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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar shutdown of wireless internet fuels fears of news blackout

Move aimed at hitting protest movement ignores business pleas

Myanmar protesters worry that a wireless broadband shutdown will lead to an information blackout.   © Reuters

YANGON -- Myanmar's military regime has ordered internet service providers to shut down wireless broadband services days after business groups collectively requested a halt to internet service disruptions.

In a mobile text to customers, telco operator Ooredoo said the junta-appointed Ministry of Transport and Communications issued a directive today instructing "all wireless broadband data services to be temporarily suspended from today until further notice."

Nikkei Asia separately verified the order with another industry source.

Cutting all Wi-Fi based on fixed wireless access will add to the growing restrictions on Myanmar's telecommunications and internet space. The junta already imposed a total data blackout twice since the coup, blocked social media platforms and websites, put in place a nightly internet shutdown, and banned mobile internet access.

Further reducing internet access will likely raise fears about the worsening violence by the security forces. As of 31 March, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners recorded a total of 536 people killed by the junta and 2729 detained.

Ahead of the suspension of internet services, social media was flooded with posts and tweets reflecting anxiety of the impending news blackout, with some listing recommended independent FM radio stations as the only way to sustain protest momentum :

"Myanmar is slowly fading from your feeds. Many of us fear it's only a matter of time before there is a complete blackout... Please never stop shouting for us," a young Myanmar woman tweeted.

The move would particularly hit communications of the rural population because fiber networks are primarily in big cities like Yangon.

In total there are approximately 600,000 on "fiber to the home" (FTTH), according to one industry estimate. Telco company Mytel, a joint venture between the Burmese and Vietnamese military and currently hit by a huge consumer boycott in Myanmar, is the biggest operator in the FTTH market, said one industry source.

A Myanmar analyst who goes by the name Ye Salween said the order is an attempt by the military authorities to further limit news flow and communications, because most general households in Myanmar use wireless Wi-Fi services instead of the FTTH.

"The regime has cut mobile data for two weeks. But there remain a lot of information and news posted on social media, while media outlets are still reporting the news on the ground, including photos and videos," Ye Salween told Nikkei Asia.

"Taking down wireless Wi-Fi could be a test run on two issues -- how much they can reduce the news flow, and how much this would affect businesses. If news flow reduces but impact on the bank and business operations is limited, the military would likely maintain the blocking," he added.

The junta appears to have been brushing aside business concerns despite repeated emphasis by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his appointees on being pro-business.

Four leading foreign chambers of commerce representing Australian, British, French and New Zealand businesses on Tuesday publicly condemned the atrocities and raised their concerns about internet service restrictions.

"Business operations have also become extremely challenging, particularly disruptions to internet services. We all rely on [the] internet, and without it many basic services cannot be provided to millions of Myanmar citizens," the signatories said.

A majority of foreign chambers of commerce in Yangon, via a collective statement, also asked for unrestricted information access and free flow of information.

Army spokesperson Zaw Min Tun said last month that there were no plans to lift internet restrictions, claiming that violence was being provoked online. The rule of law and stability were "most important" for Myanmar, he added.

"The junta's top priority is to quell the protests and all other forms of resistance. They are ignoring pleas from businesses for the sake of any resemblance of 'stability' for now," said analyst Ye Salween.

"The generals probably think big companies run with direct fiber access and expect disruption to be limited. But I doubt they realize how consumers and small businesses won't be able to operate without Wireless."

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