In a move that is starving the resistance and hurting businesses, Myanmar’s junta has been cracking down on opposition forces by cutting off mobile internet service and telephone lines in the war-torn areas of the Sagaing and Magway regions and Kayah and Chin states, all strongholds of local armed groups, local defense forces and aid groups say.
That cutoff of communications capabilities also appears to presage major fighting.
A week after the opposition National Unity Government declared a “defensive war” Sept. 7 the junta blocked internet access in Gangaw, Myaing, Htee Lin, Taungtwingyi townships in Magway; Falam, Tedim, Tonzang, Matupi, Mindat, Kanpetlet Paletwa, Thantlang townships in Chin; and Ayartaw, Yinmabin, Kani, Pale, Ye-U, Tantse, and Budalin townships in Sagaing to restrict the flow of information and communication, local resistance groups said. Six of Kayah’s seven townships are being affected by a mobile internet service cut. According to residents and local armed groups, mobile internet service can only be accessed in the capital, Loikaw.
Other reports indicate the shutdowns are more widespread, that internet service had been cut off in Sagaing except for four cities. Some internet providers had, according to the reports, cut mobile phone data, some had reduced the speed to 2G.
An operator with a call center operated by MPT, one of Myanmar’s telecommunications companies, told VOA Burmese in March, "Kalay, Sagaing and Shwebo three cities have mobile internet access, and the rest of the cities in Sagaing region including Monywa, have 2G internet service from March 3. However, SMS service available for texting with 2G." A query by VOA Burmese on Wednesday morning went unanswered and its journalists continue to experience difficulties in contacting sources in Myanmar due to mobile services outages.
A resident of Salingyi township told VOA Burmese that mobile internet was cut off on the night of March 3 and remains so in 23 townships in Sagaing, where clashes between military and local People's Defense Forces were intensifying.
Locals in Sagaing’s Depayin township also reported in early March that mobile internet services from network operators were no longer available. Locals said that there has been no fighting but internet lines had been cut off in several Depayin villages, where thousands were fleeing the war after the military council cleared the area.
Military operations follow cutoffs
“After internet and telephone lines were cut off, the junta carried out heavy operations indiscriminately, dropping bombs on civilian villages, and firing guns and heavy artillery to ward off resistance forces active in the area,” said a People’s Defense Forces member in Sagaing’s Yinmabin township.
The military operations forced local armed groups to give up military bases. Although the armed groups would not say how many bases they had to give up, news reports published by the junta said that many bases were seized in Sagaing and Kayah. A Karenni PDF source – the Karenni are one of Myanmar’s ethnic groups -- said they had to give up many bases because they did not have enough weapons. Most of the local support for weapons is based on internet-dependent mobile banking.
Residents said March 29 that telephone lines had been cut off for a week in Mindat, where fighting between the military and local Chinland Defense Force groups had been going on for about a week. According to observers, the junta cut off communications to the CDF.
Mindat resident Ko Moun No told VOA Burmese, "Telephone lines have been cut off since the military troops reinforced from Mindat to Matupi on March 26, only very limited food supply allowed into the city as well. … Now, the whole Mindat township lost communication. I cannot communicate through internet either."
Villagers in areas where the internet has been blocked also say military forces commit human rights violations there, including torching houses and religious buildings, killing civilians and looting villagers’ goods and property. The junta always blames such incidents on ethnic armies and opposition people’s defense forces.
“The Myanmar military is as ruthless as ever. There have been many unreported incidents in our village,” said a 46-year-old villager in Magway’s Myaing township.
Junta spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Tun vowed to reporters in Naypyitaw, Myanmar’s capital, on March 24 that the military planned to intensify anti-resistance activities in Sagaing with the help of militias allied with the government.
Data for Myanmar, a research firm, said April 14 that from Feb. 1, 2021, to April 13, 2022, an estimated 9,187 homes were burned down by junta forces and groups working with them including 5,617 in Sagaing. The California-based Chin Human Rights Organization said the junta destroyed 34 churches and 15 other Christian religious buildings in Chin state between February 2021 and January 2022.
Local resistance chapters said they use walkie-talkies to communicate with allied forces to get around the lack of internet access and unreliable mobile phone signals.
“All are donated by individual donors living abroad," an official of the Myaing People’s Defense Force told VOA on April 12. Some devices can transmit a signal up to 16 kilometers, the maximum distance can be used, he added.
In addition to the internet blockage, telephone lines are also cut off ahead of heavy military operations and airstrikes. When this happens, armed groups and their medical teams prepare for battle. Once internet and phone services are cut, they are not restored.
“When mobile and internet are cut off, we need to be ready and stationed near the front line to provide immediate assistance,” said Radi Ohm, a member of an NUG mobile medical support team that works in Sagaing and Chin.
Members of the local armed groups say they have found ways to communicate without the internet -- mainly walkie-talkies, but also cell phones for calls and texts when there is a signal -- but the cutoffs have had a significant impact on the flow of funding. Monetary support domestically has dropped dramatically as mobile payment services such as KBZ Pay and Wave Money, two payment systems in Myanmar, no longer work. Foreign contributions are handled differently.
As the junta’s bombing campaigns, airstrikes and offensives have created widespread displacement of civilians in the region, volunteer aid groups in conflict areas say they cannot provide enough food and medical care because of inadequate funding.
“The junta often freezes the money in the KBZ Pay account. It also blocked mobile SIM cards used for KBZ Pay accounts. We are losing a lot of money because of this,” a volunteer with a group helping conflict-area refugees based on the Shan-Kayah border told VOA on April 12. “We received limited support from the NUG, but it is not enough,” she added.
Cutoff hitting civilians, too
It is not just the opposition fighters who are being hit by the communications cutoffs.
Ko Thaung, a Chin political analyst, told VOA Burmese that internet and telephone lines have been cut off, which is causing a lot of trouble for locals, many of whom are worried about losing their businesses if their communications are cut off.
"Communication (internet and telephone lines) were cut off in Mindat and Matupi townships in Chin state. Because military convoys have been hit hard by local PDF attacks, the military is trying to disrupt communication so their movements cannot be traced. This has affected not only for PDF fighters but also the business community, as many people work online and use phones to do business,” he said.
A local relief volunteer in Depayin said he relies on mobile internet for communication and weather information to help those displaced by the fighting.
“Without a functioning communication system, it is difficult to organize aid assistance for refugees spread out in the area. It is in real chaos," he said.
According to a report by the Myanmar Now news site March 4, the junta has ordered Myanmar’s four telecommunication companies, MPT, Telenor, Mytel and Ooredoo, to shut down mobile internet in the 23 townships located in northwestern Sagaing where local PDFs are fighting with the military.
A telecommunications company source told Myanmar Now that the military’s directive referred to Telecommunications Law language giving the Transport and Communication Ministry the absolute power to temporarily block and filter content “for the benefit of the people” to justify the closures.
The 2021 edition of Freedom House’s annual Freedom on the Net report, Myanmar’s internet freedom score has fallen by 14 points since the military coup, the highest level in four years.
The VOA Burmese Service contributed to this report.