Thousands protest in Myanmar over military coup despite social media ban

Click to play video: 'Myanmar coup: Thousands march in Yangon against military coup as junta shuts down internet' Myanmar coup: Thousands march in Yangon against military coup as junta shuts down internet
WATCH: Myanmar's junta military shut down the internet in the country on Saturday as thousands of people took to the streets of Yangon to denounce this week's coup, and demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi – Feb 6, 2021

Thousands of people took to the streets of Yangon on Saturday to denounce this week’s coup and demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi despite a blockade on the internet by the junta.

In an upwelling of anger in the country’s largest city protesters chanted, “Military dictator, fail, fail; Democracy, win, win” and held banners reading “Against military dictatorship.” Bystanders offered them food and water.

Read more: Myanmar military arrests ousted politicians while facing resistance to coup

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.

Click to play video: 'Lawyer for detained Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi seeks ‘unconditional release’' Lawyer for detained Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi seeks ‘unconditional release’
Lawyer for detained Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi seeks ‘unconditional release’ – Feb 5, 2021

Yangon streets had a festival atmosphere as a cacophony of car horns blared across the city. Thousands marched toward City Hall. Drivers leaned out of their cars and raised the three-finger salute. Bystanders returned the gesture. Some held up NLD flags or pictures of Suu Kyi. Many clapped and danced.

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Several hundred people gathered in the capital Naypyidaw, in central Myanmar, with motorbikes blaring horns. They chanted slogans against the coup and called for the release of Suu Kyi.

The protests built despite a blockade of the internet imposed after demonstrators first began to gather.

Monitoring group NetBlocks Internet Observatory reported a “national-scale internet blackout,” saying on Twitter that connectivity had fallen to 16 per cent of ordinary levels. Witnesses reported a shutdown of mobile data services and wifi.

Click to play video: 'U.S. in contact with allies regarding Myanmar military coup' U.S. in contact with allies regarding Myanmar military coup
U.S. in contact with allies regarding Myanmar military coup – Feb 4, 2021

The junta did not respond to requests for comment. It extended a social media crackdown to Twitter and Instagram after seeking to silence dissent by temporarily blocking Facebook, which counts half of the population as users.

Facebook urged the junta to unblock social media.

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“At this critical time, the people of Myanmar need access to important information and to be able to communicate with their loved ones,” Facebook’s head of public policy for Asia-Pacific emerging countries, Rafael Frankel, said in a statement.

Read more: UN Security Council holds emergency meeting on Myanmar coup but takes no action

The United Nations human rights office said on Twitter that “internet and communication services must be fully restored to ensure freedom of expression and access to information.”

Norwegian mobile network provider Telenor ASA said authorities had ordered all mobile operators to temporarily shut down the data network, although voice and SMS services remained open.

Many activists had sidestepped the Facebook ban by using virtual private networks to conceal their locations, but the more general internet disruption will severely limit their ability to organize and access independent news and information.

Myanmar civil society organizations appealed to internet providers and mobile networks to resist the junta’s orders, saying in a joint statement they were “essentially legitimizing the military’s authority.”

Telenor said it had stressed to the authorities that access to telecom services should be maintained. However it added it was bound by local law and its first priority was the safety of its local workers.

Click to play video: 'Charges against Myanmar’s Suu Kyi ‘compound the undermining of the rule of law,’ U.N. says' Charges against Myanmar’s Suu Kyi ‘compound the undermining of the rule of law,’ U.N. says
Charges against Myanmar’s Suu Kyi ‘compound the undermining of the rule of law,’ U.N. says – Feb 3, 2021

“We deeply regret the impact the shutdown has on the people in Myanmar,” it said in a statement.

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Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for campaigns, Ming Yu Hah, said shutting down the internet amid a coup and pandemic was a “heinous and reckless decision.”

International fallout

Army chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power alleging fraud, although the electoral commission says it has 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.

Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi, 75, has been charged with illegally importing six walkie-talkies, while ousted President Win Myint is accused of flouting COVID-19 restrictions. Neither has been seen since the coup. Their lawyer said they were being held in their homes.

NLD member Aung Moe Nyo, chief minister of the Magway region, said on Facebook before the shutdown: “It is not OK to let the country fall under junta government. I am very much thankful to those who oppose this, to those government staff who oppose this. This act is to save the country.”

Read more: Myanmar coup: What led to the military seizing power

Sean Turnell, an Australian economic adviser to Suu Kyi, said in a message to Reuters on Saturday he was being detained.

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Australia’s government, without naming Turnell, said it had summoned the Myanmar ambassador to register “deep concern” over the arbitrary detention of Australian and other foreign nationals in Myanmar.

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Myanmar’s military seizes power in coup – Feb 1, 2021

A civil disobedience movement has been building in Myanmar all week, with doctors and teachers among those refusing to work. Every night people bang pots and pans in a show of anger.

The coup has sparked international outrage, with the United States considering sanctions against the generals and the U.N. Security Council calling for the release of all detainees.

It has also deepened tensions between the United States and China, which has close links to 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.

The generals have few overseas interests vulnerable to international sanctions, but the military’s extensive business investments could suffer if foreign partners leave – as Japanese drinks company Kirin Holdings said it would on Friday.

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Read more: Myanmar’s Suu Kyi detained again after military coup

Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest after leading pro-democracy protests against the long-ruling military junta in 1988.

After sharing power with a civilian government, the army began democratic reforms in 2011. That led to the election of the NLD in a landslide victory four years later. November’s election was meant to solidify a troubled democratic transition.

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