generals came to power on Monday, activists sang: "Military dictator, fail, fail; democracy, win, win" and held banners reading "Against military dictatorship". Spectators offered them food and water.

Many in the crowd wore red, the color of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), which won the elections in a landslide on November 8th. This has resulted in the generals refusing to acknowledge cases of fraud.

As the protest increased and activists on social media called to join the march, the country's internet crashed.

The NetBlocks Internet Observatory monitoring group reported a "national internet blackout" and said on Twitter that connectivity had dropped to 54% of normal. Witnesses reported a shutdown of mobile data services and WLAN.

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

Norwegian wireless operator Telenor Asa said the authorities had ordered ISPs to deny access to Twitter and Instagram "until further notice".

Many had bypassed the bans on sites like Facebook by using virtual private networks to hide their locations, but the more general disruption of mobile data services would severely limit access to independent news and information.

"The internet is already down, but we won't stop speaking," wrote one Twitter user at Handle Maw Htun Aung. "Let us fight peacefully for democracy and freedom. Let us fight for our future until the last minute."

Myanmar civil society organizations appealed to internet service providers and cellular networks to challenge the junta's order to block internet access.

"By adhering to their guidelines, your companies are essentially legitimizing the authority of the military, despite international condemnation of that body," a coalition of groups said in a statement.

Telenor said before the internet shutdown it was legally required to obey the order to block some social media, but stressed "the directive's contradiction to international human rights law."

Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International's assistant regional director for campaigns, said closing the internet during a coup d'état and the COVID-19 pandemic was a "hideous and ruthless decision".

Army chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power for fraud, although the electoral commission claims to have found no evidence of widespread irregularities in the November vote.

The junta announced the one-year state of emergency and promised to give up power after new elections without specifying a time frame.

International pressure

The takeover has been condemned internationally, and the United Nations Security Council has called for the release of all detainees and targeted sanctions under Washington's scrutiny.

Suu Kyi, 75, has not been seen in public since the coup. She spent approximately 15 years under house arrest while fighting former juntas before the troubled democratic transition began in 2011.

Suu Kyi's attorney and ousted President Win Myint said they were being held at their homes and that he could not meet them because they were still being questioned. Suu Kyi is accused of illegally importing six walkie-talkies, while Win Myint is accused of violating coronavirus restrictions.

Sean Turnell, an Australian economic advisor to Suu Kyi, said in a message to Reuters on Saturday that he was detained.

Saturday's protest marks the first sign of street rioting in a country with a history of bloody military raids on protesters. On Saturday there were also protests against the coup in Melbourne, Australia, and in the Taiwanese capital Taipei.

In Myanmar, a civil disobedience movement has built up all week under which doctors and teachers refuse to work, and every night people beat pots and pans in a sign of anger.

In addition to around 150 arrests following the coup reported by human rights groups, local media reported that around 30 people were arrested for the noise protests.

The United States is considering targeted sanctions against individuals and against entities controlled by the Myanmar military.

State Secretary Antony Blinken called Chinese top diplomat Yang Jiechi in a phone call on Friday to condemn the coup, the Foreign Ministry said.

China, closely associated with the Myanmar military, joined the consensus on the Security Council declaration but has not condemned the takeover of the army, stating that the countries should act in the interests of the stability of their neighbor Myanmar.

United States envoy Christine Schraner Burgener condemned the coup in a phone call to Soe Win, Myanmar's deputy military chief, and called for the immediate release of all detainees, a United States spokesman said.

The generals have few overseas interests vulnerable to international sanctions, but the military's massive business investments could suffer if foreign partners leave – as Japanese beverage company Kirin Holdings announced on Friday.

US-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch called for the lifting of internet restrictions, the release of detainees and an end to threats against journalists.

"A news and information failure by the coup plotters cannot hide their politically motivated arrests and other abuses," said Asian director Brad Adams.

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Steven Gregory