Myanmar’s junta shut down the internet in the country 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 seized power on Monday, activists chanted, “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 Nov. 8 elections in a landslide, a result the generals have refused to recognize claiming fraud.
As the protest swelled and activists issued calls on social media for people to join the march, the country’s internet crashed.
Monitoring group NetBlocks Internet Observatory reported a “national-scale internet blackout,” saying on Twitter that connectivity had fallen to 54 percent of ordinary levels. Witnesses reported a shutdown of mobile data services and Wi-Fi.
The junta did not respond to requests for comment. It has tried to silence dissent by temporarily blocking Facebook and extended a social media crackdown to Twitter and Instagram on Saturday.
Myanmar civil society organizations appealed to internet providers and mobile networks to challenge the junta’s orders blocking internet access.
“By complying with their directives, your companies are essentially legitimizing the military’s authority, despite international condemnation of this very body,” a coalition of groups said in a statement.
Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for Campaigns, Ming Yu Hah, said shutting down the internet amid a coup and the Covid-19 pandemic was a “heinous and reckless decision.”
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Army chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power this week alleging fraud, although the electoral commission says it found no evidence of widespread irregularities in the November vote. The junta announced a one-year state of emergency and has promised to hand over power after new elections, without giving a timeframe.
The takeover drew international condemnation, with a United Nations Security Council call for the release of all detainees.
Suu Kyi, 75, has not been seen in public since the coup. She spent some 15 years under house arrest during a struggle against previous juntas before the troubled democratic transition began in 2011.
The lawyer for Suu Kyi and ousted President Win Myint said they were being held in their homes and that he was unable to meet them because they were still being questioned. Suu Kyi faces charges of importing six walkie-talkies illegally while Win Myint is accused of flouting coronavirus restrictions.
Saturday’s protest is the first sign of street unrest in a country with a history of bloody military crackdowns on protesters. There were also anti-coup solidarity protests in Melbourne, Australia, and the Taiwanese capital Taipei on Saturday.
A civil disobedience movement has been building in Myanmar all week, with doctors and teachers among those refusing to work. People have also been banging pots and pans each night in a show of anger.
The United States is considering targeted sanctions on individuals and on entities controlled by Myanmar’s military. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in a phone call on Friday to condemn the coup, the State Department said.
China, which has close links to Myanmar’s military, joined the consensus on the Security Council statement but has not condemned the army takeover, and has said countries should act in the interests of the stability of Myanmar.