For many in Myanmar, it has been 50 days of agony since the February 1 coup. Starting with recurring nightly internet blackouts mid-February, the junta further throttled communications by blocking mobile internet services and shutting down all public WiFi services last week, leaving people’s livelihoods, information access, and the economy in tatters. It is costing lives, say local entrepreneurs and activists.
Myanmar counts 113 cell phone subscriptions for every 100 people, according to 2018 World Bank data. Fixed broadband penetration is only 0.23%, though, showing how the mobile shutdown is effectively leaving the population in the dark.
Internet users in urban areas could still resort to public WiFi services, which were also banned on March 17, two days after mobile internet was blocked. BBC Burmese learned from internet service providers that the WiFi outage may last at least until the end of the month.
Local provider Myanmar Net, meanwhile, announced on messaging app Viber that its monthly plans involving customer-provided equipment are still available, so that fiber connections at homes or offices are currently not affected.
With the recurring connectivity issues, Myanmar’s digital economy is nearly coming to a standstill. “The challenge is that many tech firms in the country build their businesses on connectivity,” said Shady Ramadan, founder and CEO of food delivery service Yangon Door2Door. “If they are disconnected, the business can not continue.”
Ramadan explains that his company lost 70% of its traffic since the coup started. “Our customers are mostly expats and middle-upper class Burmese, however, most of them are leaving if they could afford, so we are losing our customers at the same time,” Ramadan added. He says that they are downsizing the business, still trying to keep it running, as they don’t want to make things more difficult for riders and employees.
Delivery services disrupted
Ramadan is not alone. Regional tech firms including Singapore-based Grab and delivery platform Foodpanda first suspended their services completely. Grab now only accepts digital payment, according to its announcement on Facebook, while Foodpanda reduced its offer to pick-up service only.
Payment providers are greatly affected too. “Transferring money digitally is the most used online service within Myanmar to support family or relatives and donate to people in need,” a local activist told KrASIA. “Money transfer is affected the most right now.”
The over 70% of its 54-million population residing in the countryside have been the hardest hit, NGOs believe. “Most people living in rural areas rely on mobile data for their daily life as WiFi can’t reach there or would be expensive,” said the activist.
Rural areas disconnected
Aung Kyaw Moe, founder and director of the Center for Social Integrity told KrASIA that it is particularly essential for people to connect with their friends and families in the rural areas, that the disconnection is impeding their access to information, which is a basic human right.
As of Sunday, at least 250 people have been killed, and 2,665 arrested, charged, or sentenced during weeks of violent crackdowns, according to data published on Sunday by local human rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
As security forces continue to gun down protestors in the streets, the violence has left many in fear. “The real-time information flow has been curtailed. Those who rely on mobile internet cannot receive updated news,” the activist added. “The internet ban brings people to the door of hades.”
Social media, including Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Twitter remain banned in Myanmar “until further notice,” according to a statement issued by telecom firm Telenor last month.