Myanmar’s Internet Shutdown Is an Act of ‘Vast Self-Harm’

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From June 2019 until this February, 1.4 million people in Myanmar’s Rakhine state dealt with the longest government-mandated internet shutdown in history, targeted at the Rohingya ethnic minority that makes up most of Rakhine’s population. The connectivity blackout finally ended at the beginning of February, days after Myanmar’s military deposed democratically elected officials and seized control of the country. But the reprieve was short-lived. 

Over the past two months the military junta has continued to use the mechanisms for digital control put in place by Myanmar’s previous regimes, escalating platform-blocking and digital censorship across Myanmar and initiating different combinations of mobile data and wireless broadband outages, including various overnight connectivity blackouts for 46 consecutive days. On the 47th night, this Friday at 1 am local time, the government mandated that all telecoms cut wireless and mobile internet access across the entire country. More than 24 hours later, it has not returned.

“What authorities are doing in the online environment is a reflection of their crackdown in the offline environment,” says Oliver Spencer, adviser to Free Expression Myanmar, a domestic human rights group. “They’re destroying businesses, conducting raids, arbitrarily rounding people up, and shooting people. Their objective is to spread so much fear that the unrest, the opposition, just dies, because people’s fear overtakes their anger. Shutting down the internet is meant to be just one demonstration of their absolute power. But it’s a vast self-harm.”

Authorities have left hardwired internet access available so banks, large corporations, and the junta’s own operations can retain some connectivity. But the overwhelming majority of Myanmar’s 54 million citizens, as well as its small and medium-sized businesses and gig economy, rely on mobile data and wireless broadband access for their internet. Physical phone, coaxial cable, or fiber optic hookups are rare in the country. 

In addition to stifling speech, communication, and digital rights, the indiscriminate internet blackouts are destroying Myanmar’s economy, halting pandemic-related remote schooling, and disrupting…