Since Burma’s February 1 military coup, the military has restricted the Burmese people’s right to internet access. This suppression, designed to maintain the military’s grip on power, both denies access to information and cripples the nation’s economy.
During the coup, the military shut down the internet. Serious network disruptions have continued. The outages have affected multiple networks, including international operators and cellular services, according to news reports.
Reporters cannot post news, families can’t access information needed to protect themselves from COVID-19, and businesses suffer, especially the thousands of entrepreneurs who run online businesses.
“The whole digital economy basically collapsed when they started blocking mobile internet,” an entrepreneur in Rangoon told the nonprofit news outlet Rest of World. The outlet reports that the regime’s network outages have “gutted” thousands of small internet businesses.
The cost to Burma’s economy exceeds $24 million per day, according to estimates by NetBlocks, a nongovernmental organization that tracks internet access.
The United States and partner nations are calling for a return to democracy and an end to military violence against peaceful protesters. Since the coup, Burma’s military has killed more than 700 protesters and detained thousands of people, including democratically elected officials, activists and journalists.
Access to information is a fundamental human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom House calls internet shutdowns a blunt tool that can have “an incredibly broad, devastating impact” on society.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently condemned government-imposed internet shutdowns and other tactics that prevent freedom of expression online.
The Burmese military’s internet shutdowns have not only obstructed news and social media sites. They have even blocked a mobile application that allows users to track the spread of the coronavirus and check affected regions, according to the Open Observatory of Network Interference, which opposes internet censorship.
Burmese businesses harmed by the suppression range from farms, which research prices online, to national industries, which also rely on digital technology to function, Reuters reports.
Oliver Spencer, of Free Expression Myanmar, said the military’s network shutdowns harm everyone. “Shutting down the internet is meant to be just one demonstration of their absolute power,” he told Wired magazine. “But it’s a vast self-harm.”
Ultimately, that harm includes Burma’s 54 million citizens, the majority of whom rely on wireless internet for information. “As protest grows, the aim of the shutdown is to instill fear and to prevent people from communicating, organizing protest or accessing vital information,” the Centre for International Governance Innovation says.