Rumors 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 past 12 nights the internet has been turned off like clockwork from 1 to 9 am. 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 neighbor 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 neighbors. 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.