Anti-Junta Townships in Myanmar Fear Internet Shutdowns Signal Imminent Military Offensive

Residents of townships in Myanmar where authorities have shut down access to the internet say they fear an imminent military offensive amid an information lockdown and increase in arrests since the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) declared war on the junta last week.

Access to the internet is now cut off in 10 townships in five administrative regions that have seen widespread anti-junta protests since the military seized power in a Feb. 1 coup d’état, including Sagaing, Mandalay and Magway, as well as in the state of Kachin, sources told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

In Kachin’s Hpakant township, the internet has been down since Aug. 20, while access in most townships in Mandalay, Sagaing and Magway regions was blocked on Sept. 14

Calls to Ooredoo Myanmar, which operates telecommunications services in the country, were routed to a recorded voice message on Thursday informing the public that the cuts were made “under instruction from the Ministry of Transport and Communications” and that customers would be notified “as soon as possible, if service is restored.”

Residents of Sagaing’s Kani township, where reports say around 40 people were killed following an anti-junta protest in July, told RFA that they believe internet access may have been shut down to prevent access to information by the local branch of the People’s Defense Force (PDF) militia formed to protect the public from the military.

“There are a lot of problems now because of the internet outage—we don’t have any information from anywhere,” said one resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal.

“People are speculating that the military is planning to launch an attack on PDF forces now that the internet is shut down. It could be true, since telecom towers were blown up in Butalin and Kani, and there could be an offensive for revenge.”

RFA has recorded the destruction of a total of 65 communications towers since Sept. 4 in Mandalay, Sagaing, Magway and Ayeyawaddy regions, and in Chin and southern Shan states.

PDF militias have destroyed dozens of towers operated by military-run telecom Mytel Telecommunications Co. in a bid to decrease company revenue they say the regime will use to buy weapons to wield against the population. Several have been destroyed since Sept. 7, when the NUG declared a nationwide state of emergency and called for open rebellion against junta rule, prompting an escalation of attacks on military targets by various allied pro-democracy militias and ethnic armed groups.

As many as 11 towers were destroyed on Sept. 7 alone in Sagaing’s Butalin township, they said. At least five Mytel towers were blown up between Sept. 9 and 15 in northern Chin state’s Tedim township, and locals said Mytel internet connections were unavailable since Wednesday.

In several areas, including Magway’s Taungdwingyi township, residents said that internet connections for all four of Myanmar’s operators—MPT, Telenor, Ooredoo and Mytel—had been cut off.

Risk of rights abuses

A resident of Sagaing’s Yinmabin township warned that military-perpetrated human rights abuses could escalate once the internet is cut off.

“Even when internet access was available, brutal massacres were being committed by the military, but without it, the situation would be unthinkable,” he said.

A state employee in Magway region, who declined to be named, told RFA that the junta had instructed all telecom operators to shut down 3G, 4G and WTTH (Broadband) internet lines in Sagaing, Mandalay and Magway beginning Sept. 14.

One such operator, Norway’s Telenor Myanmar, confirmed to RFA that it was experiencing “limitations in providing services due to compliance with local laws in the country,” without providing details.

In the more than seven months since Myanmar’s Feb. 1 coup, security forces have killed 1,105 civilians and arrested at least 6,572, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP)—mostly during crackdowns on anti-junta protests.

During the coup, the internet was cut off across the country, with wi-fi and broadband services shut down until late April and only cable internet and business internet services accessible. According to figures compiled by RFA, a total of 707 people were killed in shootings by security forces during that period.

The junta says it unseated Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government because the party engineered a landslide victory in Myanmar’s November 2020 election through widespread voter fraud. It has yet to present evidence of its claims and public unrest is at an all-time high.

During past internet shutdowns, reports have surfaced of government soldiers entering villages to loot and burn homes, forcing resident to flee to safety. However, the junta has defended the blocks, with spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun telling RFA last year that restricting access to the internet had reduced the number of posts on social media about matters of national security, including military movements and activities.

Amid the nationwide turmoil since February’s coup, the military has stepped up offensives in remote parts of the country, triggering fierce battles with local PDF militias and some of the dozens of ethnic armies that control large swathes of territory along Myanmar’s periphery.

A resident of Mandalay told RFA he believes the main aim of the junta in cutting off internet access is “to carry out some kind of a military operation.”

“It’s meant to prevent the PDFs from exchanging information so that they can attack them,” he said.

“Even before the internet was shut down, [the military was] doing what they wanted to do. I'm worried that there will be more brutalities against innocent people.”

Myint Kyaw, a veteran journalist, said the junta would “gain the upper hand” by cutting off the internet, and said he expects “there will be more human rights abuses” as a result.

“It’s a news blackout to cover things up,” he said.

The junta’s Ministry of Transport and Communications had yet to comment on the internet shutdowns as of Thursday.

Security tightened in Yangon

Meanwhile, the military has arrested at least 220 civilians across the country since last week’s NUG declaration, according to the AAPP.

In particular, authorities have tightened security and stepped up arrests in Yangon, where at least 11 people—including five women—were arrested and beaten in No. 7 and No. 3 wards on Wednesday. RFA obtained a video that purportedly shows one young man from among the 11 being kicked by the military and police.

A youth activist involved with the Yangon Urban Guerrilla Movement told RFA that the military is targeting and arresting the city’s young people, while increasing random searches.

“They want to conduct a check as soon as they see a young person. They open up and search your backpack if you have one—one time, I even had to take off my clothes,” he said.

“In the city center, only passenger cars were inspected before. But following an explosion on a bus after the NUG’s war declaration, they began carrying out surprise checks on buses too. Restrictions in the neighborhood are getting tighter and tighter.”

Additionally, residents told RFA that military forces are patrolling key areas in the city, making nighttime guest list checks, and beating and arresting people daily.

More than 100 people were arrested in Ward 13, in Yangon’s Hlaing township, alone on the night of Sept. 8—the day after the NUG’s announcement—for failing to register guests. Hlaing residents said they were released the next day after being questioned about whether they had any contact with NUG or PDF groups.

The junta revived the Ward Administrator Law, popularly known as the Guest List Law, on Feb 13. Two days after the NUG announcement last week, the military’s Central Committee for Combating Terrorism issued a statement warning that any homeowner who fails to register a guest that is found to have committed acts of violence is subject to prosecution, while their property can be confiscated by the state.

Nan Lin, a leader of the Rangoon University Students Union Alumni, said that by reviving the guest list law, the military has given itself the power to oppress the people in whatever way it sees fit, while claiming to act in the nation’s best interests.

“It’s true things are getting tougher for our movement, but we have to find ways to stand up against the junta,” he said.

“No matter what, we will carry our mission out in this city. The military cannot stop us just by arresting or torturing us. Revolutionary movements will continue to emerge in various forms throughout the country.”

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