Myanmar’s junta Saturday continued its crackdown on the internet in response to the mass protests, now in its second day, sweeping across the streets of the country’s main city, Yangon, following a coup and the detention of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi last week.
The southeast Asian country’s military hit the headlines around the world last week after it seized control and declared a yearlong state of emergency, citing irregularities in last November elections which Ms Suu Kyi won by a landslide.
The military had earlier in the week blocked the access to social media platform Facebook saying it hopes to ensure stability as it consolidates on power.
Facebook is the main internet platform for more than half of the country’s over 54 million people. It has now banned Twitter which is also used by millions of citizens.
But some residents in the Buddhist-majority country are managing to circumvent the internet ban by rushing to download VPN apps, which encrypt an internet connection so its location is not identifiable.
There has been a 4,300 per cent increase in the demand for VPN, according to Top10VPN.com, a platform which conducts research on these services.
Online footages of the mass protest in the country which had been largely under the tight grip of the military, show demonstrators demanding the release of Ms Suu Kyi, whose popularity back home is high.
Ms Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy party have been detained since the putsch on February 1.
The Myanmar police are pressing charges against the 1991 Nobel Peace laureate for allegedly importing communications equipment. But protesters have not backed down.
“Respect our vote,” BBC quoted a protest banner to have read in reference to the NLD’s landslide win in November’s election.
The BBC added that many demonstrators gave the three-fingered symbol-of-protest salute, banged on pots and pans, and held red balloons, while cars and buses slowed to sound their horns in support.
“We will move forward and keep demanding until we get democracy,” AFP news agency also reported a protester, Myo Win, 37, to have said.
While there has been no official statement from the putschists, AFP quoted an unverified communication ministry document that said the two social media sites were being used to “cause misunderstanding among the public.”
“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’s letter was quoted to have read.
A spokeswoman for Twitter, BBC reported, said the ban undermined “the public conversation and the rights of people to make their voices heard.” Facebook has also called on the authorities to “restore connectivity”.
Amnesty International has also called the internet shutdown “heinous and reckless” and warned it could put the people of Myanmar at risk of human rights violations.
The ground of the ongoing protest, Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon), is Myanmar’s largest city and former capital. The country’s capital was moved to Nay Pyi Taw, located approximately 320 kilometres north of Yangon, in 2005.
History of coups
Myanmar was known as Burma, a name derived from its dominant language, Burmese.
But Myanmar (English variant of Burma) became its formal name in 1989 after the military junta renamed the Rakhine State, a year after thousands of people were killed in a crackdown on the pro-democracy protests known as 8888 uprising.
Largely a Burmese speaking country and home to a Buddhist majority, Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948 and was ruled by the military from 1962 until 2011.
By 2015, Myanmar held its first openly contested elections since 1990, and an absolute majority of seats in both chambers of the national parliament was won by NLD, with Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced Un San Su Chi) the prime minister.
She won reelection in 2020 in a landslide, a result the military has rejected alleging fraud without evidence, and had since been under house arrest.
Not new to house arrest, Ms Suu Kyi had once been placed under house confinement for 15 years, a streak that earned her the Nobel Peace Prize, for being “an outstanding example of the power of the powerless.”
However, her international reputation has since been dented after she was accused of launching a genocide against Rohingya Muslims in 2017.
Myanmar considers the Rohingya Muslims as illegal immigrants and denies them citizenship. This has led to over 700,000 Rohingyas fleeing the country to neighbouring Bangladesh to escape persecution and thousands others being killed in an army crackdown in 2017.
When she appeared before the International Court of Justice in 2019, Ms Suu Kyi denied the allegations that the military had committed genocide.
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