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Myanmar Military Blocks Access to Facebook as Resistance to Coup Grows

Police stand guard as they wait for protests against coup in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 4, 2021.
Police stand guard as they wait for protests against coup in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 4, 2021.

Myanmar’s military government blocked public access to Facebook Thursday amid growing popular resistance to this week’s overthrow of the country’s civilian government.

The Ministry of Communications and Information issued a statement saying the social media giant would be blocked until Sunday in order to keep “stability” in the country.

Telenor Myanmar, the country’s leading mobile network operator, confirmed it had been ordered to block Facebook, but said it “does not believe that the request is based on necessity and proportionality, in accordance with international human rights law.”

The U.S.-based company urged Myanmar’s military leaders to “restore connectivity” in order to ensure citizens “can communicate with family and friends and access important information.”

Facebook is the most popular social media platform in Myanmar, used by civilians and military leaders alike.

People in Myanmar angry over the takeover have taken to Facebook to post images and livestream various protests. Residents in Yangon and other cities have taken to the streets for two consecutive nights to bang on pots and pans and honk car horns to protest the coup.

Growing condemnation

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Wednesday that the United Nations would work to mobilize key international actors to pressure Myanmar “to make sure” the country’s military coup fails.

“It is absolutely unacceptable after elections — elections that I believe took place normally. And after a large period of transition, it is absolutely unacceptable to reverse the result of the elections and the will of the people,” the U.N. chief told an online discussion with The Washington Post.

Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, seized power Monday, declaring a yearlong state of emergency and detaining de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint, among others.

The coup took place following days of tension between the military and the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), which won the November elections. The Tatmadaw has refused to accept the results, alleging massive election fraud.

Guterres said if anything, NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi “was too close to the military,” defending its brutal offensive against Rohingya Muslims that caused nearly a million of them to flee to neighboring Bangladesh three years ago.

“I hope that democracy will be able to make progress again in Myanmar,” Guterres said. “But for that, all the prisoners must be released, the constitutional order must be reestablished, and I hope that the international community will be able to come together.”

Suu Kyi held for 2 weeks

Earlier Wednesday, authorities in Myanmar filed charges against Suu Kyi for allegedly illegally importing and using six unregistered walkie-talkie radios found during a search of her home in the capital, Naypyitaw.

Her NLD Party said on Facebook that she has been ordered held for two weeks. They also said the authorities had raided party offices in multiple regions of the country.

Win Myint was separately charged with violating coronavirus containment measures while campaigning for last November’s election.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. is “disturbed” by reports of the new charges.

“We call on the military to immediately release them all. And all the civilian and political leaders, journalists and detained human rights activists. And to restore the democratically elected government power, as President Biden has said the military seizure is a direct assault on the country's transition to democracy and the rule of law,” Price said.

On Tuesday, the State Department made the legal determination that the military’s actions constituted a “coup,” triggering certain restrictions on foreign assistance to Myanmar.

Top administration officials have said the United States “will take action against those responsible if these steps are not reversed,” while continuing vital humanitarian and development programs.

Troubled history

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has long struggled between civilian and military rule, but until the coup had been enjoying a hopeful transition to democracy.

A British colony until 1948, the country was ruled by military-backed dictators from 1962 until 2010.

An uprising in 1988 pushed for an election in 1990, which the NLD won in a landslide. But the elected members of Parliament were imprisoned, and the dictatorship continued.

Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar's assassinated independence hero, Gen. Aung San, emerged as a leader in the pro-democracy rallies and in the NLD. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while under house arrest.

In 2010, Senior Gen. Than Shwe announced the country would be handed over to civilian leaders, who included retired generals. They freed political prisoners, including the lawmakers from the NLD, and Suu Kyi, who was elected in a 2012 by-election and later became the state counsellor of Myanmar.

While popular among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, Suu Kyi, 75, has seen her international reputation decline over her government’s treatment of the country's mostly Muslim Rohingya minority.

In 2017, an army crackdown against the Rohingya, sparked by deadly attacks on police stations in Rakhine State, led hundreds of thousands of them to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, where they remain.

The International Criminal Court is investigating Myanmar for crimes against humanity.

UN correspondent Margaret Besheer and State Department correspondent Nike Ching contributed to this report.