Myanmar Junta Blocks Facebook, VPNs as The UN Security Council Voices ‘Deep Concern’

2021-02-04
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Myanmar Junta Blocks Facebook, VPNs as The UN Security Council Voices ‘Deep Concern’ A woman uses her mobile phone to check Facebook in Myanmar's commercial hub Yangon on Feb.4, 2021, as the country's generals ordered internet service providers to restrict access to the social media platform days after they seized power.
AFP

UPDATED at 5:50 P.M. ET on 2021-02-04

Myanmar’s military junta has blocked access to Facebook amid growing civil resistance to the army coup that deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her government, telecoms authorities said Thursday, as the U.N. Security Council expressed concern about the takeover and called for the release of those detained.

As raucous street protests and criticism of the coup on social media were met with arrests Thursday in cities across Myanmar, in New York the U.N. Security Council expressed “deep concern” at the declaration of the junta’s state of emergency and the “arbitrary detention” of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint and others.

“The members of the Security Council expressed concern at the restrictions on civil society, journalists and media workers,” it said a press statement that fell short of condemning the putsch after days of deliberations.

Myanmar’s military seized power Monday, hours before parliament was scheduled to convene new sessions and detained all key politicians, declaring a state of emergency to address accusations of election fraud following the November 2020 vote that was swept by the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD).

The junta issued a directive ordering internet service providers in the country, including state-owned telecom MPT and other companies such as Norway’s Telenor ASA, to cut off access to the social media platform and its related services — Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp.
An additional order barred the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) used to circumvent internet blockages, but many in Myanmar reported using the proxy links to access Facebook.

About half of Myanmar’s 54 million citizens rely on Facebook for internet access, to get news, and to communicate — recently to express discontent with the military power grab. Some users in Myanmar reported they were not able to access several Facebook services.

Facebook will be blocked until Feb. 7 for reasons of stability, the Ministry of Communications and Information said in an internal memo leaked to the public on social media.

“We are aware that access to Facebook is currently disrupted for some people,” said a Facebook company spokesperson in an email to RFA. “We urge authorities to restore connectivity so that people in Myanmar can communicate with their families and friends and access important information.”

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Police officer Thurein Linn (L) and his younger brother, police Lance Corporal Taryar Linn (R), are shown along with an image of Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, in undated photos. Photos courtesy of Thurein Linn and Taryar Linn/Facebook

‘Blow to freedom’

The move drew criticism from New York-based Human Rights Watch, which called it a blow to freedom of expression in Myanmar.

“The Myanmar military junta’s order to suspend Facebook and other communication apps is a direct blow to freedom of expression and the rights of the people to speak out and share information, and should be rescinded immediately,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, in an email.

“The junta is just trying to shut down any online criticism of its rights abusing actions to destroy Burmese democracy and cripple mass mobilization efforts by citizens angered and willing to protest against the military’s seizure of power,” he said.

HRW called on governments around the world to hold accountable the State Administrative Council, as the military junta is known, and its leaders, starting with targeted sanctions.

The military has taken to Facebook in the past to promote its own political agenda, with the profile of defense forces chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing drawing hundreds of thousands of followers before Facebook suspended it along with other military accounts following the army’s brutal 2017 crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.

The campaign of terror left thousands dead — the victims of indiscriminate killings, torture, gang rapes, and village burnings — while more than 740,000 others fled across the border and into Bangladesh.

The military regime led by Min Aung Hlaing has declared a one-year state of emergency during which the junta will direct state and legislative functions. It has said that elections will be held at the end of the period with power turned over to the winner.

Two police officers, who are brothers, were detained for protesting against the military coup after they wrote anti-junta posts on Facebook, their father told RFA on Thursday.

The men, who both work for the police force in Kyangin township, Ayeyarwady region, posted a live video while being arrested by authorities.

Thant Sin, administrator of the township’s Ta Laing Kwin village tract, told RFA that his sons, police officer Thurein Linn and police Lance Corporal Taryar Linn, were picked up while they were on duty Wednesday night.

“Our sons are government staffers, and they were on night duty,” he said.

Thurein Linn broadcast his own arrest on Facebook for several seconds, saying “They are now arresting both me and my brother. The dictators are abusing power in our country. May the dictators fall.”

Thant Sin, who had resigned from his own government position on Tuesday, said that his sons said they did not want to serve the military regime, with one pledging to protect democracy and resist suppression.

“Both of my sons got arrested for writing that,” he said.

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Myanmar residents take part in a noise campaign on a street in Yangon after calls for nonviolent protests against the military coup emerged on social media, Feb. 4, 2021. Credit: AFP

‘Fake news and inflammatory content’

A directive on Wednesday signed by Soe Thein, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Transport and Communications, ordered internet service providers to block access to Facebook until Feb. 7 to stop the dissemination of what the ministry called “fake news and inflammatory content.” The ministry also ordered the companies to block virtual private networks.

Norwegian telecom Telenor issued a statement on Thursday acknowledging receipt of the ministry’s directive to temporarily block Facebook. The statement said the company is concerned that the order is a violation of human rights, but decided to comply with it anyway.

Facebook is operating an “Integrity Operations Centre” around the clock to remove content that incites violence, calls on people to bring weapons to locations across Myanmar, and contains harmful misinformation and rumors, including claims of election fraud or statements supporting the coup, the company said.

Also on Thursday, 70 elected lawmakers in Myanmar capital’s Naypyidaw, who have been holed up inside the besieged municipal guesthouse since the first days of the coup, swore themselves into office for a five-year term to form a parliament as a confrontational response to the military, which had issued 24-hour eviction notices.

Nanda Hla Mying, a spokesman from the military proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), warned that the lawmakers, who signed a petition to serve the peoples’ needs as form of protest against the ruling junta, could further damage the country.

“Negotiations at the roundtable had not been successful and that’s why we had come to this situation,” he said. “It will further damage the country’s prospects if a confrontational move is chosen instead of dialogue. The best thing is to find a solution at the dialogue table.”

More than 400 lawmakers in the 664-seat bicameral legislature have left the municipal guesthouse, but some of those who stayed behind attended a meeting of parliamentarians this morning and signed pledges “to dutifully serve the country” — part of the agenda for a normal opening session of the parliament.

Phyu Phyu Thin, an NLD lawmaker who represents a township in Yangon, said the legislators exercised rights bestowed upon them by voters to convene a parliamentary session wherever a group of MPs could meet.

“We were duly elected by the people, and we have the right to convene a session whenever we have a gathering,” he told RFA. “That’s why we had a meeting this morning and signed pledges to uphold the mandate to serve the country for the next five years.”

“No one can erase or deny the results [of the election],” he added. “We will keep on fighting until was can dismantle the military dictatorship.”

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Myanmar lawmakers who convened a parliamentary session in Naypyidaw in defiance of the military government display signed pledges to uphold their mandate to serve the people, Feb. 4, 2021. Credit: RFA

Civil disobedience

Phyu Phyu Thin said the MPs who stayed behind would try to get online signatures from those who already left the capital as well as from more than 1,000 state and regional lawmakers.

Sai Tun Aye, an elected lawmaker from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy party, said he supported the move by his NLD colleagues to convene a parliament.

“We support the move as we all had been elected by the people,” he said.” “They [the NLD] should have carried it out while we all were there earlier. We all were given the mandate by our people, and we have to show our unity.”

Political analyst and writer Than Soe Naing, said Phyu Phyu Thin’s initiative was a very good move to demonstrate the MPs’ objection to the military takeover.

“We should support any form of movement that condemns the takeover,” he said.

“It will be good for the country if all these various kinds of movements lead to a general strike or civil disobedience by government employees as suggested by student leader Min Ko Naing.”

Min Ko Naing, a member of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society activist group and a veteran dissident who spent many years imprisoned by the state for his opposition activities, posted a video on social media urging citizens to show that millions of people in Myanmar are protesting against the military coup.

Leaders of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, named after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising that brought Aung San Suu Kyi to prominence, has called on government employees and ordinary citizens to join an anti-junta movement it calls the “Anti-Military Coup Non-Violence Campaign 2021.”

Doctors and other medical workers, teachers, and government employees from the Electricity and Agriculture ministries participated in sporadic protests Thursday in large cities, including Yangon, Naypyidaw, and Mandalay.

“Doctors and nurses are spreading group photos about their boycotts against the military coup. They are bravely showing their resistance. None of them will retreat,” said activist Min Ko Naing.

“All departments are engaging in these campaigns, doing their part to be a part of history. … All of these actions are critical because we need to show how much and how many millions of people are now participating to resist the military coup,” he said.

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Activist Jimmy, one of the leaders of 88 Generation Peace and Open Society group, calls for a civil disobedience campaign in Myanmar in a video screenshot, Feb. 4, 2021. Photo courtesy of Jimmy/video screenshot

Nobody is safe

Min Ko Naing said the military’s arrest and prosecution of Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myint show that no one in the country is safe and that the generals can charge anybody on bogus offenses.

On Wednesday, the military announced formal charges against the state counselor for possessing what it said were illegally imported walkie-talkies — a charge that carries a maximum sentence of three years in jail. Win Myint also faces charges for violating COVID-19 restrictions issued by the Health Ministry while campaigning in last-year’s elections.

Jimmy, one of the leaders of 88 Generation Peace and Open Society group, said activists are calling for a nonviolent antimilitary campaign that supports people who resigned from their positions in defiance of the authorities.

“We will participate in all kinds of nonviolent activities,” he said. “We will support all kinds of activities by student unions, MPs, and civil society in our respective townships.”

Group leaders are demanding the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, Win Myint, and other detained politicians, and the implementation of the 2020 election results.

Nay Myo Kyaw, NLD party member from Magway region, said residents there are participating in pot-banging campaigns every night and are ready to get involved in other nonviolent protest activities.

Rights activist Su Chit from Mandalay said some political activists were arrested or being monitored following the military coup.

“We witnessed our brother and sister activists getting arrested,” she said. “These arrests will continue.”

“They arrested some famous individuals from civil society and politics,” she said. “Even when they haven’t arrested people, they have put their homes under surveillance, discreetly or openly.”

On Thursday morning, about 20 young people, including medical students, doctors and activists, staged a protest against the military regime in front of Mandalay’s University of Medicine — the first street protest since the coup.

Authorities forced the protesters to disperse after they chanted slogans for nearly 15 minutes, and plainclothes police tried to arrest some of them.

The Facebook account of student leader Tayzar San said that four students had been arrested and that there were reports that authorities are looking for others who participated at their homes.

Rights activist Nickey Diamond from the Southeast Asia-based Fortify Rights said that citizens have the right to protest against the military coup.

“The authorities cannot prosecute them,” he said. “If they do, then it would be arbitrary.”

“In Yangon, there have been protesters who have shown support for the military, but they haven’t been charged like the ones who have protested against the military,” he said. “The military coup is not legal in the eyes of the law, so whoever supports it is contributing to the treason.”

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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