Myanmar generals shut down Internet as thousands protest coup

Protesters hold up the three-finger salute during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon, on Feb 6, 2021. PHOTO: AFP
Protesters gather in a demonstration against the military coup, in Yangon, Myanmar, on Feb 6, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Protesters hold up the three-finger salute during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon, on Feb 6, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

YANGON - Myanmar's military regime shut down the Internet nationwide on Saturday (Feb 6) as thousands of people rallied on the streets of Yangon and Mandalay to protest the Feb 1 military coup.

The protests were the largest since Monday's putsch, when the military detained state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as several top politicians and newly elected lawmakers convened to open Parliament.

Ms Suu Kyi will remain under detention until Feb 15 pending investigation into breaching the country's import and export law.

Wearing red - the colour of the ousted National League for Democracy party - and holding banners condemning the military dictatorship, the protesters marched down the streets of Yangon as policemen in riot gear stood guard.

Many sang "Kabar Ma Kyay Bu" (We Won't Be Satisfied Until The End Of The World), a song associated with the 1988 student uprising against the then ruling military junta. As of Saturday afternoon, there were no violent confrontations, according to witnesses contacted by The Straits Times.

But the Internet shutdown knocked government websites offline, rendered mobile banking apps unusable, and plunged the country already hit by bans on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram into an information black hole.

According to online monitoring group NetBlocks, Internet connectivity on Saturday had collapsed to 16 per cent of ordinary levels from about 2pm Myanmar time.

Phone calls could still be made, but locals avoided them where possible, fearing they could be under surveillance.

Anti-coup activists who have been coordinating a nationwide civil disobedience movement said they had anticipated the Internet shutdown.

"We have prepared for this," political activist Moe Thway told The Straits Times when reached by phone on Saturday. "We are now using a secret code. Even without the Internet, we can organise and do a lot of things."

Observers do not expect the Internet shutdown to last beyond the weekend because of the widespread disruption it would cause to banking and payment systems, as well as the economy in general.

The shutdown drew swift condemnation from the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights. Its chairman Charles Santiago called it an "odious act that puts the people of Myanmar at even greater risk".

"If they think this will silence the ever-escalating calls inside the country for them to reverse their illegal power grab, then I'm afraid to say they've got that part wrong. Myanmar's people have made it clear: they demand the return of democracy," he said in comments posted on Twitter.

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Commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, who now holds full power under a one-year state of emergency declared on Monday, has used allegations of massive fraud in Myanmar's Nov 8 general election to justify the coup. He has promised to hold a fresh election after a full probe and has already appointed new election commissioners.

The senior general's deputy, Vice-Senior General Soe Win, held an online meeting on Friday with Ms Christine Schraner Burgener, the United Nations' special envoy on Myanmar.

According to a UN spokesman, she condemned the military's actions and demanded that all those detained be released.

This first contact between the UN and the Myanmar military regime came after the UN Security Council issued a statement stressing the need to "uphold democratic institutions and processes, refrain from violence and fully respect human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law".

Civil servants across the country, including doctors and teachers, are boycotting work to protest against the power seizure.

Medical staff protesting inside a hospital in Yangon on Feb 3, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Defying attempts by the military to disperse them, about 70 elected NLD lawmakers held their own swearing-in ceremony in Naypyitaw on Thursday, pledging to serve their constituents for the next five years.

In an open letter issued on Friday night, the NLD urged UN secretary general Antonio Guterres: "You are requested to refuse to recognise the military junta who seized power against the existing laws, the existing constitution and the people's will as the government of Myanmar, and not to cooperate with them in every way, and to take every action possible to ensure that the outcome of the 2020 general election can be implemented immediately."

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