Myanmar’s junta shut down the country’s internet on Saturday as thousands took to the streets of Yangon to denounce this week’s coup and demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
In the first such demonstration since the generals came to power on Monday, activists sang, “Military dictator, fail, fail; democracy, win, win,” as bystanders offered them food and water.
Many in the crowd wore red, the color of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which won the elections in a landslide on November 8th. This has resulted in the generals refusing to acknowledge cases of fraud.
As the protest increased and activists on social media called to join the march, the country’s internet crashed.
The NetBlocks Internet Observatory monitoring group reported a “national Internet blackout” and said on Twitter that connectivity had dropped to 54 percent of normal. Witnesses reported a shutdown of mobile data services and WiFi.
The junta did not respond to requests for comment. It has tried to silence dissent by temporarily blocking Facebook and expanded a crackdown on social media on Twitter and Instagram on Saturday.
Myanmar civil society organizations appealed to internet service providers and cellular networks to challenge the junta’s order to block internet access.
“By adhering to their guidelines, your companies are essentially legitimizing the authority of the military, despite international condemnation of that body,” a coalition of groups said in a statement.
Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s assistant regional director for campaigns, said closing the internet during a coup d’état and the Covid-19 pandemic was a “hideous and ruthless decision”.
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Army chief Min Aung Hlaing took power this week for fraud, although the electoral commission said it did not find any evidence of widespread irregularities during the November vote. The junta announced the one-year state of emergency and promised to give up power after new elections without specifying a time frame.
The takeover was condemned internationally and the United Nations Security Council called for the release of all detainees.
Suu Kyi, 75, has not been seen in public since the coup. She spent approximately 15 years under house arrest while fighting former juntas before the troubled democratic transition began in 2011.
Suu Kyi’s attorney and ousted President Win Myint said they were being held at their homes and that he could not meet them because they were still being questioned. Suu Kyi is accused of illegally importing six walkie-talkies, while Win Myint is accused of violating coronavirus restrictions.
Saturday’s protest marks the first sign of street rioting in a country with a history of bloody military raids on protesters. On Saturday there were protests against the coup in Melbourne, Australia, and in the Taiwanese capital Taipei.
In Myanmar, a civil disobedience movement has built up throughout the week, under which doctors and teachers refuse to work. People also hit pots and pans every night to show anger.
The United States is considering targeted sanctions against individuals and against entities controlled by the Myanmar military. State Secretary Antony Blinken called Chinese top diplomat Yang Jiechi in a phone call on Friday to condemn the coup, the Foreign Ministry said.
China, closely associated with the Myanmar military, joined the consensus on the Security Council declaration but has not condemned the takeover of the army, stating that countries should act in the interests of Myanmar’s stability.