Myanmar’s junta shut down the internet in the country on Saturday, February 6, as thousands of people took to the streets of Yangon to denounce this week’s coup and demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
In the first such demonstration since the generals seized power on Monday, activists chanted, “Military dictator, fail, fail; Democracy, win, win” and held banners reading “Against military dictatorship.” Bystanders offered them food and water.
Many in the crowd wore red, the color of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) which won November 8 elections in a landslide, a result the generals have refused to recognise claiming fraud.
In Catholic churches, people were seen praying as a show of support for calls for peace.
The Catholic Church in Myanmar has declared February 7 as a “day of prayer and fasting” for peace in the country.
“There are always nonviolent ways for expressing our protests,” said Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon in a message to the people released on February 3.
The cardinal also called for dialogue, saying that peace is the only way forward in the country.
Cardinal Bo said he is praying for a durable solution to the “periodic darkness that envelops our dear nation,” which he described as journeying through one of the most challenging times of its history
The prelate appealed to the people of Myanmar to stay calm, and never fall victim to violence.
“We have shed enough blood,” he said.
The archbishop of Yangon stressed that the country is living through a time of pandemic and pleaded with health workers not to resign their positions in protest at the current political situation.
He called on the military to treat the civilian population with “great dignity and peace.”
“Let there be no violence against our dear people of Myanmar,” he said. He also urged them to respect the rights of elected representatives who are currently under arrest.
As the protest swelled and activists issued calls on social media for people to join the march, the country’s internet crashed.
Monitoring group NetBlocks Internet Observatory reported a “national-scale internet blackout,” saying on Twitter that connectivity had fallen to 54 percent of ordinary levels. Witnesses reported a shutdown of mobile data services and wifi.
The junta did not respond to requests for comment. It has tried to silence dissent by temporarily blocking Facebook and extended a social media crackdown to Twitter and Instagram on Saturday.
Norwegian mobile phone company Telenor Asa said authorities had ordered internet providers to deny access to Twitter and Instagram “until further notice.”
Many had sidestepped the ban on sites such as Facebook by using virtual private networks to conceal their locations, but the more general disruption to mobile data services would severely limit access to independent news and information.
“Internet already down but we will not stop raising our voice,” wrote a Twitter user with the handle Maw Htun Aung. “Let’s fight peacefully for democracy and freedom. Let’s fight until the last minute for our future.”
Myanmar civil society organisations appealed to internet providers and mobile networks to challenge the junta’s orders blocking internet access.
“By complying with their directives, your companies are essentially legitimizing the military’s authority, despite international condemnation of this very body,” a coalition of groups said in a statement.
Telenor said before the internet shutdown it was legally obliged to follow the order to block some social media, but “highlighted the directive’s contradiction with international human rights law.”
Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for Campaigns, Ming Yu Hah, said shutting down the internet amid a coup and the COVID-19 pandemic was a “heinous and reckless decision”.
Army chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power alleging fraud although the electoral commission says it has found no evidence of widespread irregularities in the November vote.
The junta announced a one-year state of emergency and has promised to hand over power after new elections, without giving a timeframe. – With Reuters report