Myanmar coup: army blocks Facebook access as civil disobedience grows

Instagram and WhatsApp – owned by Facebook and used to organise protests – also restricted as UN secretary general condemns coup

Myanmar’s army has ordered internet service providers to block access to Facebook as it attempts to stamp out signs of dissent, days after it ousted the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Facebook, one of the most popular means of communication in Myanmar, has been used to coordinate a civil disobedience campaign that saw health workers at dozens of hospitals walk out of their jobs on Wednesday to protest against the army’s actions. It has also been used to share plans for evening protests, where residents have taken to their balconies to bang pots and pans, a symbolic act to drive away evil.

The ministry of communications and information said Facebook, used by half of Myanmar’s 53 million people, would be blocked until Sunday, adding that people were “troubling the country’s stability” by using the network to spread “fake news and misinformation”.

Facebook confirmed that it was aware of the disruption, while NetBlocks, which monitors internet outages around the world, said service providers in Myanmar were also blocking or restricting access to Instagram and WhatsApp, which are both owned by Facebook.

Reuters reported that the attempts to block Facebook had had mixed success, however, and that some people were still able to access the sites.

Demand for virtual private networks surged by 4,300%, according to, as people sought to circumvent the ban. The military later announced it would also block VPN servers.

Despite the army’s attempt to silence online activism, and its grim record of using violence against demonstrators, small impromptu protests began to form on Thursday. The first street protest against the coup took place in the city of Mandalay, where a small group chanted: “Our arrested leaders, release now, release now.” The group was quickly chased away by riot police, the news site Myanmar Now reported. Four people were reportedly arrested.

Sporadic protests also took place in Yangoon. At Sule Pagoda, activists released a stream of red balloons, the colour associated with Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, from the back of a truck, while elsewhere a small crowd of protesters were cheered as they shouted, “Let the junta fall.” They raised their hands in a three-finger salute, the gesture used by Thai pro-democracy activists, before running off into the crowds to evade the police. At 5pm across the city, cars beeped their horns and crowds clapped to show their opposition to the military.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who was detained during a raid on Monday morning, was charged on Wednesday with possession of illegally imported walkie-talkies, which could carry a two-year prison sentence. She has not been seen publicly since her arrest.

Messages shared on Facebook prior to the evening protests this week told people to take to their balconies and shout: “We pray that Aung San Suu Kyi is healthy”, “We pray that Myanmar will receive freedom” and “We pray that the military control will end.”

At least 147 people have been detained since the coup on Monday, including activists, lawmakers and officials from the ousted government of Aung San Suu Kyi, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The UN security council issued a consensus statement on Thursday expressing “deep concern” over the one-year state of emergency and calling for the immediate release of detainees.

But Thursday’s statement stopped short of condemning the army’s actions and did not use the word “coup” after China and Russia asked for more time to finesse the response. “It is better a text with less than no text at all,” one diplomat told AFP.

The military has justified its takeover by accusing Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) of fraud in November’s election, a claim that has been dismissed by observers. The party secured an overwhelming 396 out of 476 seats in the recent vote – an even stronger majority than in 2015, when Aung San Suu Kyi was swept to power on a wave of optimism as the country held its first open elections in decades.

On Thursday, dozens of MPs from the NLD signed a “pledge to serve the public” and held their own symbolic parliamentary session in Naypyidaw in defiance of the military.

The coup happened just a decade after the military – which ruled Myanmar for 50 years – agreed to share power with civilian leaders.

“We will do everything we can to mobilise all the key actors and international community to put enough pressure on Myanmar to make sure that this coup fails,” António Guterres, the UN secretary general, told 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.”

When asked about the indictment of Aung San Suu Kyi, 75, Guterres said: “If we can accuse her of something, [it] is that she was too close to the military, [it] is that she protected too much the military.”

Though Aung San Suu Kyi is revered at home, her international reputation has been severely undermined by her decision to defend Myanmar against allegations of genocide.

“I hope that democracy will be able to make progress again in Myanmar, but for that, all the prisoners must be released, the constitutional order must be reestablished,” Guterres said.

Myanmar’s army has claimed tthat he coup is in line with the country’s constitution. The army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, now head of a new cabinet, on Tuesday defended the military’s action as “inevitable”. Civilian leaders, he said, had not listened to the army’s complaints of voter fraud.


Rebecca Ratcliffe South-east Asia correspondent, and a Guardian reporter in Yangon

The GuardianTramp

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