Yangon, Myanmar – When Lily relocated to her hometown in Myanmar’s Shan State after last year’s coup, the consultant was able to keep working thanks to cheap and reliable internet access.
These days, Lily struggles to stay online during the workday, which often includes at least two hours of virtual meetings, due to the soaring cost across all mobile carriers.
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Following a series of orders by the ruling military council, mobile data prices have doubled in the past two months. Like most of Myanmar outside of the major cities, Lily’s area has only patchy access to fixed-line internet.
“Rising internet prices are having a huge impact on everyday working life,” Lily, who asked to use a pseudonym to avoid state reprisals, told Al Jazeera. “Not only are internet prices soaring, but internet connections are also slowing down.”
For many people in Myanmar, the digital landscape is growing increasingly barren.
Many civil society observers see the price hikes as a pretext to dampen organising of real-world dissent against the military government, which seized power from Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected administration on February 1, 2021.
Citizens who had come to rely on their country’s increasingly accessible internet are now struggling to adjust to new cost barriers quickly rising around the digital space.
Myanmar’s telecoms regulator in December ordered providers to ratchet up prices for mobile data plans, upon which most of the population relies, citing the need to bring charges into line with other countries and reduce harmful internet use.
The country’s leading providers – Telenor Myanmar, Ooredoo Myanmar, MPT and the military-backed Mytel – now sell roughly 1 gigabyte (GB) of data for 1,799-1,999 kyat ($1), compared with 935-999 kyat ($0.50) previously, according to digital rights advocacy group AccessNow.
In January, the military government announced it would triple the corporate tax rate for mobile and fixed-line internet providers to 15 percent, putting further pressure on telecoms to raise their prices.
Authorities have also ordered vendors to collect a one-time “activation fee” of 20,000 kyats ($11) for each new SIM card sold, on top of the price of the card itself.
Against the backdrop of these cost barriers, the government has renewed a push to pass a cybersecurity law that, among other things, criminalises the use of VPNs, which are commonly used to bypass a lengthy blacklist of websites, including popular social media platforms such as Facebook.
While the legislation has yet to become law, the military has already begun enforcing some of its provisions, such as stopping people on the street to search their phones for VPNs.
Wai Phyo Myint, Myanmar representative for AccessNow, told Al Jazeera the mobile data price hikes and anxiety around the cybersecurity law would push people off the internet – regardless of their political leanings.
“We see this deliberate attempt to make sure this mobile data is not affordable and that the internet is not accessible to the majority of people that rely on this connection,” Wai Phyo said.
Before the coup, Myanmar’s telecoms industry was growing at a rapid clip, driven by voracious demand for mobile data. Speaking at a 2018 media event, then Telenor Myanmar CEO Lars Erik Tellmann reported that customers used 5.6 GB of data each month on average, while predicting usage would increase dramatically by 2022 due to the “growing hunger for mobile data” among the Myanmar public.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which pushed much of everyday life online, likely accelerated that demand.
“During the Covid situation, we need the internet more than really any other time,” said Wai Phyo.
“There are kids going to school online, people getting medical services online. So the military’s actions have been quite crucial. They’re trying to cut the basic needs of the people in an attempt to stop the revolution, but at the same time, this is affecting many not in the revolution.”
The post-coup near collapse of the Myanmar economy – which the International Labour Organisation estimates shed about 1.6 million jobs last year – has already stretched household budgets thin. The blanket nature of the government’s measures ensures that many households are being affected whether or not they are involved in the country’s ongoing civil disobedience movement against the military.
Vicky Bowman, a long-term resident of Myanmar and director of the Yangon-based Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, told Al Jazeera the price hikes would weigh heaviest on lower-income families.
“The economic downturn has meant that some people are resorting to pawning or selling their mobile phone to buy food,” Bowman said, citing local surveys of garment workers that highlighted this trend. “There’s the opportunity cost of holding a phone when you need to eat, combined with declining affordability of data. This is bound to lead to reduced use.”
One of the military’s first actions after seizing power was to tighten its grip on the digital world, particularly through internet blackouts.
Although the government has eased off regular internet shutdowns in Yangon, other parts of Myanmar, particularly Karenni State, are continuing to experience persistent cuts to access.
In a report released last month, digital rights group Top10VPN estimated the Myanmar government cost the economy $2.8bn through internet shutdowns in 2021.
While the economic pain is being felt by households across the country, the military government itself is also feeling the bite.
Jack Myint, senior country manager for Myanmar at the US-ASEAN Business Council, told Al Jazeera the military likely viewed the increased taxation on the telecom sector as a way to both achieve its security goals and raise much-needed funds.
“The junta needs to increase its spending on the military and arms procurement to maintain coherence and loyalty among its rank and file, whose morale is at an all-time low,” Myint said.
“This creates very real financial needs, and a very clear reason why they’re raising taxes on all fronts. Hikes on telcos and SIM cards just so happen to serve the dual task of increasing its coffers while also limiting public internet usage, which is the key forum for dissent.”
Kay Mile, who wrote under a pseudonym, contributed to this report.