Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram blocked in Myanmar by generals following military coup

There are reports of citizens using virtual private networks (VPNs) to bypass the block

Adam Smith
Thursday 04 February 2021 18:12 GMT
Yangon residents in noisy protest against Myanmar coup

Myanmar’s new government has ordered internet providers in the country to block Facebook and its other apps following the military coup that recently took place.

Three days ago, the military ousted the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party Aung San Suu Kyi. The NLD had experienced an overwhelming victory in elections held in November, winning over 80 per cent of the vote.

Ms Suu Kyi and her party are seen as representing an end to military rule and an increased openness for the Asian country, despite repeated reports of atrocities carried out against Myanmar’s Rohingya by the country’s military under her leadership.

The military-backed party, the USDP, performed poorly in the November elections. Aye Min Thant, a former journalist, said this was unexpected.

"They weren't expecting to lose," they told the BBC. "People whose families were in the military must have voted against them."

Frustrated by the results, the military claimed that voter fraud had taken place. Human Rights Watch (HRW) described such allegations as “inexplicable” and “somewhat Trumpian”, due to the lack of evidence of interference.

"Obviously Aung San Suu Kyi won a resounding election victory," Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Asia, told the BBC.

Despite their poor performance, the constitution of Myanmar gives the military a quarter of parliamentary seats automatically and control over home affairs, defence and border affairs.

In the wake of the coup, the military blocked access to Facebook. There are also reports of disruptions to Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Instagram.

Internet users said the disruption began late Wednesday night, and mobile service provider Telenor Myanmar confirmed in a statement that mobile operators and internet service providers in Myanmar had received a directive from the communications ministry.

“Telecom providers in Myanmar have been ordered to temporarily block Facebook. We urge authorities to restore connectivity so that people in Myanmar can communicate with family and friends and access important information,” said a Facebook spokesperson.

The social media site is so dominant in the country – which did not have widespread internet access until the mid-2000s - that it is comparable to its entire internet use.

In response, Facebook has apparently planned to take steps to enforce greater content moderation in the country.

In an internal message posted late on Monday, Rafael Frankel, a director of public policy in the Asia-Pacific region, told employees that the social network was watching the “volatile situation” in Myanmar “with grave concern”, according to Buzzfeed News.

“Myanmar’s November election was an important moment in the country’s transition toward democracy, although it was not without its challenges, as highlighted by international human rights groups,” Frankel apparently wrote.

“This turn of events hearkens us to days we hoped were in Myanmar’s past and reminds us of fundamental rights that should never be taken for granted.”

The company has also designated Myanmar as a “Temporary High-Risk Location” for two weeks – the length of time Ms Suu Kyi is being detained by the military - which allows it to remove content and events that include “any calls to bring armaments”.

The political party ousted in Monday's coup and other activists in Myanmar have called for a campaign of civil disobedience to oppose the takeover.

In the vanguard are medical personnel, who have declared they won’t work for the military government and who are highly respected for their work during the coronavirus pandemic that is taxing the country's dangerously inadequate health system.

A similar designation had previously applied to Washington DC following the insurrection attempt on 6 January at the Capitol Building.

Facebook’s relationship with the country is strained; in 2018, the social media company was deemed to have played a a “determining role” spreading hatred of Rohingya Muslims according to a UN human right’s team.

Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, said Facebook had “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissention and conflict” against Rohingya Muslims.

“Hate speech is certainly, of course, a part of that. As far as the Myanmar situation is concerned, social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media”, he also said.

Facebook at the time said there was “no plate for hate speech” on its platform. “We take this incredibly seriously and have worked with experts in Myanmar for several years to develop safety resources and counter-speech campaigns

“This work includes a dedicated Safety Page for Myanmar, a locally illustrated version of our Community Standards, and regular training sessions for civil society and local community groups across the country”, a spokesperson said.

Despite this, non-governmental organisations in Myanmar said that Facebook’s response to hate speech was “grossly insufficient”.

Additional reporting by Associated Press

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