Myanmar junta blocks Facebook as opposition grows to coup

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Myanmar’s junta blocked Facebook in the name of ensuring stability on Thursday and activists said at least three people were arrested at a street protest against the coup that ousted elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi faces charges for illegally importing communications equipment after the army takeover on Monday that has drawn Western condemnation and calls on the junta to respect her party’s landslide victory in November elections.

Opposition to the junta has emerged very strongly on Facebook, which is the country’s main internet platform and underpins communications for business and government. Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging was also blocked.

Facebook was still available sporadically and demonstrators in the second city of Mandalay used it to livestream the first such street protest since the coup in a country with a bloody history of crackdowns on demonstrations.

“People’s protest against military coup,” read one of the banners.

The group of around 20 people chanted: “Our arrested leaders, release now, release now.”

Three people were arrested after the protest, three separate student groups said. Reuters was unable to contact police for comment.

The social network has also been used to share images of a campaign of disobedience by staff at government hospitals across the country, with doctors stopping work or wearing ribbons in the red colour of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.

Pictures shared on Wednesday showed workers at the agriculture ministry joining the campaign too.

“UNFAIR COUP”

Other signs of anger have emerged. For two nights, people in Yangon and other cities have banged on pots and pans and honked car horns, with images circulating widely on Facebook.

“Lights are shining in the dark,” said Min Ko Naing, a veteran of past campaigns against military rule, in a call to action. “We need to show how many people are against this unfair coup.”

The Ministry of Communications and Information said Facebook, used by half of Myanmar’s more than 53 million people, would be blocked until Feb. 7 because users were “spreading fake news and misinformation and causing misunderstanding”.

Suu Kyi has not been seen since her arrest along with other party leaders.

The NLD won about 80% of the vote in the Nov. 8 polls, according to the election commission, a result the military has refused to accept, citing unsubstantiated allegations of fraud.

The United Nations said it would ratchet up international pressure to ensure the will of the people is respected.

“We will do everything we can to mobilize all the key actors and international community to put enough pressure on Myanmar to make sure that this coup fails,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said during an interview broadcast by The Washington Post on Wednesday.

PRIORITY FOR WASHINGTON

Addressing the coup in Myanmar was a priority for the United States and Washington was reviewing possible sanctions in response, the White House said on Wednesday.

President Joe Biden discussed the situation in calls with the leaders of South Korea and Australia, the White House said.

The chair of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Parliamentarians for Human Rights, Charles Santiago, said the charges against Suu Kyi were ludicrous.

“This is an absurd move by the junta to try to legitimize their illegal power grab,” he said in a statement.

Police said six walkie-talkie radios had been found in a search of Suu Kyi’s home in Naypyidaw that were imported illegally and used without permission.

The NLD itself has yet to comment on the charges.

Suu Kyi spent about 15 years under house arrest between 1989 and 2010 as she led the country’s democracy movement, and she remains hugely popular at home despite damage to her international reputation over the plight of Muslim Rohingya refugees.

The military had ruled Myanmar from 1962 until Suu Kyi’s party came to power in 2015 under a constitution that guarantees the generals a major role in government.

The junta headed by Army chief General Min Aung Hlaing has declared a one-year state of emergency and has promised to hold fair elections, but has not said when.

Norway’s Telenor Asa, Myanmar’s leading mobile network operator, said it had no choice but to comply with the directive to block Facebook.

“Telenor does not believe that the request is based on necessity and proportionality, in accordance with international human rights law,” it said in a statement.

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone urged authorities to restore connectivity “so that people in Myanmar can communicate with their families and friends and access important information”.

Some people used VPNs to evade the blockage. Twitter, which was not blocked, saw an increase in new users. #CivilDisobedienceMovement was the top trending hashtag in the country, with #JusticeForMyanmar close behind.

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