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Radio Free Asia

Myanmar Internet Shutdown Chokes News Flow, Raises Citizens Fears

2021-04-02 - UPDATED at 4:50 A.M. EDT on 2021-04-03 -- Myanmar's embattled citizens struggled with a drastic cut-off of internet and wireless data services Friday following a military junta order aimed at staunching the flow of videos and photos of atrocities to a global audience, activists and web users said.

The Ministry of Transport and Communications on Thursday ordered the suspension of all wireless broadband data services, providers said, intensifying a clampdown on information flows that began with the blocking of social media sites and a 1 p.m.-to-9.a.m. cutoff of wireless service days after the Feb. 1 coup.

"This shutdown is mainly because they don't want the news from citizen journalists on the ground to reach the media and then go from the media to the public," said J. Paing of the Myanmar Press Photo Agency.

"Another purpose is to keep journalists working on the ground uninformed," he told RFA's Myanmar Service, noting that the lack of Internet access made it very difficult to obtain local information. The web is now accessible only to those with physical connections in a country where most users rely on wireless connections.

"Now that new Internet cuts have been made, they might be prepared to commit more brutal human rights violations," said Nicky Diamond, of the NGO Fortify Rights.

"We condemn such Internet cuts, and with no Internet access for the public they may get bolder and suppress people with more violence," he said.

"They're trying to hide the evidence of their crimes," added Diamond.

In the two months since troops deposed leader Aung San Su Kyi's elected government, more than 500 people have been killed and some 2,700 people have been arrested, according to tallies by RFA and a regional NGO.

'I'm no longer safe even at home'

Amid daily shootings, one resident of South Dagon, a township of Yangon that has seen a lot of deadly violence against protesters and is under martial law, said lack of access to timely information made people "feel insecure."

"Life has been difficult since Feb 1, when they staged the coup, and since then, they started a news blackout. The Internet has been cut off, and now the ISPs are cut off," he said.

"Without Wi-Fi, we can't get all the news. I don't know exactly what is going on, and feel insecure. I feel I'm no longer safe even at home," he told RFA.

The Internet cutoff has also hampered the sharing of information on the coronavirus pandemic, and made it difficult for those using apps to make payments in the absence of regular banking, which has been disrupted by the coup.

"The Internet is good for us, it's good for social and economic ties, and it's more convenient," said a businessman, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

While severely cutting information channels, Myanmar's junta has arrested 56 journalists since the Feb. 1, releasing 30 since, according to an RFA tally.

Underscoring the dangers involved in sharing information on the coup with the outside world, witnesses said police arrested two women from Ten Mile Market in Yangon after they talked to a CNN reporter during her visit Thursday.

Vendors and shops owners in the Ten Mile Market in northern Yangon said the police had arrived at the market and patrolled the area before CNN reporter Clarissa Ward visited.

"Around 9 a.m., the reporter and her team arrived at the market and started talking to people," said one vendor.

"The people in the neighborhood began to bang the pots and chanting 'We want democracy' or 'Justice for Myanmar. The people stopped banging the pots when around ten policemen came into the market. But the people were still chanting," added the vendor.

"A shop owner woman in the market came down to the scene and talked to the reporter. She got interviewed and she is the one who got arrested," said the vendor. "Her family told us that she has been detained at Mayangone police station. They are now fighting for her release."

Roughly five people were seen talking to the CNN reporter and two women who spoke to the U.S. cable news network, the owner of the Asia Light electronic lighting shop owner and her employee, were arrested Friday, the vendor said.

The CNN team "asked why the people are banging on pots, when the authorities stated that the country is now peaceful. The interviewee said it is a lie and people are banging on pots because they don't like the government," said a man who overheard the interview Thursday

"The interviewee said only two lines and they had to flee as the police had arrived. Now everyone who talked to the reporter are trying to stay away from home to avoid arrest," said the witness, describing people fearing reprisals from the junta for talking to CNN.

Yin Thet Tin, 23, one of the people interviewed in Yangon's Ten Mile Market by CNN's Ward was also arrested and taken away to an interrogation center in Shwepyithar by the military forces, her family confirmed to RFA.

A spokesman in Atlanta said CNN was following up on reports in a local Myanmar news outlet and on social media about several arrests after interviews with residents by the network's reporting team Friday at a bazaar in Yangon's Insein township.

"CNN has reached out to the Myanmar military for comment on the reported detentions," Jonathan Hawkins, CNN Vice president for communications, said in an e-mailed comment to RFA.

"CNN is in Myanmar with the permission of the military and is being escorted by the military, including during the visit to the market," he noted.

Flower Protests for slain activists

With the death toll reaching 550, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, and expected to rise as more killings are confirmed, anti-coup campaigners staged symbolic "Flower Protests" in memory of those who died demonstrating against military regime.

Bouquets of white roses and sprigs of Eugenia leaves with protest notes were placed at popular junctions and at sites in Myanmar cities where protesters were shot by security forces. Anti-junta marchers also carried flowers as they marched.

Family and colleagues held an emotional funeral for Su Su Kyi, an employee of South Korea's Shinhan Bank, who was shot Wednesday in Yangon as she commuted to work.

On Thursday night in Sagaing city, a 36-year-old man named Ko Chan Aye was shot and killed by security forces as they entered the neighborhood shooting indiscriminately, his wife said.

"He was hit just after midnight, and died at about 2.30 a.m. He was hit once in the groin and once in the belly, and also hit on the back by two rubber bullets," she told RFA.

"We cremated him early this morning, because we were afraid they would come to get the body."

In other violence in the Sagaing region, clashes broke out between villagers and military junta forces when troops tried to arrest Ven. Thawparka, a Buddhist abbot. One villager was killed and three were seriously injured, a witness said.

"At about three o'clock in the morning, I was surrounded at the monastery by a force of about a hundred troops. I hid and when they couldn't get me, they took four villagers hostage," said the abbot. "There was a clash between them and the villagers who came to protect me for several hours."

A college student named Maung Nyan Lin was shot and killed Thursday night near Sagaing's Kalemyo University by police, with his body left at the university gate Friday morning, local residents told RFA.

In the Northern Shan State city of Lashio, security forces entered houses under the pretext of checking household lists and arrested people in houses where vinyl posters used by protesters were found.

"We had those vinyl posters left by youths at my house after the protests," said a resident of Lashio's Ward 9 whose wife, Ei Moe, was arrested.

"The troops came the first day and asked for Ko Tun Way and they left when we said he was on a road trip. Then they came again the next day, kicked down the front metal door," he said.

"I slipped out of the house from the back. They found the vinyl posters and an NLD flag and they took my wife away," added the man.

Reported by RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane, Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Kyaw Min Htun. Written in English by Paul Eckert.

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