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Myanmar military blocks Facebook, social media as pressure grows after coup

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar: Myanmar’s military on Thursday blocked Facebook and other social media platforms – crucial sources of communication for its people – in a bid to quell dissent after detaining the country’s elected leaders and seizing power in a coup that the United Nations chief said must fail.

Facebook, used by about half Myanmar’s 53 million people, has emerged as a key platform for opposition to Monday’s coup with photos of civil disobedience campaigns and nightly pot-and-pan protests widely shared.

The Ministry of Communications and Transport said the restrictions would remain in place until February 7.

“Currently the people who are troubling the country’s stability … are spreading fake news and misinformation and causing misunderstanding among people by using Facebook,” the ministry said in a letter.

The move to silence online activity came after police filed charges against former leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has not been seen since she was detained in the early hours of Monday morning, for illegally importing communications equipment, and as the United Nations said it was doing all it could to mobilise an international response to the military takeover.

NetBlocks, which monitors online services worldwide, said restrictions on Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp by the state-owned Internet provider MPT appeared to have spread to other providers. People were using VPNs to get around the blocks, it said.

“Facebook products are now restricted on multiple internet providers in #Myanmar as operators comply with an apparent blocking order,” Netblocks wrote on Twitter.

Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, confirmed the disruption.

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone urged authorities to restore connectivity “so that people in Myanmar can communicate with their families and friends and access important information”.

Most people in Myanmar access Facebook through their mobile phones and it is also a crucial means of communication for businesses and government, although it has been linked to hate speech and disinformation.

“The Internet only really became available to most of the population following 2011,” Herve Lemahieu, director of the Power and Diplomacy Programme at Australia’s Lowy Institute said. “(The block) will be terrible in terms of its consequences not only in terms of organising a response to this coup but also in terms of conducting day to day business and economic activity. These platforms are critical and have become so over the past 10 years.”

Related story: Over 400 Myanmar legislators remain held in ‘open-air detention centre’

Aung San Suu Kyi, the founder of the National League for Democracy (NLD) is under house arrest in the capital, Naypyidaw, according to her party, but the generals have not commented on her whereabouts.

The NLD won about 80% of the vote in polls on November 8, according to the election commission but the military has refused to accept the result, making unsubstantiated allegations of fraud.

The United Nations said it would increase international pressure to ensure the will of the people is respected.

“We will do everything we can to mobilise all the key actors and international community to put enough pressure on Myanmar to make sure that this coup fails,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said during an interview broadcast by The Washington Post newspaper on Wednesday.

“It is absolutely unacceptable after elections – elections that I believe took place normally – and after a large period of transition.”

Reports emerged on Thursday of the first street protest against the coup in the city of Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-biggest city. Riot police broke up a small demonstration and people fled in all directions, according to news website Myanmar Now.

Police said six walkie-talkie radios had been found in a search of Aung San Suu Kyi’s home in Naypyidaw, claiming they had been imported illegally and used without permission.

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), a group of legislators from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations described the charges against Aung San Suu Kyi as ludicrous.

“This is an absurd move by the junta to try to legitimise their illegal power grab,” APHR chairman and Malaysian MP Charles Santiago said in a statement, urging the international community to intervene.

“We have been here before. ASEAN and the international community all know where this is likely to head: back to a ruthless military dictatorship.”

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