Update (19 March): The military regime in Myanmar has issued further restrictions on digital communications services. Since 15 March, reports indicate wholesale disruption of mobile Internet services in the country.

The wholesale disruption of mobile internet services, as well as the apparent blocking of public wifi, broadband internet service, and certain internet protocol (IP) bands, represent a significant escalation of the fixed-line, wireless internet services disruptions that have been implemented each night ranging from 5.5 hrs to 8hrs for the past month. As of 14 March, martial law has also been imposed in various districts across Yangon and Mandalay, which grant the military authority to prosecute protesters under heightened penalties and without due process rights. The increased restrictions on digital communications and additional authorities pose an alarming combination for the rights to freedom of expression and privacy, in particular for journalists and others working to document the situation in the country and potential human rights abuses.

With the escalating threats of violence and persecution directed toward protesters, it is imperative that individuals have access to the Internet and the free flow of accurate information and are able to share such information with the people of Myanmar and the international community. We urge the military regime to immediately restore full network connectivity, implement appropriate protections for freedom of expression and privacy for Internet and telecommunications users in Myanmar, and respect the rights to peaceful association and assembly.

The Global Network Initiative (GNI) expresses serious concern about recent developments in Myanmar. The GNI has previously raised concerns about network disruptions and other restrictions on freedom of expression in Myanmar, most recently in the run-up to last year’s elections. The actions taken by the military in Mynamar over the last week to block social media sites and shut down access to information and communication services more broadly represent a significant, unjustified, and disproportionate escalation of such restrictions.¹ We call on government authorities in Myanmar to immediately restore full network connectivity, reverse orders blocking social media sites, and refrain from issuing further orders or putting pressure on internet and telecommunications companies that contravene the country’s international human rights law commitments, including the freedom of opinion and expression and privacy.

On Monday, February 1, the military removed the civilian, elected government in Myanmar and arrested dozens of government officials and activists. According to media reports, the military also cut off state media television and radio channels, as well as phone and Internet access across the country. While some connectivity was restored later that day, an order surfaced on Wednesday, February 3, compelling telecommunications and internet service companies to block access to Facebook until Sunday, February 7. Subsequent orders to block other social media sites, as well as VPNs, appear to have been followed by another order to shutdown Internet activity altogether. As of Saturday, February 6, Internet access was almost completely blocked throughout the country, only to be largely restored the following day. The disruptions to the Internet have been confirmed by internet and telecommunications companies, as well as network monitoring organizations.

Multiple United Nations resolutions and reports, as well as previous GNI statements, have noted wide-ranging impacts network disruptions have on freedom of opinion and expression, as well as the rights to association, peaceful assembly, livelihood, health, education, and safety even during normal circumstances. Network disruptions can also have significant economic impacts. In the context of a global pandemic, ongoing conflict and violence, and the recent anti-democratic actions of the military, it is all the more important to protect access to the Internet and the free flow of information in Myanmar.

GNI joins the UN Secretary General, High Commissioner for Human Rights, Security Council, and Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar in supporting the democratic transition in Myanmar, the pursuance of dialogue, and respect for peaceful protests.

As a multistakeholder group of companies, human rights and media freedom organizations, investors, and academics, GNI works to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the information communications and technology (ICT) sector. Based on the diverse experiences and expertise of our membership, our approach generates collaboration toward a more rights-respecting legal environment for technology users everywhere.

¹We note that mobile data service in eight townships previously blocked in Rakhine State appear to have since been restored.