After UN Envoy Warns of 'Bloodbath,' Junta Imposes Internet Blackout Across Myanmar

Protesters make the three-finger salute as copies of the 2008 constitution are burnt during a demonstration against the Myanmar's military coup in Yangon's South Okkalapa township on April 1, 2021. (Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

After UN Envoy Warns of 'Bloodbath,' Junta Imposes Internet Blackout Across Myanmar

The move came as Human Rights Watch said authorities have forcibly disappeared hundreds of politicians, election officials, journalists, activists, and protesters.

The military junta that seized control of Myanmar in February shut off wireless broadband internet services across the country on Friday in the face of ongoing demonstrations demanding a return to democratic rule and international alarm over the deadly crackdown on anti-coup protesters.

Citing telecom sources and an email to a service provider, Reutersreported on the shutdown order Thursday. The provider Ooredoo posted a statement online saying that the Ministry of Transport and Communications instructed "all wireless broadband data services be temporarily suspended until further notice."

"After weeks of overnight cutoffs of internet access, the military on Friday shut all links apart from those using fiberoptic cable, which was working at drastically reduced speeds," according to the Associated Press. "Access to mobile networks and all wireless--the less costly options used by most people in the developing country--was blocked."

As Reuters reported Friday:

Despite the internet shutdown, users were still able to upload pictures of marches, "flower strikes" and a funeral of a slain protester.

An image shared widely on social media showed a bird's eye view of hundreds of flickering candles on a dark road, spelling out the words "we will never surrender."

Human rights activists have denounced limits on and shutdowns of internet service. In February, Amnesty International's deputy regional director for campaigns, Ming Yu Hah, said that "to shut down the internet amid a volatile coup, a humanitarian crisis, and a health pandemic is a heinous and reckless decision."

Since the coup, the junta has killed 550 people and arrested, charged, or sentenced 2,751, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPR). Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Friday condemned the forced disappearance of hundreds politicians, election officials, journalists, activists, and protesters.

HRW's statement noted that AAPR said "they could confirm the location of only a small fraction of the more than 2,500 recent detainees they have identified." The U.S.-based group also emphasized that the regime's refusal to confirm detainees' locations or allow access to lawyers or relatives violates international law.

The New York Timesreported Thursday that "the regime has arrested at least 56 journalists, outlawed online news outlets known for hard-edge reporting, and crippled communications by cutting off mobile data service. Three photojournalists have been shot and wounded while taking photographs of the anti-coup demonstrations."

"The military junta's widespread use of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances appears designed to strike fear in the hearts of anti-coup protesters," declared Brad Adams, HRW's Asia director. "Concerned governments should demand the release of everyone disappeared and impose targeted economic sanctions against junta leaders to finally hold this abusive military to account."

"Enforced disappearances are a heinous crime, not least because of the anguish and suffering caused to family and friends," Adams added. "Myanmar's security forces have continually flouted any respect for human rights, but they should know that they will be held accountable for the disappearances of these individuals and for the safe return of everyone forcibly disappeared."

Despite pressure for international action and warnings from experts about future bloodshed, the United Nations Security Council watered down a British-drafted statement about the current conditions in the Southeast Asian country, which was approved by all 15 members and released this week.

"The members of the Security Council expressed deep concern at the rapidly deteriorating situation, and strongly condemned the use of violence against peaceful protestors and the deaths of hundreds of civilians, including women and children," the statement says in part.

According to the AP:

The original draft was much stronger and would have expressed the Security Council's "readiness to consider further steps," which could include sanctions. It would also have "deplored" the use of violence against peaceful protesters and "condemned in the strongest terms the killing of hundreds of civilians by the security forces."

But at the insistence of China, Myanmar's neighbor and friend, the reference to "further steps" was eliminated and the stronger language, including the words "killing" and "deplore," was softened in the final statement, council diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because discussions were private.

The reference to "further steps" was replaced in the final statement with a sentence saying council members "stressed that they continued to monitor the situation closely and would remain actively seized of the matter."

Diplomats also told the news agency that the Russian government demanded the final statement call "on all sides to refrain from violence" and reiterate "the need to fully respect human rights and to pursue dialogue and reconciliation in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar."

During a closed session on Wednesday, U.N. special envoy on Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener reportedly warned that "a bloodbath is imminent" because of the regime's crackdown on demonstrations against the coup and urged members of the Security Council to "consider all available tools to take collective action and do what is right, what the people of Myanmar deserve, and prevent a multi-dimensional catastrophe in the heart of Asia."

The junta has given no indication that it will ease off on the crackdown or return power to elected officials. Local media reported Friday that security forces opened fire and wounded four people at a rally near the city of Mandalay.

The regime continues to detain the nation's democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other members of the National League for Democracy. Suu Kyi's attorney revealed Thursday that she has been charged with violating a British colonial-era official secrets law, which can carry a 14-year prison sentence.

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