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Myanmar junta blocks Facebook to quell dissent

Myanmar’s junta has ordered all internet service providers to block access to Facebook in the country in a bid to quash public opposition to this week’s military coup. 

Human rights groups condemned the move as a blunt manoeuvre to shut down the flow of information in a country where the social media platform is used by millions as a primary portal for news, commerce and communication. 

“We are aware that access to Facebook is currently disrupted for some people,” the social media company said. “We urge authorities to restore connectivity so that people can communicate with their families and friends and access important information.”

Norway’s Telenor, which operates one of Myanmar’s four main telecoms companies, said all mobile operators, international gateways and internet service providers received a directive on Wednesday from Myanmar’s transport and communications ministry to block Facebook until February 7.

Telenor said that it had complied with the order but voiced “grave concerns regarding breach of human rights”. 

However, not all internet providers appeared to have blocked the site, with some Facebook users saying they were still able to access the platform on Thursday morning.

According to Datareportal, a research consultancy, Myanmar had 21m Facebook users as of January 2020, most of whom accessed the site on their phones. The country has a population of 54m.

Facebook has a difficult history in the country, where it was accused by the UN of playing “a determining role” in stirring up hatred against Rohingya Muslims in 2017. The platform has acknowledged the failings and pledged to invest more in local content moderation.

The junta’s directive also comes as social media companies face mounting pressure from other governments in Asia, including Vietnam, to censor dissidents. The Indian government on Wednesday issued Twitter with a warning to block content from some accounts related to a farmer’s protest or risk legal penalties.

The move by Myanmar’s junta came as peaceful public protests organised via social media were starting to gather force in Yangon and other large cities. Opponents of the coup were trading online memes glorifying protesters or taunting the generals. 

“This is the military’s desperate attempt to monopolise control over all information in the country,” said Allie Funk, a senior researcher at Freedom House, the New York-based watchdog. “They are limiting the possibility of getting information out of the country and limiting people’s ability to protest.” 

The army arrested Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s leader, and other senior officials on Monday, seized power and declared a one-year state of emergency. In the first hours after the coup, phone and internet services were severed, but connections had mostly been restored by Tuesday.

Myanmar shut off internet service for long periods since mid-2019 — when Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government was still in power — across swaths of the country’s western Rakhine and Chin states, where the military has been fighting insurgencies against ethnic minorities.

“The authorities know they probably can’t take the entire country offline, but they can sure do a lot of damage to ensure people don’t have access to the necessary networks to communicate with loved ones or document human rights abuses,” said Michael Caster, Asia Digital Programme Manager at Article 19, an anticensorship group.

Follow John Reed and Hannah Murphy on Twitter: @JohnReedwrites, @MsHannahMurphy




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