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In Myanmar’s Restive Regions, Internet Blocks Disrupt Rural Life

FILE - In this May 12, 2021, photo, anti-coup protesters march during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar.

Accessing news in restive regions in Myanmar can be a physical endeavor.

With internet access cut or slowed in the Sagaing region, farmers and other residents must carry satellite dishes and televisions — along with the solar panels and batteries needed to power them — through hilly terrain.

“We need at least three to four people to carry the television and all this stuff to get information,” Soe, a farmer in Minkin Township, told VOA.

Myanmar’s military is fighting a resistance movement in the Sagaing region. Apart from four major cities in the area, for five months, access to the internet has been cut off entirely or speeds reduced to 2G.

With 2G internet, even basic webpages may not load, and users struggle to share images or videos on messaging apps.

Shortly after the junta seized power in the Feb. 1, 2021, coup, it banned satellite television.

Those found to be using a PSI dish, often used to access news from international broadcasters including VOA and the Democratic Voice of Burma or DVB, face up to a year in prison or a fine.

At the time, the junta said satellite broadcasts by “illegal organizations and news agencies” were threatening state security.

Claims of a need to protect state security were also made to justify internet shutdowns elsewhere in the country.

The military council did not respond to requests for comment about the restricted internet. Local officials have told VOA they are working on instructions from headquarters.

In a news conference last year, a military representative said resistance forces had detonated explosives at 68 communication towers across the country.

Protesters chant slogans and march in the street of Myaynigone township during the anti-coup demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar, April 9, 2021.
Protesters chant slogans and march in the street of Myaynigone township during the anti-coup demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar, April 9, 2021.

But even as some citizens are detained for using satellite equipment, others are willing to take the risk. For farmers like Soe, daily access to news and weather updates are essential for business.

Without those reports, Soe said, farmers are trying to base crop forecasts on cues from nature.

“When we do not have meteorological information, we have to estimate the weather based on the position of the insects and the weeds,” he said. “We traditionally have to predict which insects are where and how much rain is possible."

The lack of easy access to independent news is also keeping residents cut off from updates on clashes and alleged human rights abuses since the military takeover, analysts and journalists says.

As of July 8, the military has killed more than 2,070 people and detained more than 14,500, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

"It is difficult for the people of this region to know about political events, security in their own region, and related news from another region,” one veteran journalist, who asked not to be named for safety reasons, told VOA.

“The impact of the internet outage and cut off telephone lines has had a profound effect,” the journalist said. It affects business and education opportunities and prevents information on weather or infectious diseases.

“Blocking access to accurate information can strengthen the spread of rumors and fake news,” the journalist added.

A resident of the Shwebo township said he feels blinded by the lack of mobile internet and information.

"Many of us have a hard time keeping up with the news. Many of us have a hard time keeping our eyes closed. The main thing is that we need to listen to the news,” he said.

The man asked to not be named for fear that pro-junta militias may harm him for talking with the media.

The military council’s attempts to block news and silence independent voices has triggered dramatic declines in the country’s ranking on free expression and democracy indices.

Article 19’s Global Expression Report, which tracks freedom of expression and access to information, lists Myanmar as “in crisis” and ranks it 140 out of 161 regions, where 1 has the best conditions.

And Myanmar ranks among the worst five countries for press freedom in the annual index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. The media watchdog says the 2021 coup “obliterated the fragile progress toward greater press freedom.”

This article originated in VOA’s Burmese service.