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Myanmar junta blocks Facebook, messaging services to shut down dissent

MYANMAR’s junta blocked Facebook and other messaging services in the name of ensuring stability on Thursday as they consolidate power following a coup and the detention of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The move to silence online activists came after Myanmar police filed charges against Nobel Peace laureate Ms. Suu Kyi for illegally importing communications equipment, and as international pressure grew on the junta to accept the results of November elections won by her party in a landslide.

Inside Myanmar, opposition to the junta had emerged very strongly on Facebook, which is the main internet platform for much of the country and underpins communications for business and government.

People in Yangon and other cities banged on pots and pans and honked car horns for a second night on Wednesday in protest against Monday’s coup. Images of the protests had circulated widely on Facebook.

The social network has also been used to share images of a campaign of disobedience by staff at government hospitals across the country, who accuse the army of putting its interests above a coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 3,100 people, one of the highest tolls in Southeast Asia.

The Ministry of Communications and Information said Facebook, used by half of Myanmar’s 53 million people, would be blocked until Feb. 7.

“Currently the people who are troubling the country’s stability … are spreading fake news and misinformation and causing misunderstanding among people by using Facebook,” the ministry said in a letter.

Disruptions were patchy however. Some people found they could still access Facebook even if connections were slow. Some used VPNs (virtual private networks) to evade the blockage.

Ms. Suu Kyi has not been seen since her arrest in the early hours of Monday morning along with other top leaders of her National League for Democracy (NLD). An NLD official has said she is under house arrest in the capital, Naypitaw, but there has been no word on her whereabouts from the junta.

The NLD won about 80% of the vote in the Nov. 8 polls, according to the election commission, a result the military has refused to accept, citing unsubstantiated allegations of fraud. The United Nations said it would increase international pressure to ensure the will of the people is respected.

“We will do everything we can to mobilize all the key actors and international community to put enough pressure on Myanmar to make sure that this coup fails,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said during an interview broadcast by The Washington Post on Wednesday.

“It is absolutely unacceptable after elections — elections that I believe took place normally — and after a large period of transition.”

Addressing the coup in Myanmar was a priority for the United States and Washington was reviewing possible sanctions in response, the White House said on Wednesday.

CHARGES ‘ABSURD’
Police said six walkie-talkie radios had been found in a search of Ms. Suu Kyi’s home in Naypitaw that were imported illegally and used without permission.

The chair of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Parliamentarians for Human Rights, Charles Santiago, said the charges against Ms. Suu Kyi were ludicrous.

“This is an absurd move by the junta to try to legitimize their illegal power grab,” he said in a statement.

In court documents, police requested Ms. Suu Kyi’s detention “in order to question witnesses, request evidence and seek legal counsel after questioning the defendant.”

A separate document showed police filed charges against ousted President Win Myint, who was also detained on Monday, for violating protocols to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Ms. Suu Kyi spent about 15 years under house arrest between 1989 and 2010 as she led the country’s democracy movement, and she remains hugely popular at home despite damage to her international reputation over the plight of Muslim Rohingya refugees.

The military had ruled Myanmar from 1962 until Ms. Suu Kyi’s party came to power in 2015 under a constitution that guarantees the generals a major role in government.

The junta headed by Army chief General Min Aung Hlaing has declared a one-year state of emergency and has promised to hold fair elections, but has not said when.

Norway’s Telenor Asa, Myanmar’s leading mobile network operator, said it had no choice but to comply with the directive to block Facebook. 

“While the directive has basis in Myanmar law, Telenor does not believe that the request is based on necessity and proportionality, in accordance with international human rights law,” it said in a statement.

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone urged authorities to restore connectivity “so that people in Myanmar can communicate with their families and friends and access important information”.

On Twitter, which is less popular in Myanmar and remained available, #CivilDisobedienceMovement was the top trending hashtag in the country. Close behind was #JusticeForMyanmar. — Reuters

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