(This article is a translation of the Burmese language version that ISP-Myanmar placed on its Facebook page on April 5, 2021.)
Internet usage in Myanmar has grown exponentially over the past decade, reaching a total of 22 million users in 2020 (Kemp, 2020). The internet has become an important means of communication, in both the business sector and the daily life of individual citizens. It is no surprise then that the internet-based mass movement against the military dictatorship in Myanmar this year has been just as strong as similar movements in other countries around the world. Since the military coup d’état, the military junta has incrementally shut down internet services, thereby breaching the fundamental rights of Myanmar’s citizens. ‘What Matters’ No. 15 makes the case that shutting off Myanmar’s internet will not succeed in preventing communication among the participants of the mass movement against anti-military dictatorship.
∎ Key findings – in brief
During the multiple military coups, the military juntas occasionally shut off internet services and mobile phone lines to reduce the potential for protests organized by the anti-militarism opposition groups, who communicate principally through the internet and mobile phones. Convention would suggest that the lack of the internet services would lead to a communication breakdown among the people, and consequently reduce the size and efficacy of any protest. However, a research paper by Navid Hassanpour, a political science researcher, points out that shutting off the internet services and mobile phone lines does not in fact reduce the number of protesters or influence the locations of protests (Hassanpour, 2014).
According to Hassanpour (2014), whenever the internet access and mobile phone lines are shut off, the following three conditions actually encourage more people to take the streets.
- Instead of relying on online and mobile phone communications, people resort to face-to-face communication.
- This kind of communications black-out even encourages previously reluctant people to participate in mass demonstrations and related acts of protest.
- The lack of internet communication and mobile phones can lead to a wider geographic dispersal of protests, which were previously concentrated only in a few locations, using newly emerged forms of offline communication. This is useful in deceiving security forces determined to crack down on mass protests.
∎ Why does it matter?
Internet and mobile phone communication systems are generally recognized as important tools in popular revolutions, although there have been very few formal studies on this subject. It is, therefore, vital to acknowledge the preliminary findings that internet and mobile communication blackouts do not significantly impede the momentum of social revolutionary movements. According to a research paper on the 2011 military coup in Egypt, internet and mobile phone communication blackouts did very little to slow the momentum of the protest movement, even on the very first day of the blackout. In fact, it served to spread the various protest rallying points over a larger area, allowing many smaller group demonstrations to take place in a variety of locations.
In popular revolutions, the individual’s decision to take part in a demonstration or not mostly depends on whether he or she is prepared to risk the potential consequences of the demonstration, and whether other individuals in their surrounding area are prepared to take this risk. When communication networks and connections with the leaders break down, and people lose access to the media, the decision of the individual protester to participate in the demonstration can no longer be influenced by access to the internet. Now, it is the actions of courageous and principled people in the local community that become more and more influential. The more individuals connect with activists in the community, the more those who would previously not have dared to take part in the mass protests, for fear of placing themselves in danger, gain the courage to take to the streets. Then, instead of gathering at a single location for a large-scale demonstration, smaller protests can arise almost simultaneously in many different places. This kind of dispersed protest could also confuse any representative of the authorities or security forces who are waiting to quell any sign of mass protest (see Figure 1).
∎ Is it relevant to Myanmar?
In Myanmar’s current anti-military dictatorship revolution, organizing via the internet played a crucial role from the outset. The internet was indispensable in setting up the date, location and form of protest, along with the necessary logistical coordination. That is why the State Administration Council (SAC) has taken harsh measures, including brutal crackdowns on the protests and the shutting off internet services, to limit the potential for large-scale protest. However, when the SAC did begin gradually shutting down the communication services, the number of protesters taking to the streets and the momentum of anti-coup demonstrations did not respond or reduce as expected.. Hence, it is useful to study the effects of internet shut-down in relation to the current political situation in Myanmar.
Within five days of the coup d’état on February 1st, demonstrators took to the streets in some cities, including Yangon and Mandalay. In these early stages of the anti-coup movement, the protests were small. On the morning of February 6th, the SAC initiated a nationwide ban preventing any access to the internet. At the same time, the SAC barred all access to social media and blocked the local news media’s websites. However, despite these draconian measures, the anti-military dictatorship mass movement actually gained momentum across the country.
In spite of the efforts of the military junta to reduce the mass protests by imposing a night curfew under section 144, along with a ban on gatherings of more than five people, the protests across Myanmar have kept growing and became huge rallies made up of millions of people (see Figure 2). Although the junta cut off internet access from 1:00 am to 9:00 am on February 15th 2021, the public stepped up the mass mobilization using any means available. At the same time, the armies and police forces of the SAC launched violent crackdowns on the protest groups. Despite this, according to independent news media, over 20 million people across the country staged mass rallies in more than 306 cities on February 22nd.
According to the participants, although they could not receive updates as to the state of the protest in real time, due to the junta’s internet shut-down, the anti-military rallies even took place in remote rural villages. Since March 15th, the military junta has cut off mobile phone and internet services, and imposed martial law in six townships in Yangon Region. However, people from different social classes continue to cooperate and carry out anti-military dictatorship protests in various forms and in different places. The police force and army of the SAC have brutally oppressed the protest groups by intensifying their violent shootings, unlawful killings and threatening the public, even in villages and residential areas, day and night. Instead of staging mass demonstrations, people have maintained the momentum of the mass movement with small sporadic protests, night-time protests, dawn protests and so-called ‘humanless’ protests. The persistence of these protests indicates that the junta’s internet blackout could not disrupt the lines of communication in the people’s protest movement.
Although the study by the political scientist Navid Hassanpour did not interrogate this, another important consideration is the possible consequences of the combination of internet blackouts and violent suppression on the protests movements in Myanmar. This could be a potential area for further research.
∎ Further Reading
Hassanpour, N. 2014. Media disruption and revolutionary unrest: Evidence from Mubarak’s quasi-experiment. Political Communication, 31(1), 1-24.
Kemp, S. (2020, February 18). Digital 2020: Myanmar – DataReportal – Global Digital Insights. DataReportal. https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2020-myanmar.