The new military government in Myanmar ordered telecommunication companies to block people’s access to Facebook and related services, including WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram. The new government claims that these platforms contribute to instability in the country. Close to 30 million Myanmarese use Facebook to communicate with friends and family. Moreover, in Myanmar, Facebook essentially is the internet, as for most it’s the only source of information.
Cell and Internet Service in Myanmar Severely Disrupted
Earlier this week, the military took control of Myanmar (also known as Burma), claiming the November 2020 general election results were fraudulent. They detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi along with other democratically elected leaders of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party. Next, they declared a state of emergency for a year.
Shortly after the coup, people in many parts of the country started reporting internet and cellular outages. This impacted reporting on the tense situation that was unfolding. A correspondent for Reuters tweeted, for example, that she had been logged out of Signal and Telegram and couldn’t login again, since she couldn’t retrieve verification codes without cell service. State TV also went off air. This happened just hours before parliament was due to sit for the first time since the NLD’s landslide re-election in November.
Myanmar had been ruled by a military junta for decades, during which time it had developed a brutal track record. The Myanmar military imprisoned thousands of journalists, scholars and democracy activists. The country also stands accused of genocide against the Rohingya Muslims in 2016 and 2017 while under the rule of the NLD party. The latter all happened while the country started opening up, and took steps to allow for more free speech and internet freedom.
Facebook and Related Services Banned
In the days following the coup, it became clear that the military is forcing telecommunication companies to block Facebook. Facebook also owns many other products and services used by Myanmar citizens, including WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram. The military gave companies until midnight on Wednesday 3 February to comply with their order and said it will keep the ban in place until Sunday at least.
The new government declared that the platform is “a threat to the restoration of stability in the country”. The leading telecommunications company in Myanmar, Telenor group, posted a statement on their website to announce that they had decided to comply with the directive they received from the Myanmar Ministry of Transport and Communications on Wednesday. However, they also expressed grave concerns regarding a breach of human rights.
Politically motivated shutdowns of the internet and social media are not uncommon. In January alone, India and Uganda also suffered internet disruptions tied to political events. Moreover, in countries like China, Egypt, Iran, as well as in Turkey, online censorship severely restricts internet use. To get around blocks on social media, independent news coverage and apps, many people use a VPN.
Internet Use and Social Media Engagement
Internet use and social media engagement has grown rapidly in Myanmar. Prior to the liberalization of the telecom sector in 2014, mobile phones and internet access were a luxury only a few could afford. Since then, the sector has expanded at an unprecedented rate, led by the telecommunications industry.
The then NLD government established the Universal Service Funds in 2018 to expand telecommunication services and set the ambitious target to achieve 99% mobile penetration by 2022. The Internet penetration rate now hovers around 30%. This is a huge increase from 2011 when less than 1% of Myanmar’s population had access to the internet.
Internet, and social media usage especially, are rising rapidly in Myanmar. In January 2021, there were close to 29 million Facebook users in Myanmar. This accounts for 52% of the entire population and includes many people from rural areas. Young people between 25 and 34 account for the largest user group (43.1%). Most are male.
More and more citizens have taken to platforms like Facebook to share their opinions and views. Unfortunately, some groups also misuse social media platforms to spread false information and stoke fear. According to independent reports, certain Facebook accounts helped incite genocidal violence against Rohingya Muslims and continue to spread hatred against Rohingya and other ethnic minorities.
Actual and Potential Human Rights Impacts
In 2018, Facebook removed 18 accounts and 52 pages associated with the Myanmar military, just minutes after the UN released a damning report. UN investigators found that Facebook posts and audio-visual materials had “contributed to shaping public opinion on the Rohingya and Muslims more generally” and portrays them as “an existential threat to Myanmar and to Buddhism”.
Meanwhile, Facebook released their own report in November 2018, called “Human Rights Impact Assessment – Facebook in Myanmar”. This study was conducted by the non-profit Business for Social Responsibility (BSR). “The question of how social media platforms can respect the freedom of expression rights of users while also protecting rightsholders from harm is one of the most pressing challenges of our times”, the 2018 report stated.
Based on the UN’s and BSR’s recommendations, Facebook pledged to “do more” and promised to find ways to “improve proactive detection of hate speech” and take “more aggressive action on networks of accounts that are set up to mislead others”. In February last year, the social media giant removed 13 Facebook accounts and 10 pages that were set up to mislead audiences in Myanmar. On Tuesday 2 February 2021, Facebook removed a page linked to Myanmar’s military-owned TV network and announced that they are again “closely monitoring political events”.