Nearly Two Dozen Townships in Myanmar Without Internet as Military Tightens Restrictions

Residents say the information blackout has destroyed their livelihoods and left them vulnerable.
2021.09.24
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Nearly Two Dozen Townships in Myanmar Without Internet as Military Tightens Restrictions People access the internet using their mobile phones outside of an internet cafe in Naypyidaw, March 16, 2021.
AFP

Myanmar’s junta has shut down phones and the internet in nearly two dozen townships in Chin state and Magway region to block the flow of information in areas where armed clashes between the military and People’s Defense Force (PDF) militias have intensified in recent weeks, residents said Friday.

On Thursday evening, cuts went into effect in Chin state’s Paletwa, Mindat, Matupi, Falam, Htantalang, Tedim, Tunzang, and Kanpetlet townships, as well as in the Magway townships of Myaing, Gangaw, and Htee Lin. The move stoked fear in residents who recalled similar tactics used by the military when it orchestrated a coup on Feb. 1 and expressed concern over a potential major offensive where they live.

A source in Chin state’s Mindat township told RFA’s Myanmar Service that all lines of communication were cut at around 6:00 p.m., affecting service for connections to all four of the country’s internet service providers—Telenor, MPT, Ooredoo, and Mytel.

“I think they did it to start a news blackout as fighting is continuing in the region,” they said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A resident of Paletwa township named Tun Wai told RFA that internet and phone services went out at around 7:00 p.m., which he said was strange because there had been no fighting between the military and local ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) until Thursday evening.

“I’m not sure how to say this, but I think it was because of the fighting across Chin state,” he said.

Myanmar’s military has attempted to justify its overthrow of the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government by claiming the party had stolen the country’s November 2020 ballot through voter fraud.

The junta has yet to provide evidence of its claims and has violently repressed anti-coup protests, killing at least 1,123 people and arresting 6,748 others, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

Paletwa township was the scene of severe fighting between the Arakan Army (AA) and the military under the NLD government in June 2019, which led to what observers have said was history’s longest internet shutdown there and in nearby parts of Rakhine state. Fighting subsided by the end of 2020 and in February residents were able to use the internet again to access information about the rest of the country.

Locals said Thursday’s sudden outage could be linked to fighting between junta forces and anti-junta militias in Mindat, Matupi, Kanpetlet, and Thantlang townships in southern Chin state, along the border of Paletwa.

Other townships in Magway region are facing internet cuts due to the success of PDF forces in fighting the military, sources said.

A resident of Magway’s Myaing township told RFA on condition of anonymity that although there had been no recent clashes in the area, the internet was cut off after 6:00 p.m. Thursday, forcing all businesses that rely on the internet to cease operations.

“Ooredoo and MPT were the first to lose connections, and Telenor and Mitel were disconnected later,” he said.

“We can’t do anything without internet access, such as online cash transactions.”

Cutting communications

Residents of Magway’s Htee Lin township told RFA that separate branches of the PDF in nearby Gangaw and Myaing townships had been coordinating their resistance online and that the military sought to sever their communications link through the internet blackout.

The internet has been shut down in a total of 22 townships in Mandalay, Magway, and Sagaing regions, as well as in Kachin and Chin states, since Aug. 20.

Salai Za Op Lian, deputy executive director of the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO), said that cutting off the internet has threatened the public’s survival and amounted to a violation of basic human rights.

“People are fleeing the war and the internet is a support line for them to survive,” he said.

Over the past few months, the public has speculated that the junta may have been planning a major offensive, noting that most of the townships affected by the internet shutdown have shown strong resistance to military rule.

Friday marked the tenth day of an internet blackout in 10 townships of central Myanmar’s Mandalay, Sagaing, and Magway, regions where residents said they have faced more harassment and arrests by the junta.

The townships of Yinmarbin, Pale, Salingyi, Kani, Mingin, Ayardaw, and Butalin in Sagaing region; Mogok and Myingyan in Mandalay region; and Taungdwingyi in Magway region have all been centers of resistance to the junta since the February coup. Residents there told RFA that the internet shutdown had impacted access to crucial information, education, trade, and financial services.

“People who have to rely on the internet now face a big problem—their livelihoods depend on online access,” said a resident of Ayardaw township, who declined to be named due to security concerns.

“I can't write advertisements now because I don't have the internet, and now I have no income … Online shopping is also important in rural areas and now everything has come to a stop. You can't simply rely on phone lines to communicate with one another.”

The source said he is now considering leaving his family behind and moving to an area where the internet is available so that he can continue to earn a living.

Increase in military harassment

In Sagaing region, the military has stepped up raids on villages and arrests of civilians that residents had previously been able to prevent with information accessed via the internet.

“Previously, we knew exactly when and how to avoid the enemy, but now we are constantly on our toes as it is no longer possible to know when or where they are coming or whether there’s any fighting going on around the region,” said a resident of Kani township.

“Without accurate information, it is very difficult to make any move. Things could be better if we regained internet access—even just a bit.”

A member of the anti-junta movement in Mandalay’s Myingyan township said the military is already making arbitrary arrests following the internet shutdown there.

“The number of arrests has risen since Sept. 14. If 50 people were arrested 10 days ago, it has now become 70,” he told RFA.

“There are increased guest-list checks in many areas and many arrests have been made. The mobile internet is completely down but our leaders are using text messages to exchange information.”

A resident of Sagaing’s Yinmabin township said shutting down the internet would not be enough for the military to remain in control of the country.

“The junta cut off the internet because they don’t want to relinquish power, but they can’t assume that they will be able to hold on to power by doing this,” he said.

“The people are too much against them. The more they act like this, the stronger the grievances will be. They won’t be able to rule us forever.”

Thinzar Shun Lei Yi of the Committee for the Development of Democracy (ACDD) said the junta’s decision to cut off the internet in areas where they face opposition amounts to a human rights violation.

“The resistance of the people cannot be suppressed by any means,” she said, noting that the year-long internet shutdown in Paletwa township and parts of Rakhine state had “only led to public hatred and resentment.”

“Just as the military’s plan of suppressing the opposition by cutting information off failed then, the junta’s current move will just create more enemies.”

Attempts by RFA to reach junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun for comment went unanswered Friday.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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