Myanmar blacks out internet as US warns its citizens to take shelter

Myanmar’s military regime ordered telecoms companies to shut off internet service on Monday morning and deployed vehicles overnight in Yangon, raising fears of an imminent crackdown on a popular resistance movement against the coup. 

Video shared on social media sites on Sunday, before internet service was severed, showed armoured vehicles patrolling the streets of the country’s business capital and other cities.

The US embassy said there were “indications of military movements in Yangon” and the possibility of telecommunications interruptions overnight between 1am and 9am. It recommended that American citizens “shelter in place” during the night-time curfew ordered by the junta. 

The developments came 14 days after senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the army’s commander-in-chief, ordered the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and scores of other government officials and seized power. A two-week remand for the arrest of Myanmar’s democratically elected leader is due to expire on Monday. 

Ooredoo, one of Myanmar’s main telecoms providers, said on Sunday that it had received a government directive to shut down internet service on Monday from 1am to 9am. Telenor, the Norwegian telecoms company, which has been publishing a list of internet shutdown orders on its website since the February 1 coup, wrote that it was no longer possible for it to disclose the directives from authorities. 

“We are gravely concerned with this development and recognise the impact this has on the local and international community’s ability to receive information,” Telenor said. “We deeply regret that the list on this site will no longer be updated.”

An armoured vehicle in downtown Yangon on Sunday. Authorities directed telecoms companies to cut off internet access, stoking fears of an imminent crackdown © Reuters

The internet blackout revived memories in Myanmar of the military crackdown that followed a popular uprising in 1988 and stoked fears that the regime would use the service stoppage to step up night-time arrests of protest leaders. 

Witnesses and human rights groups over the weekend also reported the appearance of “mobs” that allegedly included prisoners released in a mass amnesty on Friday setting fires and causing other disturbances in Yangon. Some neighbourhoods organised watch groups to alert residents to intruders.

Myanmar’s junta has faced opposition to its coup in cities across the country, including from a self-styled Civil Disobedience Movement that has organised protests online. 

The military government last week unveiled a cyber security law that would, once implemented, give authorities sweeping powers to censor online activity. In the first week after the coup, it also ordered telecoms companies to temporarily block access to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The US, Canada and EU countries with embassies in Myanmar called on security forces to refrain from using violence against people “protesting the overthrow of their legitimate government”. 

“We unequivocally condemn the detention and ongoing arrests of political leaders, civil society activists and civil servants, as well as the harassment of journalists,” the statement said. “We also denounce the military’s interruption of communications, as well as the restriction of Myanmar people’s fundamental rights and basic legal protections.” 

Tom Andrews, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, wrote on Twitter: “It’s as if the generals have declared war on the people of Myanmar: late-night raids; mounting arrests; more rights stripped away; another Internet shutdown; military convoys entering communities.”

He added: “These are signs of desperation. Attention generals: You WILL be held accountable.”

Twitter: @JohnReedwrites

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