Since the military coup in February, Myanmar’s national army has cracked down on coup protesters, while deadly fighting continues to target rebel armies that oppose junta rule.
While fighting those battles, Myanmar also is fighting to get online, because dozens of towns reportedly are without internet access.
The country has suffered regular internet shutdowns for most of the year, which the junta says are for the sake of “stability” in efforts to prevent disinformation and fake news.
On Tuesday, Htaike Htaike Aung, an internet freedom activist in Myanmar, posted on social media that internet access in 25 towns and cities had been cut off.
The military government has denied responsibility for the blackouts, however, instead blaming Myanmar’s local citizen defense forces for the shutdowns, according to news organization Mizzima.
Myanmar’s internet woes this year have been made evident in a report from Freedom House, a nonprofit research institute. The organization ranks the internet freedom of countries, based on factors such as content limitation and violation of user rights, on a 100-point scale. Myanmar ranked 30th in 2020, but this year it rose to 17, which is categorized as “not free.”
The report said the junta began shutting down the internet shortly after the coup and soon took control of Myanmar’s telecommunication regulators. The political situation resulted in one of Myanmar’s major operators, the Norwegian group Telenor, quitting operations inside the country.
The military then blocked social media platforms and at least seven online news outlets. In March, five media outlets had their licenses revoked.
Pro-democracy activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi told VOA’s Burmese Service that the military was attempting a “digital coup” along with its political coup.
Aung Thu Nyein, a political analyst from Myanmar, told VOA that internet shutdowns allow the junta to counter resistance in the country’s more defiant regions.
“The main reason for [the] Internet shutdown is to control information from the problematic areas, especially video footage of fighting and human rights abuses," he said. "Additionally, the authorities can closely monitor those people who are still working under limited bandwidth.
“Almost all of these areas are hotbeds of civilian resistance against the military, such as Kayah, Kachin states, and Sagaing and Magwe regions,” he said.
People living in Myanmar rely heavily on internet access, especially social media platforms such as Facebook, to read the news. In many regions, internet blackouts mean there is no other way to independently learn of events throughout the country.
The analyst added that in ethnic states, people rely heavily on the internet to manage their finances.
“In rural areas, many people rely on the internet for their money transactions by Wave Money or KPay, et cetera. [They now must] rely on old ways of communication and stay disconnected,” he added.
It’s not the first time areas of Myanmar have experienced inaccessibility to the web. In 2019, Rakhine state endured “the world’s longest internet shutdown” according to Human Rights Watch.
Even then, the purpose was to limit information, according to Aung Thu Nyein.
“The military did so earlier in Rakhine state a few years ago in order to obstruct among the activists and fighters of the movement to disseminate less information out online,” the analyst said. “As far as I understand, the government blocked the system of advanced 3G and 4G, but they allow 2G to barely communicate by phone and SMS.”
Military spokesman Zaw Min Tun denied the military's involvement at the time.
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, saw most of its modern history governed under military rule up until 2011.
After the November 2020 general elections, the military claimed unsubstantiated electoral fraud, removed the democratically elected government, detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, and then followed with a slew of criminal charges.
Internet cuts also are forcing schools to cancel classes in a further blow to education. Some teachers now are working as self-employed instructors, after refusing to work within military-controlled schools.
Nway, an English primary teacher in Yangon, told VOA that classes have been affected because of regular internet shutdowns, while acknowledging other areas have it even worse.
“I need to cancel some of my teaching sessions. We need to teach substitute sessions on weekends. Some parents understand the situation, but some don’t understand, and they are not happy when the connection from my side is poor,” Nway said.
“Most people think that their children are lucky to have access to education in comparing with those in IDP [internally displaced people] camps,” the teacher added.
Tens of thousands displaced
Tens of thousands of civilians reportedly have been displaced since the coup, mostly in Myanmar’s ethnic regions, including Karen state.
Wahkushee Tenner, the director of the Karen Peace Support Network, a civil society network providing support for the vulnerable, said communication with some is nonexistent.
“[I] can’t connect with people in Karen state, or families in Burma [Myanmar]. Their internet is off, cannot get updates from the ground,” her message to VOA read.
The future of Myanmar has been a hot topic of debate during the U.N.’s 76th General Assembly, which concludes this week. One of the key issues is who will take the country’s U.N. seat — either a representative from the military junta or an official from the former democratically elected government.
The National Unity Government, an inclusive shadow government made up of ousted democratically elected politicians, announced a “defensive war” against the military earlier this month.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, the military has killed at least 1,139 people since the coup. The junta denies it.