Thursday, October 6, 2022

What life is like under the Internet shutdown in Myanmar

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Rumors of a the coup was spreading before the army acted. Sophie *, an American software developer, was at home with her young son and her husband Aung *, a trade unionist and Myanmar national, when the Myanmar army took control in the early hours of February 1.

When the country’s military rulers arrested Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and other senior government officials, they also deployed a brutal tool of censorship: shutting down the Internet. Sophie, who got up early with their son, could still access the internet at home as only phone data was limited. The first she heard of the coup came from a New York Times article shared by a friend.

In the weeks following the takeover of the Burmese military, internet shutdowns became common, as shown NetBlocks Internet Watch Group. As protests multiply, there have been total internet shutdowns and limits placed on individual services such as Facebook and its Messenger app. For most people in Myanmar, Facebook is the Internet and it’s the primary way for people to access news and chat with friends.

NetBlocks reports that for the past 12 nights the internet has been shut down like clockwork from 1am to 9am. Civil rights group Access Now says the periodic shutdowns “facilitate abuse and impunity for the military junta.” The closures have been condemned internationally and make Myanmar the last of the more than 30 countries to shut down the Internet in an attempt to gain control.

Myanmar residents also fear Internet shutdowns being used to cover up night arrests and violent repression against demonstrators. When the shutdowns started, the Burmese division of telecom operator Telenor started releasing the orders it had received, but now said “It is not possible.”

The closures have prevented friends and families from communicating and made it difficult for people to do their jobs. But, more perniciously than that, it added to the sense of fear in Myanmar. Sophie recently returned to the United States with her son as the coup continues, while Aung has remained in central Yangon and participated in protests along with thousands of others. With nightly internet shutdowns and jet lag with the United States, their conversations are limited and difficult. Here they explain the reality of living through closures. Conversations have been edited for more context and clarity.

The coup and the first stop

Sophie: We were in our condo when the coup occurred. I woke up early to take care of my son and a friend of mine from the United States had texted me New York Times article on the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi. I had warned someone in advance that if they don’t hear from me, I’m fine. Everyone was really scared and stayed inside.

Aung: I have a lot of unionized workers on my Facebook. They were all offline – the family I was talking to 20 minutes ago was also offline. I couldn’t see anything on the internet, I couldn’t communicate from my phone. So I have to go out on my balcony to see what’s going on in the street. I could see my neighbor watching cable TV – we don’t have one – so I yelled across asking what was going on.

Sophie: You are completely in the dark. There is nothing you can do because you are so dependent on your phone, but you start talking to your neighbors. This first weekend, it was completely closed. No one had the Internet, no one had a cell phone connection, and we could hear the demonstrators walking down the side streets or the main streets. ATMs and banks were down and it had a huge impact because there is no way to access the money.


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