Myanmar’s military regime ordered internet providers to shut off service for eight hours on Monday morning and deployed troops and army vehicles on to the streets, raising fears of an imminent crackdown on a popular resistance movement against the coup.
Many banks were shut in Yangon, the biggest city, as employees joined a general strike called by civil servants and others against General Min Aung Hlaing’s junta. Protesters gathered in front of a branch of the Central Bank of Myanmar in Yangon and other locations despite the increased presence of soldiers and armour on the streets.
The developments came 14 days after Min Aung Hlaing, the army’s commander-in-chief, ordered the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and scores of other government officials and seized power. A court in the capital Naypyidaw extended remand for the deposed leader’s arrest that was due to expire on Monday — she is due to appear in court on Wednesday.
The internet was shut down after the junta floated a punitive cyber security law that would, once implemented, give authorities sweeping powers to censor online activity. In the first week after the coup it also ordered telecoms companies to block temporarily access to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and issued an order banning the use of VPNs.
Telenor, the Norwegian telecoms company, which had been publishing a list of internet shutdown orders on its website since the February 1 coup, said on Sunday that it was no longer possible for it to disclose the directives from authorities, but did not say why.
“We are gravely concerned with this development and recognise the impact this has on the local and international community’s ability to receive information,” Telenor said. “We deeply regret that the list on this site will no longer be updated.”
The internet blackout revived memories in Myanmar of the military crackdown that followed a popular uprising in 1988 and stoked fears that the regime would use the service stoppage to step up night-time arrests of protest leaders.
Witnesses and human rights groups over the weekend also reported the appearance of “mobs” that allegedly included prisoners released in a mass amnesty on Friday, setting fires and causing other disturbances in Yangon. Some neighbourhoods organised watch groups to alert residents to intruders.
The US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and EU countries with embassies in Myanmar called on security forces to refrain from using violence against people “protesting the overthrow of their legitimate government”.
“We unequivocally condemn the detention and ongoing arrests of political leaders, civil society activists and civil servants, as well as the harassment of journalists,” the statement said. “We also denounce the military’s interruption of communications, as well as the restriction of Myanmar people’s fundamental rights and basic legal protections.”
Tom Andrews, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, wrote on Twitter: “It’s as if the generals have declared war on the people of Myanmar: late-night raids; mounting arrests; more rights stripped away; another internet shutdown; military convoys entering communities.”
He added: “These are signs of desperation. Attention generals: You WILL be held accountable.”