Myanmar junta blocks Facebook, clamping down on opposition to coup

STR / AFP

Myanmar's junta blocked Facebook on Thursday, shutting off an important channel of opposition to this week's military coup as sporadic protests flared.

Military ruler General Min Aung Hlaing was moving quickly to consolidate his hold on power following the overthrow of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the detention of her allied politicians on Monday.

The Ministry of Communications and Information said Facebook - used by half of Myanmar's more than 53 million people - would be blocked until this Sunday, February 7, because users were "spreading fake news and misinformation and causing misunderstanding". Facebook's WhatsApp messaging was also blocked.

Demand for VPN services to evade the blockade surged 4,300 per cent, said Simon Migliano, Head of Research at Top10VPN.com. The government announced it would block VPN servers too.

Facebook was still available sporadically and demonstrators in the second city of Mandalay used it to livestream the first such street protest since the coup.

A dozen or so people also staged a protest in the main city of Yangon later before dispersing quickly.

On Wednesday, Aung Hlaing told a business group that he could keep power for six months after a one-year state of emergency ends in order to hold fair elections.

But in a show of defiance to the generals, about a dozen of the lawmakers elected in a November 8 ballot convened a symbolic parliamentary session in the quarters where they have been staying since the takeover.

Small protests took place in the city of Yangon and elsewhere, with activists saying three people had been arrested, and doctors were also mounting a campaign of civil disobedience.

But in a country with a bloody history of crackdowns on demonstrations, there was no mass outpouring of opposition to the coup on the streets.

The army seized power on Monday alleging irregularities in the election, derailing Myanmar's long and difficult transition to democracy. The move was condemned by the United Nations and Western governments, who called on the junta to respect Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy's landslide victory.

Opposition to the junta has emerged very strongly on Facebook, the country's main internet platform and underpins communications for business and government.

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