The terrifying reality of life under Myanmar’s internet shutdown

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Rumours of a coup were spreading before the military acted. Sophie*, an American software developer, was at home with her young son and her husband Aung*, a union worker and Myanmar national, when Myanmar’s military took control in the early hours of February 1.

As the nation’s military leaders arrested Aung San Suu Kyi, president Win Myint and other senior government figures they also deployed a blunt tool of censorship: turning off the internet. Sophie, who was up early with their son, could still access the internet at home as only phone data had been limited. The first she heard of the coup came from a New York Times article shared by a friend.

In the weeks since Myanmar’s military took control, internet shutdowns have become common, as documented by internet monitoring group NetBlocks. As protests have grown there have been total internet shutdowns and limits placed on individual services such as Facebook and its Messenger app. For most people in Myanmar, Facebook is the internet and is the main way people access news and chat with friends.

NetBlocks reports that for the last 12 nights the internet has been turned off like clockwork from 1am to 9am. Civil rights group Access Now says the periodic shutdowns “facilitates abuse by, and impunity for, the military junta”. The shutdowns have been condemned internationally and make Myanmar the latest of more than 30 countries to turn off the internet in an attempt to assert control.

People in Myanmar also fear the internet shutdowns are being used to cover up nighttime arrests and violent crackdowns on protestors. When the shutdowns started the Myanmar division of telecoms operator Telenor started publishing orders it received but now says “it is not possible”.

The shutdowns have stopped friends and families from communicating and made it hard for people to work. But, more perniciously than that, it has added to the sense of fear in Myanmar. Sophie has recently returned to the US with her son while the coup is continuing, while Aung has remained in central Yangon and has been attending protests with thousands of others. With the nightly internet shutdowns and time difference with the US, their conversations are limited and difficult. Here they explain the reality of living through the shutdowns. The conversations have been edited for context and clarity.

The coup and first shutdown

Sophie: We were in our condo when the coup happened. I woke up early to look after my son and one of my friends from the US had messaged me a New York Times article about Aung San Suu Kyi being arrested. I had warned someone ahead of time that if they don’t hear from me that I’m fine. Everyone was really afraid and stayed inside.

Aung: I have a lot of union workers on my Facebook. They were all offline – the family I was talking to 20 minutes before were offline too. I couldn’t see anything on the internet, I couldn’t communicate from my phone. So I have to go out to my balcony to see what’s going on on the street. I could see my neighbour watching cable TV – we don’t own one – so I shouted across asking what was happening.

Sophie: You’re completely in the dark. There’s nothing to do because you’re so reliant on your phone, but you start to talk to your neighbours. That first weekend it was completely shut off. Nobody had the internet, nobody had a cell phone connection and we would hear protesters going down the side streets or the main streets. The ATMs and the banks were down and it had a huge impact because there’s no way to access money.

Aung: The military government didn’t want other people to know what was happening. We were thinking the internet was only being shut down for that initial situation – they cut off the internet to stop information from spreading. We didn’t know that they would keep regularly cutting off the internet in the days later.

Facebook and WhatsApp go offline

Sophie: People completely rely on Facebook. Facebook is their news. Facebook is how they see everyone. Facebook is how they make calls. They use Facebook Messenger to call everyone. If you meet someone you don’t ask for their phone number you ask for their WhatsApp and Facebook. I could see how the military thought blocks would shut down communication.

People turned to VPNs. I work in tech so I already have a VPN service that I pay for. But there are a lot of people who are not tech-savvy and they were downloading whatever VPN they could. They had these free VPNs and they would hit the limits and they don’t know which ones to use.

Nightly shutoffs

Aung: Each night they shutting off the internet from 1am to 9am. Before this happened if people saw someone acting suspiciously in the street or there are suspicious cars going into other townships it can be announced on Facebook. We don’t know everyone’s phone numbers – the only way we can communicate with some people in our townships is through Facebook. Now people are volunteering to watch on the corner of the street. We have to take care of our streets ourselves.

Sophie: At that point, it was terrifying. Every 20 minutes someone would bang pots and pans. And if someone bangs pots and pans, then the whole street bangs pots and pans. You have to run outside on the balcony to see what is happening.

Before the internet cuts out, you just sit and stare at your phone and try to load as much as you can. I’ll just try and scroll and scroll and load as much information as I can. So I can sit there and read it because you want to see the last moment of what’s happening in the city before they shut it off. You’re always questioning why they need to cut it off. Why is it from 1am to 9am? What are they trying to stop you from doing or what are they going to do at night?

Aung: I think they are trying to make a habit of the situation. Most of the people are asleep at that time and most of the people are not working with that internet then. They choose a time with less impact on the public. I think they will start to change the time and increase the hours.

But it still has an impact. The internet is seriously important for industry at that time, for people who work with the international banking system and trade. I know people who work remotely and have missed meetings because of this, some children studying on American or UK time can’t do anything at all.

My work needs the internet because I need to connect internationally all the time. People from the union contact us via the internet about their salary problems sometimes about their health and wellbeing problems. Sometimes my duty is at night and I have to check our Facebook page for messages from members.

The aftermath

Aung: As soon as it clicks to 9am you’re hitting Facebook. We need to see what happened in the middle of the night. I check for messages from my family, check my emails, I check my work Facebook page, I start reading the news and see international coverage of what happened last night.

Sophie: You’re terrified of what they could do when you can’t share to the world what is happening to you. They could come and arrest you and just take your phone, and no one will ever know.

Since I left Myanmar a few days ago, I am trying to coordinate with my husband how we can talk. I can’t contact him for hours. I just have to sit and wait hours to see if he made it back home, or if he is stuck somewhere in the city. We have this contingency plan if we can’t talk on Facebook, then we can try to talk on another app. And if we can’t do it on that app, you can always email and then try international calls. We went and bought a bunch of top-up cards that we could put on our phone because you can’t load more minutes if it’s shut off.

Aung: I want to speak with my son when he is awake in the daytime. Even though it is nighttime here, I don’t care. I want to call my son, I want to see him. Sophie can only take videos of him when he is awake, speaking and playing and then send me them.

Sophie: I don’t think the shutdowns are working very well. People are finding ways to communicate and this is a country that is pretty new to technology in general.

Aung: My perspective is the government is trying to make us comfortable with the situation because the majority of people are not affected by this in the middle of the night. People need to know it is important. The internet will be seriously important for the country in the future – we don’t want to be North Korea. Internet access really is a struggle for everyone.

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity

Updated 26.02.21, 09:50 GMT: This article has been updated to attribute research to NetBlocks.

Matt Burgess is WIRED’s deputy digital editor. He tweets from @mattburgess1

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