BANGKOK/YANGON -- Myanmar's military has blocked access to Facebook, as it tightens its grip over social media in the wake of Monday's coup that put Aung San Suu Kyi in house arrest.
The Ministry of Transport and Communications told telecom companies on Wednesday to block Facebook, and since early Thursday, subscribers to Myanma Posts and Telecommunications, and Norway's Telenor have not been able to access their accounts. Telenor said in a statement on Wednesday that it had "decided to comply with the directive, while expressing grave concerns regarding breach of human rights."
The ministry said Facebook will be blocked until Sunday.
Myanmar, which transitioned to civilian rule in 2011, opened up the telecom sector to foreign investments in 2014. Burmese immediately took to the technology and cellphones became more widely used than landlines and laptops. The penetration rate of cellphones, which was only about 10% in 2014, exceeded 100% just four years later.
Facebook is by far the most popular way to gain information in Myanmar. About 50% of the country's population use Facebook -- politicians, government agencies and companies usually issue announcements on the social media platform. Even the military uses it for promotional purposes. Facebook's Messenger is the main channel of communication for most and activists have been calling on the public to protest the coup via those platforms.
Apart from political censorship, the blockage could also strangle businesses. Some people sell their products entirely on Facebook -- A 24-year-old man who has a business on the platform said, "I'm not sure if I'll be able to deliver products after the coup, so I'm temporarily out of business."
Politicians have often applied internet censorship in the past. For example, internet access has been cut off following the escalation of clashes between the military and an ethnic armed group in Rakhine State.
According to Top10VPN.com, a U.K. research organization, Myanmar's economic losses reached $190 million in 2020 due to internet shutdowns, ranking it the fourth worst losses due to shut downs in the world after India, Belarus and Yemen.
On the other hand, the average age in Myanmar is only 29 -- these so-called "digital natives" may know way to find loopholes. A 23-year-old journalist in Yangon said that he still uses Facebook by using a free virtual private network. "If I can't use Facebook, I'll just use other social media." He said that many people now have accounts on Twitter, which is not subject to regulations yet.