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Myanmar's internet shutdown: What you need to know

by Beh Lih Yi | @BehLihYi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 25 February 2021 11:30 GMT

Demonstrators take part in a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, February 16, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

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The military has imposed information blackouts as people turn to VPN and encrypted messaging apps to skirt restrictions

By Beh Lih Yi

Feb 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Myanmar has endured several internet blackouts since a military coup in February.

Internet in the country has been shut off every night for the past week, said NetBlocks, an internet monitoring group while social media sites including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook have been blocked.

"The regime of shutdowns and filters has produced an information vacuum that now severely limits news coverage and reporting of human rights violations," NetBlocks said on Twitter.

Facebook on Thursday said it had banned the Myanmar military from using its Facebook and Instagram platforms with immediate effect, as weeks of mass demonstrations continue in the Southeast Asian country after the military seized power.

Here's what you need to know about the internet shutdown:

Why are the internet shutdowns happening?

NetBlocks first reported widespread internet disruptions on Feb. 1 - with connectivity fallen to half of the ordinary levels - as the coup unfolded and leaders including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi were arrested.

A national-scale internet blackout was ordered by the junta on Feb. 6, after demonstrators first began to take to the streets to protest the military coup.

The blockade fuelled more public anger at the coup that has sparked global outrage, and access was restored a day later. However a night-time shutdown has been imposed again this week.

Has this happened before?

Yes. In June 2019, local authorities imposed an internet shutdown in two of Myanmar's poorest states - Rakhine and neighbouring Chin - on grounds of emergency amid a growing insurgency.

Affecting more than a million people, human rights groups called it the longest internet blackout in the world.

Rakhine is the region from which hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled in 2017 after a military crackdown that the government said was ordered in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.

How have people been impacted by the disruption?

The information blackouts at night have heightened fears, after hundreds of people were detained by the army since Feb. 1 , many in night-time raids.

"There is chaos and confusion, and the people of Myanmar - and the world - have a right to document events, access information, and communicate with each other," said Felicia Anthonio, a campaigner with the non-profit Access Now, in a statement.

Some tech-based businesses in Myanmar have closed temporarily citing the intermittent disruptions.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, internet shutdowns could also hinder access to health information which is "particularly vital", said Brad Adams, Asia director at the campaign group Human Rights Watch.

The United Nations secretary-general António Guterres has said the right to access information "must not be disrupted" in Myanmar, while digital rights experts said the blockade could create more confusion.

How are people getting around the internet shutdown?

Myanmar internet users have rushed to download virtual private network (VPN) services to skirt the ban on social media, used by people to mobilise demonstrations against the coup.

Demand for VPN services in Myanmar skyrocketed 7,200% hours after Facebook was banned on Feb. 4, according to Top10VPN, a London-based group focusing on digital privacy.

People have also turned to encrypted messaging apps like Signal, which they can access without using VPN for the time being.

Other messaging apps such as Bridgefy and Briar, which allow peer-to-peer communication networks during mobile data outages, are not widely used in Myanmar yet.

This article was updated on 25 February 2021 to include Facebook's ban


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(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi in Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)