Myanmar military blocks Facebook, social media as pressure grows

Activists say at least three arrested in Myanmar’s second city hours after military blocked Facebook and other social media in a bid to quell dissent.

People protest outside Mandalay Medical University against Monday's military coup [Reuters]

Myanmar’s military government reportedly arrested at least three protesters on Thursday, hours after it blocked Facebook and other social media platforms in a bid to quell dissent after detaining the country’s elected leaders and seizing power in a coup.

Facebook, used by about half Myanmar’s 53 million people, has emerged as a key platform for opposition to Monday’s coup with photos of civil disobedience campaigns and nightly pot-and-pan protests widely shared.

The Ministry of Communications and Transport said the restrictions would remain in place until February 7.

“Currently the people who are troubling the country’s stability … are spreading fake news and misinformation and causing misunderstanding among people by using Facebook,” the ministry said in a letter.

Shortly afterwards, police detained a number of people after a small street protest in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-biggest city.

Video on Facebook showed around 20 people outside Mandalay Medical University, according to Reuters, in what appeared to be the first on-the-ground protests since the generals seized power on Monday and detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and numerous government and party officials. One banner read “People protest against military coup”.

To silence online activity

The move to silence online activity came after police filed charges against Aung San Suu Kyi for illegally importing communications equipment, and as the United Nations said it was doing all it could to mobilise an international response to the military takeover.

The UN Security Council called  for the release of Suu Kyi and other detainees, and voiced “deep concern” over the state of emergency. But it stopped short of condemning the coup.

The 15-member body said in a statement agreed by consensus that they “stressed the need to uphold democratic institutions and processes, refrain from violence, and fully respect human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law.”

Council members include China and Russia, who have veto power and have traditionally shielded Myanmar from significant council action. China also has a large economic interest in Myanmar.

Online restrictions spread

NetBlocks, which monitors online services worldwide, said restrictions on Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp by the state-owned Internet provider MPT appeared to have spread to other providers. People were using VPNs to get around the blocks, it said.

“Facebook products are now restricted on multiple internet providers in #Myanmar as operators comply with an apparent blocking order,” Netblocks wrote on Twitter.

Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, confirmed the disruption.

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone urged authorities to restore connectivity “so that people in Myanmar can communicate with their families and friends and access important information”.

Most people in Myanmar access Facebook through their mobile phones and it is also a crucial means of communication for businesses and government, although it has been linked to hate speech and disinformation.

“The Internet only really became available to most of the population following 2011,” Herve Lemahieu, director of the Power and Diplomacy Programme at Australia’s Lowy Institute told Al Jazeera. “(The block) will be terrible in terms of its consequences not only in terms of organising a response to this coup but also in terms of conducting day to day business and economic activity. These platforms are absolutely critical and have become so over the past 10 years.”

Aung San Suu Kyi, the founder of the National League for Democracy (NLD) is under house arrest in the capital, Naypyidaw, according to her party, but the generals have not commented on her whereabouts.

The NLD won about 80 percent of the vote in polls on November 8, according to the election commission but the military has refused to accept the result, making unsubstantiated allegations of fraud.

The United Nations said it would increase international pressure to ensure the will of the people is respected.

“We will do everything we can to mobilise all the key actors and international community to put enough pressure on Myanmar to make sure that this coup fails,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said during an interview broadcast by The Washington Post newspaper on Wednesday.

Myanmar Army armoured vehicles on the streets of Mandalay after the military seized power on Monday. UN chief Antonio Guterres says the UN will do all it can to ensure the coup fails [Stringer/Reuters]

“It is absolutely unacceptable after elections – elections that I believe took place normally – and after a large period of transition.”

‘Ludicrous’ charges

Police said six walkie-talkie radios had been found in a search of Aung San Suu Kyi’s home in Naypyidaw, claiming they had been imported illegally and used without permission.

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), a group of legislators from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations described the charges against Aung San Suu Kyi as ludicrous.

“This is an absurd move by the junta to try to legitimise their illegal power grab,” APHR chairman and Malaysian MP Charles Santiago said in a statement, urging the international community to intervene.

“We have been here before. ASEAN and the international community all know where this is likely to head: back to a ruthless military dictatorship.”

In court documents, police requested Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention “in order to question witnesses, request evidence and seek legal counsel after questioning the defendant”.

A separate document showed police also filed charges against deposed President Win Myint, who was also detained on Monday, for violating protocols to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

As the leader of Myanmar’s democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi spent about 15 years under house arrest between 1989 and 2010 and she remains hugely popular at home despite the damage to her international reputation over the plight of the country’s mostly Muslim Rohingya.

The military had ruled Myanmar from 1962 until the NLD won power in 2015 under a constitution that was written by the generals and guaranteed them 25 percent of all seats in parliament and a prime role in government.

The junta headed by Army chief General Min Aung Hlaing has declared a one-year state of emergency and new elections without giving a timetable for them.

On Twitter, which remained available in Myanmar, #CivilDisobedienceMovement was the top trending hashtag in the country. Close behind was #JusticeForMyanmar.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies