Phone and internet connections were shut down in several townships in Myanmar, blocking the flow of information especially in areas where there are armed clashes between the military and insurgents.
“I think they did it to start a news blackout as fighting is continuing in the region,” a source was quoted in a report on Radio Free Asia over the weekend.
The report said the move stoked fear in residents who recalled similar incidents when the military staged a coup d’etat on February 1.
Residents said the sudden internet outage last week could be linked to fighting between junta forces and anti-junta militias in Mindat, Matupi, Kanpetlet, and Thantlang townships in southern Chin state.
The internet has been reported shut down in a total of 22 townships in Mandalay, Magway, and Sagaing regions, as well as in Kachin and Chin states, since August 20, said the RFA report.
Salai Za Op Lian, deputy executive director of the Chin Human Rights Organization, 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.
“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.
“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,” said the resident.
Junta denies hand in shutdown
Myanmar’s junta denied suspending the internet in conflict-wracked regions, blaming a recent spate of data blackouts on anti-coup protesters who had destroyed military-owned communications towers.
Some in the anti-coup movement formed local “people’s defense forces” in their townships to fight back, and in recent weeks destroyed several communications towers belonging to military-owned Mytel in western Chin state.
The junta’s foreign ministry on Saturday denied that the State Administration Council — as the military regime dubs itself — was responsible.
“In fact, the recent internet connections were disrupted due to the terrorist acts such as destroying of communication towers by terrorist groups,” the ministry said in a statement.
“The Ministry urged some foreign missions in Yangon to thoroughly verify information before making statements.”
Post-coup Myanmar is no stranger to internet blackouts, with the junta imposing one in the early hours of February 1 as soldiers arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and other top politicians from her National League for Democracy party.
A nationwide mobile data blackout was also imposed during the nighttime hours in the weeks following the power grab.
On Sunday, anti-coup fighters told AFP that telecommunications services in Pinlebu, Kawlin and Wuntho townships in northern Sagaing region — where clashes with the military have been fierce — were down since the early hours of the day.
“We could not use internet and phone” since 2:00 am, an anti-coup fighter who had fled Kawlin told AFP, adding that security forces were flooding into the area.
“The people are worried that the junta would launch a big operation,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another local defense force member said they could no longer reach their fighters in Pinlebu.
The stepped-up attacks from anti-coup fighters came after the self-proclaimed “National Unity Government,” made up mostly of lawmakers from Suu Kyi’s ousted party, urged citizens to target military assets in their areas.
More than 1,100 civilians have been killed and some 8,000 arrested since the coup, according to local observers.
The junta has defended its power grab by alleging massive fraud during elections in late 2020 which Suu Kyi’s party had won by a landslide. – with a report from RFA and Agence France Presse