Access Now condemns Myanmar’s internet shutdown during military coup

Update: February 4, 2020 — As protesters bang on pans and march in the streets of Myanmar in response to the sudden and violent military coup, authorities are countering with escalating censorship. Yesterday, the military ordered telecom providers working in the country to block Facebookincluding Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger until midnight, February 7. Approximately 22 million people in Myanmar rely on these platforms, and are now completely cut off. 

Access Now urges authorities to order the unblocking of all social media applications, and ensure open, reliable and secure internet access across the country. Access Now also calls on all platforms and telecom service providers to ensure uninterrupted access, push back against any potential military surveillance, and do everything in their power to prevent authorities from using their services to spy on and persecute activists, civil society actors, and others.

Update: February 3, 2020 — As the military coup gains momentum, internet seems to be restored across much of Myanmar, and the long-lasting shutdowns in Rakhine and Chin states appear to be lifted — temporarily at least. Stability is yet to be confirmed.

While this lift on internet shutdowns provides some respite for millions of disconnected people in Myanmar, Access Now holds grave concern over the stability and accessibility of the internet, and the disturbing nature of shutting off communication during serious political unrest. Access Now also condemns authorities for the large number of people in Myanmar fearing surveillance and harassment of their digital communications during this period, and has been made confidentially aware of civil society actors being forced offline in an effort to protect themselves.

“It was incredibly troubling to know there’s a full-scale military coup taking place behind an internet blackout,” said Felicia Anthonio, Campaigner and #KeepItOn Lead at Access Now. “There is chaos and confusion, and the people of Myanmar — and the world — have a right to document events, access information, and communicate with each other.”

“People in Myanmar must be allowed to live without fear of surveillance, targeted harassment, or being cut off from communications altogether,” added Raman Jit Singh Chima, Senior International Counsel and Asia Pacific Policy Director at Access Now. “Open, secure internet access is crucial to ensuring that Myanmar continues to progress in the 21st Century, and does not backslide into the fear and repression of earlier decades.”

With a predominantly Rohingya population, Rakhine and Chin states have been suffering through lengthy internet shutdowns and slowdowns since June 2019, and saw millions of SIM cards deactivated in 2020 in a manner that disproportionately impacted minority communities.

February 1, 2020 — Multiple reports of internet shutdowns across Myanmar are emerging today, February 1, as the nation’s military attempts to seize control from the incoming second civilian government. According to several accounts, both internet and voice connectivity in Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw, Mandalay and Sagaing regions, and Shan and Kachin states have been disrupted. Massive drops in regular internet traffic from Myanmar’s mobile telecom service providers and other internet service providers was experienced earlier today, followed by confirmed reports from media and other actors on the ground of internet shutdowns and disruptions — particularly of mobile internet services.

“It is unacceptable to shut down the internet and disrupt telecommunications in order to prevent a democratic transition,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Senior International Counsel and Asia Pacific Policy Director at Access Now. “Cutting connectivity at a moment like this is far too often used to obscure abuse and repression, and facilitate impunity. All Myanmar authorities, including the military, must immediately act to restore uninterrupted connectivity in the country and to all people, no matter their political beliefs.” 

These disruptions have taken place as civilian political leaders called for public demonstrations against the reimposition of military dictatorship. As the world watches Myanmar, the apparent military coup has been condemned by governments and international organizations across the world.

“Internet service providers and all businesses operating in the telecom sector in Myanmar must actively push back against internet shutdown orders,” said Felicia Anthonio, Campaigner and #KeepItOn Lead at Access Now.  “They have a responsibility to uphold human rights, not create a space where they can be abused.”

Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition will continue to monitor the situation for further developments.