Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Myanmar’s major cities Saturday, the sixth day of military rule, as the junta shut down internet and mobile phone service lines in the country of 54 million people and rumors swirled about deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s whereabouts.
In a move that rights groups warned would leave millions vulnerable to abuses and cut off from coronavirus pandemic information, the Ministry of Transport and Communications cut off all telephone and internet service, following the suspension of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram over the past three days.
The clampdown on social media aimed to stop information that could “damage the stability of the state and undermine the interest of the people," a ministry directive issued Friday said.
The online news outlet The Irrawaddy reported that parts of the France-sized country started losing internet access at 9 a.m. Saturday, while internet connectivity fell from 54 percent at 10 a.m. to 16 percent by 2 p.m., while “online contact with the outside world was lost for most citizens by 11 a.m.”
The U.S. Embassy issued a notice to citizens that “internet and cellular service, including mobile data, calling, and SMS, have been sporadic or unavailable most of the day” and outages could persist through the weekend. The consular notice warned citizens that “potential for political violence and civil unrest remains.”
Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for campaigns, said shutting down the internet “amid a volatile coup, a humanitarian crisis and a health pandemic is a heinous and reckless decision.”
With Myanmar’s population “forced into a situation of abject uncertainty” since the Feb. 1 coup, she said, “an expanded internet shutdown will put them at greater risk of more egregious human rights violations at the hands of the military.”
On Monday, the military dissolved parliament, declared a one-year state of emergency, and took over all branches of government, citing unproven allegations of voter fraud in national elections last November.
Aung San Suu Kyi, 75 and set to start a second five-year term, was arrested in the bloodless coup along with other ruling party leaders and cabinet ministers, and army chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing was installed as leader of a junta council of mostly military officers with some civilians.
‘The human rights abuses have started’
In a tweet Saturday amid the faltering telecoms, the U.S. Embassy in Yangon said the mission backs “the right of the people of Myanmar to protest in support of the democratically elected government and their right to freely access information.”
We repeat our calls for the military to relinquish power, restore the democratically elected government, release those detained, lift all telecommunications restrictions, and refrain from violence,” it said.
Demanding the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other detainees and calling on the army to respect her National League for Democracy party’s landslide win in November 2020 elections, tens of thousands of demonstrators rallied in Yangon, Mandalay, Naypyidaw and other cities across the country, sources told RFA.
As anger at the Feb. 1 coup built in a country that only started to emerge from five decades of military rule in 2011, protesters have turned to street demonstrations after nights of raucous ritual banging of pots and pans by coup opponents from their homes under COVID-19 restrictions or honking car horns to street protests.
Under tight coronavirus restrictions and curbs on information transmission, RFA learned that a peaceful anti-coup demonstration in the city of Mandalay started with 30 people and reached tens of thousands by Saturday afternoon, as residents joined parading protesters who were shouting slogans against the military dictatorship and demanding the release of the detained leaders.
In Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, thousands also rallied at prominent Buddhist temples, and near Yangon University, scene of 1988 protests against the harsh military junta that brought Aung San Suu Kyi to national prominence.
“Today’s protest was led by female factory workers and we are just coming to support them,” said Thet Swe Win, civil rights activist who participated in Saturday protests in Yangon.
“We salute them. These people, they are real people … real people who believe in democracy and loved the democratic values,” he said.
Thet Swe Win called the internet and mobile phone cutoff “a really bad thing.”
Over the past few days, the human rights abuses have started. Soon there will be serious violations of human rights,” he said.
A student leader from the 1988 protests, Min Ko Naing, released a video late Saturday urging people not to believe rumors that he and other “88 Generation” leaders would lead a big rally at noon Sunday at the Hledan junction near Yangon University, where pro-democracy protests began 33 years earlier.
“I suspect that they (the authorities) really want us to come out on the streets. We truly don’t have such a plan at that place or time.”
“We are working harder to take the Civil Disobedience Movement up to a stage that all employees are boycotting work and the government operations will be halted. That is our aim,” he said from an undisclosed location.
An anti-coup protest drew some 500 in the capital Naypyidaw, sources told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
In the war-torn western state of Rakhine, about 100 army veterans and their families held a rally in support of the coup in the state capital Sittwe, sources told RFA. The army has been at war in the state with the ethnic Arakan Army since late 2018.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s lawyer on Saturday night denied rumors the 75-year-old Nobel laureate had been released by the junta, calling them psychological warfare by the authorities.
“We think this is just a psywar released to confuse people who are very willing to accept this wishful thinking. It’s kind of an attempt by authorities to defuse the upcoming protest,” said Khin Maung Zaw, who is representing Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, who remain under house arrest.
“These are online rumors. They have not been released yet,” he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been charged under Section 8 of the Import and Export Law with the ownership of illegal walkie-talkies, and President Win Myint under Section 25 of the Natural Disaster Prevention Law.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Kyaw Min Htun. Written in English by Paul Eckert.