Myanmar military’s internet shutdowns are destroying businesses
In the three weeks since armed forces took control of the country, data blocks have battered commerce and failed to stop demonstrations
Internet outages, disruptions to mobile networks and the blocking of social media platforms — in the three weeks since Myanmar’s armed forces took control of the country in a bloodless coup, the military has used a panoply of measures to tame protests and general strikes by civil servants, doctors and even bank employees.
For digital startups, the interruptions to the internet and phone networks have led to constant turmoil. According to Shady Ramadan, who founded the online food delivery service Yangon Door2Door in 2013, orders fell by 80% in the days after the February 1 coup. “I’m really worried for my business,” said Ramadan, 44, during a recent telephone conversation. “Right now, I feel like we are turning backwards and I fear there is no one to talk to.”
Ramadan’s company employs 300 bicycle couriers, who deliver over 2,000 orders a day in Myanmar’s largest cities of Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan. Before the internet shutdown, the riders worked in eight hour shifts until midnight and Ramadan was planning to expand to a 24-hour service. A curfew enforced by the military now means that last orders must be processed by 6pm.
While orders to Yangon Door2Door have recovered to around 1,000 a day, the decline in business has cut the couriers’ monthly incomes by 50%. Ramadan said he was considering both cuts to wages and lay-offs. Riders who once earned around $300 a month, including commission and tips, have seen their pay drop to $150.
Unlike companies such as Deliveroo and Uber Eats, whose couriers are broadly classified as self-employed, Yangon Door2Door employs around 450 staff. “Our messengers are full-time employees,” said Ramadan, who was born in Egypt and moved to Myanmar in 2010. “This is different from other food delivery companies around the world.”
The Myanmar coup took most of the international community by surprise. Only three months after the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) won the country’s general election, the army seized power and declared a year-long state of emergency. Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi and senior members of the NLD were placed under house arrest, and power now rests with military chief Min Aung Hlaing.
The armed forces moved quickly to gain control of the country’s institutions. Both internet and mobile data services were suspended and have since experienced sustained interruptions. Last week, Netblocks, a UK-based organization that monitors digital rights around the world, said the online encyclopedia Wikipedia had also been blocked in Myanmar.
The military alleges that widespread election fraud was to blame for the defeat of the army-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party. Near daily protests peaked on Monday with millions taking to the streets across the country in mass strikes. The demonstrations are now being referred to as the “Five 2s” uprising, named for the date they began: 22/02/2021.
President Joe Biden has issued an executive order imposing financial sanctions against 10 individuals linked to the coup and steps are being taken to block military access to $1 billion of Myanmar government funds held in the U.S. Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken posted a tweet in support of protesters in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
“The United States will continue to take firm action against those who perpetrate violence against the people of Burma as they demand the restoration of their democratically elected government,” it read. “We stand with the people of Burma.”
On the day of the coup, cuts to the internet and mobile data meant that customers could no longer access Yangon Door2Door’s app or website. “We are an online business, everything for us is based on the internet,” said Ramadan. “Our guys out in the street are based on the internet. If there’s no internet, we’re down.”
The staff worked up a solution by reverting to how restaurants once delivered food in the years before online connectivity. Workers sent text messages to regular customers and asked them to call to place orders.
Ramadan says the internet shutdowns have affected his company’s growth. He adds he will soon have to halt deliveries in Bagan and lay off workers. He also believes the outages are harming Myanmar’s small but vibrant e-commerce economy, valued at about $6 million in 2019.
“People sell things on Facebook, it’s a huge market here,” said Ramadan. “Whether it is food, or whether they import things from Singapore and sell them. They buy from Amazon and bring stuff to Myanmar. There are thousands and thousands of online businesses. All of them now have been switched off. Even if these businesses are two to three people, they are supporting families and there’s a trickle-down effect.”
Targeting the internet
The military junta’s crackdown on the internet and mobile data services has intensified since February 1. A cyber security bill released on February 11 proposes granting the regime a wide range of new powers, including requiring online service providers in Myanmar to locally store user data for three years. While the law doesn’t specify what kinds of companies might be affected, individuals convicted of failing to manage data in line with the cyber security bill could be jailed for up to three years, fined up to $7,500, or both.
The draft bill also gives the new government access to users’ personal data for security purposes and allows the authorities to force platforms to remove online content that threaten Myanmar’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity.” According to more than 150 local civil society groups, the 36-page document could pave the way for serious privacy and human rights abuses.
The military appears to be making calculated decisions about when ordinary citizens can access the internet. A nighttime curfew has been backed up by new daily internet blackouts. Recent data from Netblocks shows that the internet in Myanmar has been operating at around 13% of ordinary levels between 1am and 9am.
Yet those taking part in the country’s ongoing civil disobedience continue to livestream protests and strikes, with campaigners saying that the military’s control of the internet has been chaotic.
“We saw at the beginning they were chasing after social media platforms, shutting down Facebook, shutting down Twitter,” said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK. “Then they were shutting down the whole internet for two days, then starting it back up again, and then the overnight shutdowns. It seems like they are scrambling and don’t know exactly what to do and how to cope with the situation.”
Even though the military seems unwilling or unprepared to build a permanent wall around Myanmar’s internet, the disruptions have served to underscore the sometimes fragile link between emerging democracies and the freedoms widely believed to be enshrined in the world wide web. Long before this month’s army takeover, Myanmar was an important test bed for the use of new technologies in the decades-long struggle between the country’s military and its opposition groups.
Myanmar was an early example of how activists could harness the internet for positive change, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a sweeping victory in 1990’s first multiparty election in three decades. The military junta refused to recognize the results or hand over power. Suu Kyi was also placed under house arrest and the army banned her and other senior pro-democracy figures from taking part in elections.
Suu Kyi’s arrest galvanized global internet users who mobilized against the military. Digital mailing lists like BurmaNet, launched in 1993, shed light on the country’s worsening human rights situation by sharing news reports about Myanmar. BurmaNet proved to be so popular that in 1997, the military regime initiated its own rival electronic mailing list, called MyanmarNet.
Local and international activists, students and pro-democracy organizers from around the world also led online and offline efforts to limit the army’s income by campaigning against Western companies with business links in Myanmar. Activists with the popular Free Burma campaign used the internet to share audio and video files of human rights abuses, along with speeches by Suu Kyi.
As international pressure mounted, companies like Disney, PepsiCo Inc and Pizza Hut all terminated their business operations in Myanmar. In 1997, U.S. President Bill Clinton signed federal legislation banning any new investment by American companies in Myanmar.
Over the past decade, Myanmar has also seen the mass adoption of cellular services by ordinary citizens. A surge in network providers and affordable data plans has given residents access to some of the fastest mobile networks in the region.
“The population of Myanmar has access to more information now than at any time in the past,” said Dr. Lee Jones, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, who has written extensively about Myanmar’s politics and economy.
Jones said the daily internet blackouts have been used to cover up the nighttime arrests of hundreds of opposition politicians, civil servants and activists by police “snatch teams” in cities like Yangon. Recent video footage has shown residents banging pots and pans to warn their neighbors of approaching security forces.
“The control of the internet is a temporary tactical device,” said Jones. “The temporary outages are linked to providing cover for military operations in particular urban areas, which is why there isn’t a kind of actual shutdown, it keeps coming on and off.”
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