Myanmar internet shutdowns are still affecting reporting almost a year on from the coup

Internet shutdowns have been used from the first day of the coup to stop the spread of information and to make it harder for people to fight back. For the residents of Myanmar’s large cities, accustomed to round the clock connection, “it’s been a total disaster.” Said Shunn Lei, a women’s labour activist from Yangon, who was an organiser in the factory worker strikes early in the coup.

“a total disaster”

On 1 February 2021 the military, called the Tatmadaw, took power removing the elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government and installing their own officials. The Tatmadaw claimed that the elections, held in November 2020, had been rigged. Myint Swe, the acting president, declared a yearlong state of emergency that would end with holding new elections.

The Tatmadaw shut down phone and mobile data networks before commencing the coup, stopping the news spreading quickly. This resulted in it “feeling like a totally normal day” in Yangon, said Shunn Lei. The new government then imposed a curfew and full internet blackout (including wifi) 9pm to 4am, until April.

The internet shutdowns have never been country wide total blackouts for extended periods. Instead, the government has employed them tactically. Mobile networks and phone lines will be shut down before a military or police operation, such as “a mass arrest or massacre.”

“People had to go full analogue”

Activists have adapted to analogue methods of mass communication, such as printing newsletters with titles including Rebel Gazette, Spring Revolution and Myanmar Newsletter. The activists distribute them “discreetly in markets”  or quickly “from a bridge”, and then “disappear” to avoid arrest.

For people of the Bamar majority ethnic group, these measures are just one of the ways in which they are now experiencing repression by the military, that have been a familiar part of life for the people living in the minority ethnic regions of the country. 

In these states, as well as never having had reliable or widespread internet, the blackout tactics had already been used in ongoing wars with the minority ethnic armies. People in Rakhine and Chin states were subjected to the world’s longest internet shutdown, before the coup started.

“You can’t verify or fact check, so you have to just let it go”

Gabriel Ernst, a writer for the news site Din Deng that reports on Thailand and Myanmar, said that the lack of communication in and out of rural areas makes verifying events very difficult: “Lots of small things going unreported because they can’t be verified in rural areas… so the story never gets out and the news cycle moves on.”

Shunn Lei then added: “I’m sure there are lots of cases of a villager going out in a field and stepping on a landmine. Or a girl goes out to get vegetables and gets raped and killed by a soldier… you can’t verify or fact check, so you have to just let it go.”

Internet shutdowns have been used from the first day of the coup to stop the spread of information and to make it harder for people to fight back. For the residents of Myanmar’s large cities, accustomed to round the clock connection, “it’s been a total disaster.” Said Shunn Lei, a women’s labour activist from Yangon,…

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