It’s tough without Internet

FOR Zaw Myint Thein, a farmer in northwestern Myanmar, having no Internet in the area for more than a year causes many inconveniences – his son is unable to study, he can no longer sell his watermelon crops online and he feels cut off.

“It’s like my eyes and ears are closed,” the 45-year-old said by phone from the Sagaing region.

But in this stronghold of resistance to the military junta that seized power in a coup early last year, the army-ordered Internet shutdown – and sporadic cuts to mobile phone communications – puts lives on the line, Thein said.

In May, he said junta forces ambushed a nearby village and killed nine villagers, adding that lives might have been saved if warnings of the impending raid had been able to reach them.

“They didn’t get any information ahead of time,” he added.

Many people in Myanmar rely on Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp to communicate, partly because they see them as being more secure than talking on their mobiles.

In nearby Ayadaw, where the Internet connection has also been severed, 42-year-old Thin Thin gave a similar account in relation to attacks by junta forces in August.

“The villagers didn’t know because the Internet was shut down. They only found out when the soldiers arrived,” she said by phone.

Shutting down the Internet was one of the army’s first moves after it ousted the country’s elected government on Feb 1, 2021, unleashing a wave of mass protests that the military sought to quell with a bloody crackdown on dissent.

Since then, Internet blackouts and disruptions have become a staple of Myanmar’s junta, which United Nations human rights experts have dubbed a “digital dictatorship”.Online access to information is “a matter of life and death” for those fleeing attacks by the military, they said in June, calling the Internet shutdowns an effort to “drag Myanmar back to a digital dark age”.

A spokesman for the military junta did not respond to requests for comment.

In the past, it has declared any opposition to it illegal and says the military is seeking to restore order in the country.

Governments around the world are increasingly using Internet restrictions during political unrest as a tool to limit free expression and hide human rights abuses, digital rights groups say.

Myanmar imposed more Internet shutdowns than any country except India last year, with 15 blackouts, according to the Access Now group.

The shutdowns limit citizens’ ability to organise, upload videos of protests and report air strikes on civilians or unlawful killings and arrests, campaigners said.

In the most serious cases, Internet shutdowns are used to “cover up human rights violations and atrocities”, said Wai Phyo Myint, Asia-Pacific policy analyst at Access Now.

While the Internet has been restored in the commercial capital of Yangon and other areas under military control, blanket bans continue in conflict zones, like Sagaing, where a parallel administration declared a “people’s defensive war” in 2021 to overthrow the junta.

At least 54 of Myanmar’s 330 townships are currently affected by Internet blackouts, according to Access Now. This also hampers the transit of food and other basic goods.

“Bus and truck drivers can’t get information about which roads are safe. This disrupts delivery of basic goods like food ... in some regions, basic medicine is running out,” said Myint. — Reuters

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