Myanmar was plunged into cyber darkness on Saturday with a nationwide internet blackout following an earlier move by the new junta to restrict access to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram amid mounting protests over this week’s coup.
Telenor Myanmar, one of the main internet providers in the country, said the directive from the new junta-led government cites the “circulation of fake news, stability of the nation and interest of the public” as the basis for the order. It said it was bound by local law and called the situation “irregular and difficult.”
“We have employees on the ground and our first priority is to ensure their safety,” the statement said. Voice and SMS services remain available.
“We have emphasized to the authorities that access to telecom services should be maintained at all times, especially during times of conflict, to ensure people’s basic right to freedom of expression and access to information. We deeply regret the impact the shutdown has on the people in Myanmar,” Telenor added.
VICE World News contributors were unreachable online as of Saturday afternoon. One journalist said in a long-distance call that all mobile internet services were down as more protesters streamed into downtown Yangon to demonstrate against the power grab.
Civil society groups called on telecommunication companies and internet service providers in the country to challenge government orders to block the internet. It is understood that the order will last 48 hours but VICE World News was unable to independently verify the length of the shutdown.
“Right now, more than ever, the internet is integral to our survival,” a collection of civil society groups said in a statement. “Without it, we cannot stay connected with each other and the outside world, which heightens the risk of human rights violations against us.”
This week Myanmar’s new military government blocked access to Facebook, the most popular social media platform in the country, in order to safeguard “stability” as anger grows with doctors, teachers, students, celebrities and food delivery riders joining the civil disobedience movement.
Lawmakers who could not take their seats in parliament because of the coup were said to have held a virtual parliament session Friday, creating a shadow cabinet and rejecting military rule.
The junta seized power on Monday with arrests of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy government, citing election irregularities in November polls. International observers have dismissed the claims of fraud in the vote, which Suu Kyi’s party won handily.
Also on Saturday, a top Australian aide to Suu Kyi was detained, Reuters reported, in what was believed to be the first foreigner held by security forces after the coup.
Rights groups slammed the internet blackout as being “heinous and reckless.”
“To shut down the internet amid a volatile coup, a humanitarian crisis and a health pandemic is a heinous and reckless decision,” said Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s deputy regional campaign director in Myanmar.
“Since the 1 February coup, people in Myanmar have been forced into a situation of abject uncertainty. An expanded internet shutdown will put them at greater risk of more egregious human rights violations at the hands of the military.”