Myanmar’s junta shut down the internet in the country on Saturday as thousands of people took to the streets of Yangon to denounce the military coup and demand the release of the elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
In the first such demonstration since the generals seized power on Monday, activists in the country’s largest city chanted: “Military dictator, fail, fail; Democracy, win, win” and held banners reading: “Against military dictatorship”. Bystanders offered them food and water.
Many in the crowd wore red, the colour of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which won the 8 November elections in a landslide, a result the generals have refused to recognise, claiming fraud.
The protesters largely dispersed in the afternoon, but several hundred remained sitting on the road in a standoff with police, residents said. Another group of about 100 were blocked by police from reaching the main demonstration.
As the protest swelled and activists issued calls on social media for people to join the march, the country’s internet crashed.
The monitoring group NetBlocks Internet Observatory reported a “national-scale internet blackout”, saying on Twitter that connectivity had fallen to 54% of ordinary levels. Witnesses reported a shutdown of mobile data services and wifi.
The junta did not respond to requests for comment. It extended a social media crackdown to Twitter and Instagram after seeking to silence dissent by temporarily blocking Facebook, which counts half of the population as users.
The Norwegian mobile network provider Telenor ASA said authorities had ordered all mobile operators to temporarily shut down the data network, although voice and SMS services remained open.
Many activists had sidestepped the Facebook ban by using virtual private networks to conceal their locations, but the more general internet disruption will severely limit their ability to organise and access independent news and information.
Myanmar civil society organisations appealed to internet providers and mobile networks to resist the junta’s orders, saying in joint statement they were “essentially legitimising the military’s authority”.
Telenor said it had stressed to the authorities that access to telecom services should be maintained. However, it added that it was bound by local law and its first priority was the safety of its local workers.
“We deeply regret the impact the shutdown has on the people in Myanmar,” it said.
Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for campaigns, Ming Yu Hah, said shutting down the internet amid a coup and the Covid-19 pandemic was a “heinous and reckless decision”.
The army chief Min Aung Hlaing had seized power alleging fraud, although the electoral commission says it has found no evidence of widespread irregularities in the November vote.
The junta announced a one-year state of emergency and has promised to hand over power after new elections, without giving a timeframe.
Sean Turnell, an Australian economic adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, has told the news agency Reuters that he is being detained, days after the Burmese leader was arrested in a military coup.
“I guess you will soon hear of it, but I am being detained,” he said. “Being charged with something, but not sure what. I am fine and strong, and not guilty of anything,” he said in a message, with a smile emoji. It was not subsequently possible to contact him.
According to his LinkedIn profile, which features a picture of him with Aung San Suu Kyi, Turnell is also a professor of economics at Macquarie University in Sydney. It says he has been living in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyitaw, since December 2017 while serving as special economic consultant to the former leader.
Without naming Turnell, Australia said it had summoned the Myanmar ambassador to register “deep concern” over the arbitrary detention of Australian and other foreign nationals in Myanmar.
“In particular, we have serious concerns about an Australian who has been detained at a police station,” the Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, said in a statement.
Aung San Suu Kyi, 75, has not been seen in public since the coup. She spent 15 years under house arrest during a struggle against previous juntas before the troubled democratic transition began in 2011.
The lawyer for her and the ousted president, Win Myint, said they were being held in their homes and that he was unable to meet them because they were still being questioned. Aung San Suu Kyi faces charges of importing six walkie-talkies illegally while Win Myint is accused of flouting coronavirus restrictions.
“Of course we want unconditional release as they have not broken the law,” said Khin Maung Zaw, who is representing both of them.
Saturday’s protest was the first sign of street unrest in a country with a history of bloody crackdowns on protesters. There were also anti-coup protests in Melbourne, Australia, and in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, on Saturday.
A civil disobedience movement has been building in Myanmar all week, with doctors and teachers among those refusing to work. Every night people bang pots and pans in a show of anger.
In addition to about 150 arrests following the coup reported by human rights groups, local media said about 30 people had been detained over the noise protests.
The US is considering targeted sanctions on individuals and on entities controlled by Myanmar’s military.