Internet blackout in Myanmar as generals seek to curb anti-coup protests

Junta widened its crackdown on social media by ordering Twitter and Instagram to be blocked

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Internet users in Myanmar were experiencing a "national-scale blackout", a monitoring group said on Saturday, as the military stepped up efforts to prevent protests against its coup that ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and halted a transition to democracy.

The NetBlocks Internet Observatory said in a post on Twitter that real-time network data showed connectivity had fallen to 54 per cent of ordinary levels and that users reported a shutdown of both mobile data services and Wi-Fi connections.

Myanmar's junta extended a social media blockade to Twitter and Instagram on Saturday, days after a temporary blockade on Facebook.

Norwegian mobile phone company Telenor ASA said authorities ordered internet providers to enforce the latest ban "until further notice".

Demand for VPNs has soared in Myanmar, allowing some people to evade the ban, but users reported more general disruption to mobile data services that most people in the country of 53 million rely on for news and communication.

"We lost freedom, justice and urgently need democracy," wrote one Twitter user. "Please hear the voice of Myanmar."

Despite the clampdown, Myanmar saw its largest anti-coup protests so far on Saturday.

About 3,000 demonstrators gathered on a road near Yangon University, most holding up the three-finger salute that has come to symbolise resistance to the army takeover.

"Down with the military dictatorship!" the crowd yelled, many donning red headbands – the colour associated with Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

A large riot police contingent blocked nearby roads, with two water cannon trucks parked at the scene.

Protesters left the area without confrontation but were expected to gather again in another part of the commercial capital later on Saturday.

"We are here to fight for our next generation, to free them from a military dictatorship," one woman at the rally told AFP. "We have to end it now."

Army chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power on Monday, alleging fraud in a November 8 election that the NLD had won in a landslide. The electoral commission dismissed the army's accusations.

Ms Suu Kyi, 75, has not been seen in public since the coup.

She spent some 15 years under house arrest during a struggle against previous juntas before the troubled democratic transition began in 2011.

Khin Maung Zaw, a lawyer representing Ms Suu Kyi and ousted President Win Myint, said they were being held in their homes and that he was unable to meet them because they were still being questioned.

Ms Suu Kyi faces charges of importing six walkie-talkies illegally while Win Myint is accused of flouting coronavirus restrictions.

"Of course, we want unconditional release as they have not broken the law," he said.

The takeover drew international condemnation. The UN Security Council called for the release of all detainees and the US said it was considering targeted sanctions.

Although there have been no mass street demonstrations in a country with a history of bloody crackdowns on protesters, a civil disobedience movement is growing and every night people bang pots and pans in a show of anger.

In addition to about 150 arrests in the wake of the coup reported by human rights groups, local media said about 30 people have been detained over the noise protests.

Teachers became the latest group to join a civil disobedience campaign with some lecturers refusing to work or co-operate with the authorities. The movement that began with doctors has also brought in some government ministry employees.

International pressure on the junta has increased.

The UN Myanmar envoy Christine Schraner Burgener strongly condemned the military's actions in a call with the country's deputy military chief Soe Win, and called for the immediate release of all those detained, a UN spokesman said on Friday.

The junta defended its action in a statement from the foreign ministry, saying the refusal to take action on the army's election complaints was "tantamount to the attempt to take the sovereignty of the Union by wrongful forcible means".

It said the army would practise "genuine and discipline-flourishing multiparty democracy" suited to Myanmar and then transfer responsibilities after a fair election.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in a phone call on Friday to condemn the coup in Myanmar, the State Department said.

China, which has close links to Myanmar's military, joined the consensus on the Security Council statement, but has not condemned the army takeover and has said countries should act in the interests of its neighbour's stability.

The US is considering targeted sanctions on individuals and on entities controlled by the military.

The generals have few overseas interests, but the military's extensive business interests could suffer if foreign partners leave. Japanese drinks company Kirin Holdings said on Friday that it would leave.

Telenor, another company attracted to invest by Myanmar's decade of opening, said it was legally obliged to follow the order to block some social media, but "highlighted the directive’s contradiction with international human rights law".

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

"A news and information blackout by the coup leaders can’t hide their politically motivated arrests and other abuses," said Asia director Brad Adams.