Yangon, Myanmar – Hours after the Myanmar military seized power in a coup on February 1, it cut the internet. The blackout stalled the spread of information, as people in Myanmar and around the world slowly learned that the military had declared a one-year state of emergency and overthrown the civilian government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Far from an emergency measure, however, internet restrictions have become a hallmark of the generals’ short tenure in power.
Every night for more than two weeks, the military has imposed an internet blackout from 1am (18:30 GMT) to 9am (02:30 GMT) across the country. At the same time, it has also moved to grant itself sweeping powers to censor and arrest online dissenters. The regime has also banned access to websites, including popular social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
The first overnight internet shutdown was imposed on February 6, the same day as the first mass protest.
Thousands took to the streets while misinformation spread via text messages, much of it seemingly designed to suppress protesters from gathering. One commonly shared message falsely claimed that the protesters were hired by the military to justify a harsher crackdown on the general population. Another falsely reported that Aung San Suu Kyi had been released.
But it was not until February 15 at 1am that the military government began its coordinated, nightly shutdowns. By then, mass protests were becoming increasingly common across the country, unhindered by the slowdown of information. Theories abound as to why the military has persisted with the blackouts.
James Griffiths, the author of The Great Firewall of China, said the decision to ban Facebook and Twitter was “not surprising” but the overnight internet shutdowns were “a lot stranger”.
“Such blocks are relatively easy to achieve, especially when the government controls ISPs [internet service providers] which in the case of a military junta we must assume they do physically even if they don’t legally,” he said about the social media censorship.
Griffiths said there “does seem to be some merit to the idea” that the nightly shutdowns are related to “installing new tech”. “Even then, however, it is slightly confusing, given that internet systems, including internet backbones, are upgraded periodically around the world without this type of outage,” he continued.
Human rights groups and international business organisations came together to condemn the military government’s moves to legally restrict the internet via a draft Cybersecurity Bill and a series of amendments to the Electronic Transactions Law.
The proposed cyber-law would require that all online service providers keep all user data inside Myanmar and provide the government with the unrestricted authority to censor content or access user data, an onerous requirement for the providers and an enormous threat to human rights.
“As currently drafted, it requires internet service providers to disclose user information to the authorities at any point in time without justifiable reasons,” said a February 15 statement signed by eight chambers of commerce including the US, UK and Europe.
“The draft cybersecurity law would hand a military that just staged a coup and is notorious for jailing critics almost unlimited power to access user data, putting anyone who speaks out at risk,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Amid the public outcry, the military government quietly amended the Electronic Transactions Law on February 15, adding some provisions that had originally been planned for the Cybersecurity Bill.
According to the non-government organisation Free Expression Myanmar, the copied amendments include jail time for spreading “false information” and giving the authorities broad powers to intercept user data. It is not clear if the military government still plans to move forward with the Cybersecurity Bill, or if it is content with the provisions in the Electronic Transactions Law.
A regional telecommunications expert, who asked to comment anonymously due to the political sensitivity of the issue, said it was “possible” the internet shutdowns were related to a new censorship regime.
“No one outside the junta knows for sure, [but] it is possible that the government is shutting parts of the network at night to install hardware to implement strict censorship protocols and this would be permitted under their new cybersecurity law,” the expert said.
The systematic brutality of the military junta is once again on horrific display throughout Myanmar. I urge members of the UN Security Council to view the photos/videos of the shocking violence being unleashed on peaceful protesters before meeting in Friday’s close-door session. pic.twitter.com/6owx7ybhcN
— UN Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews (@RapporteurUn) March 4, 2021
Confirmed: Internet has been shut down in post-coup #Myanmar for the 18th consecutive night with connectivity down to 12% of ordinary levels 📉
The 1am-9am cycle of information blackouts continues as the public risk their lives to restore democracy 🕒
— NetBlocks (@netblocks) March 3, 2021
Another theory is that the shutdown was part of the military’s effort to monitor the web for threats.
“What I think may be happening is the government is trying to reduce the overall data traffic volume in order to monitor that traffic for any perceived threats while allowing companies to stay online during business hours,” he said.
The expert said if the shutdowns were related to plans for a Myanmar firewall, this would raise “existential questions about the future of investments” in Myanmar.
Griffiths says he believes the generals “would prefer an outright blackout” but were reluctant to make such a move due to “the massive economic costs”.
The military has already deployed this blanket method in western Myanmar, where it cut off the internet in eight townships for more than two years while it engaged in a brutal war with the Arakan Army.
“An internet blackout would also fully alienate the type of middle-class Burmese who could be the greatest threat to the new regime, and upon whom the junta will rely on to get the economy going again,” he said.
But the nightly shutdowns are already frustrating the business community, foreign and domestic.
A local businessman in the IT industry, who asked to comment anonymously for safety reasons, said many actvities were being disrupted, including schools that were holding virtual lessons starting before 9am.
“Those lessons had to be rescheduled. And as telcos [telecommunications companies] struggled to provide seamless data service, teachers and students losing access to some online services such as Google drive and Amazon cloud, disrupted the flow,” he said in an email.
He said the cuts would be “quite disruptive” for any IT company offering offshore development in foreign countries.
“Quite a few developers like to burn the midnight oil and work till 3-4am, before turning in. They prefer the silence and disruption-free nature of night-time coding. Now that’s become impossible,” he added.
Tatum Albertine, the executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar, says the group has received no explanation from the military about the shutdowns, which have also caused problems for foreign businesses.
Albertine says the blackouts are a nuisance to companies that “rely on the internet to communicate with headquarters and regional offices, financial institutions, suppliers, and customers who work across time zones around the world”.
“Lack of access to telecommunications systems is concerning for the continuity of business operations. Regularly not having access to the internet will likely be a key area that foreign investors will consider when looking at Myanmar,” Albertine said.
Norwegian telecommunications company Telenor made a name for itself as the only transparent telecommunications company in Myanmar, providing regular updates on orders and directives it received from authorities, even ones it disagreed with.
On February 14, hours before the internet shutdown, that came to an end.
“It is currently not possible for Telenor to disclose the directives we receive from the authorities,” Telenor said in a statement, adding it was “gravely concerned by this development”.
In an email to Al Jazeera, Telenor spokesperson Cathrine Stang Lund said the company continues to publicly emphasise that “people’s basic right to freedom of expression and access to information” should be upheld and has “protested against the proposed cybersecurity law”.
When asked if the company would consider pulling out of Myanmar given the recent developments, Lund said it was “evaluating” the situation, and was committed to safeguarding the safety of its employees and providing services to its customers.
“We are worried about the situation in Myanmar. We have seen the difference access to communication technology can make in reducing inequalities and contributing to inclusive growth, and we want to contribute to the country’s progress,” she said.
If the military was hoping the internet blackout and censorship would help conceal its increasing brutality towards the citizens who have taken to the streets in support of their elected government that has not happened.
On Wednesday, as the blackout continued for an 18th night, graphic videos and photos were shared around the world, depicting violent attacks on protesters, and the use of live ammunition. At least 38 people were killed, according to the UN’s special envoy in Myanmar.