The military council issued an order to cut off internet access to all of Sagaing Region starting on Thursday, where clashes are breaking out daily between the Myanmar army and anti-junta resistance forces, locals said, noting that only four urban areas were exempted.
The junta-controlled Ministry of Transport and Communications reportedly ordered all telecoms operators, including MPT, Mytel, Ooredoo and Telenor, to suspend service “indefinitely.” The directive applies to 23 townships, but not to the cities of Kalay, Monywa, Sagaing and Shwebo.
The order cited “public security” as the reason for the block, according to an industry source familiar with the issue. The order did not include wifi services.
“Even though the suspension only applies to mobile internet but not the wired lines, wifi services are not available in the first place in such remote areas,” the industry source said, adding, “This means shutting down the internet as a whole.”
Internet access had already been cut off to eight Sagaing Region townships—Ayadaw, Butalin, Kani, Kawlin, Pale, Pinlebu, Wuntho and Yinmabin—since last September.
According to local sources, the order had already been implemented in at least 18 of the 23 townships at the time of reporting.
The internet blackout follows an escalation of the military’s raids on villages in Sagaing, which frequently include the torching of homes and killing of civilians. The region has a population of 5 million, according to a 2014 census, and at least 1.5 million internet users, telecoms providers say.
A leader of a local anti-junta defence force in Taze Township said it was no longer possible to get online as of 11pm on Thursday.
“We used to at least get 2G internet before. Even that isn’t available anymore,” he said on Friday.
A 30-year-old activist from Wetlet Township told Myanmar Now that service stopped in his township at the same time, and that he was now “barely able to even send text messages.”
A local from Zee Kone village in Kanbalu Township said that he could no longer access the internet as of Friday morning, and that the block appeared to apply to all service providers, including the state-run MPT, which had at times still offered service when others were unavailable.
“I initially thought it was a temporary blackout because they were raiding somewhere in our township, but I called my friends and many of them were facing similar issues as well,” he said, adding, “I don’t know what’s happening anymore but I’m sure they’re planning something sinister.”
The Taze defence force leader speculated that the junta had initiated the new telecoms block in an attempt to stop information about their raids from being shared.
“I think the military is planning a major assault in Sagaing Region,” he said.
He also noted that donations for humanitarian needs and the resistance movement have largely been online and that many groups relied on internet access to obtain funds.
“Without it, it’s going to become a lot harder,” he added.
A resident of Kani Township, where there has been no internet service for nearly six months, said that locals could now “barely make phone calls.”
Myanmar’s telecommunication law enacted in 2013 states that the authorities can halt or take control of communication services and devices if it is deemed to be for the public good.
“It’s not like switching off a lightbulb. If you look at the mobile data, you will see it’s still turned on but the speed is extremely slow. It’s down to the absolute minimum speed now,” a staff member of a Myanmar telecoms operator explained.
The military council also cut off internet access to Hpakant Township in Kachin State as well as eight townships in Chin State and several townships in Mandalay and Magway regions last year.