Myanmar’s junta 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.
In the first such demonstration since the generals seized power on Monday, activists in the country’s largest city chanted, “Military dictator, fail, fail; Democracy, win, win” and held banners reading “Against military dictatorship”. Bystanders offered them food and water.
Many in the crowd wore red, the colour of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) which won Nov. 8 elections in a landslide, a result the generals have refused to recognise claiming fraud.
The protesters largely dispersed in the afternoon, but several hundred remained sitting on the road in a standoff with police, residents said. Another group of around 100 were blocked by police from reaching the main demonstration.
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% of ordinary levels. Witnesses reported a shutdown of mobile data services and wifi.
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.
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 organise and access independent news and information.
Myanmar civil society organisations appealed to internet providers and mobile networks to resist the junta’s orders, saying in joint statement they were “essentially legitimising 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.
“We deeply regret the impact the shutdown has on the people in Myanmar,” it 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”.
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.
Suu Kyi, 75, has been charged with illegally importing six walkie-talkies, while ousted President Win Myint is accused of flouting coronavirus restrictions. Neither has been seen since the coup, although their lawyer said they were being held in their homes.
Sean Turnell, an Australian economic adviser to Suu Kyi, said in a message to Reuters on Saturday he was being detained.
Without naming Turnell, Australia said it had summoned the Myanmar ambassador to register “deep concern” over the arbitrary detention of Australian and other foreign nationals in Myanmar.
“In particular, we have serious concerns about an Australian who has been detained at a police station,” Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement.
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 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, and 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 United Nations 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. U.S. 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 that would be 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.