Myanmar coup: Military blocks Facebook for sake of ‘stability’

Myanmar’s military rulers have blocked access to Facebook, days after they overthrew the democratic government.

Officials said the social media platform – for many in Myanmar the only access to the internet – would be blocked for the sake of “stability”.

Facebook has become a key rallying point for opposition to Monday’s coup.

In further civil disobedience, lawmakers are refusing to leave their compound in the capital, and more pot-banging was seen in Yangon.

The coup, led by armed forces chief Min Aung Hlaing, installed an 11-member junta, ending a short period of majority civilian rule. 

The military said an election in November had been fraudulent – though the country’s election commission said there was no evidence of such fraud.

The elected civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, along with President Win Myint, were detained and on Wednesday police filed charges against them. 

The charges against her include possession of unlawful communication devices – walkie-talkies used by her security staff. 

President Myint is accused of breaching Covid rules while campaigning for last November’s election, won decisively by Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. 

What is Facebook’s role?

The Ministry of Communications and Information said access to Facebook would be blocked until 7 February. However, it was still reported to be accessible sporadically.

Anthony Aung, who runs a tour agency in Yangon, the main city, told the BBC at one point he still had access to the site through WiFi but not cellular data. 

He said “people around me are all rushing to download alternative apps and VPN” – virtual private networks which allow users to get round internet restrictions. 

Hours later, Mr Aung said Facebook had stopped working completely. 

Yangon student Min Htet said her education had already been suspended due to the Covid pandemic. “Blocking Facebook today means that the freedom of young people is restricted from now on,” she told Reuters.

Half of Myanmar’s 54 million people use Facebook and activists have set up a page to co-ordinate opposition to the coup.

The company allows its app to be used without data costs in Myanmar as a way of avoiding expensive telecoms data charges. 

The social media giant acknowledged the disruption, saying “we urge authorities to restore connectivity so that people in Myanmar can communicate with their families and friends and access important information”.

Telecoms company Telenor Myanmar, which is part of the Norwegian Telenor Group, said it would comply with the order to block Facebook, but suggested in a statement that this breached human rights law. 

What is happening on the streets?

A small protest has taken place in front of a university in Myanmar’s second city, Mandalay, with reports of four arrests. 

In Yangon, residents banged cooking pots for a second night running. 

A woman in the city told the BBC: “We bang drums as we want the military government and the world to know that we don’t agree with this military coup… I want our leader Aung San Suu Kyi back.” 

Protesters against the coup in Myanmar on the streets of Yangon, 3 February 2021
image captionMore protesters took to the streets in Yangon

At least 70 lawmakers with the NLD are refusing to leave a government guest house in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, and have declared what they are calling a new parliamentary session, BBC Burmese reports. 

The lawmakers are among hundreds who were confined by the military to guest houses before being told they were free to leave.

The streets are for the most part calm with no sign of major protest and a night-time curfew in force. 

However, hospitals have seen protests. Many medics have either stopped work, or continued while wearing symbols of defiance.

But a rally by thousands in support of the military, known as the Tatmadaw, took place in Nay Pyi Taw. Some waved banners saying “Tatmadaw that loves people”. 

A rally in support of the military regime in the Myanmar capital, Nay Pyi Taw, following the military coup on 1 February 2021
image captionA rally took place in support of the military regime in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw

‘Absolutely unacceptable’

The UN secretary general, António Guterres, has meanwhile called for constitutional order to be re-established in Myanmar – also known as Burma. He said he hoped there would be unity in the Security Council on the matter.

“We’ll do everything we can to mobilise all the key actors of the international community to put enough pressure on Myanmar to make sure that this coup fails,” he said. 

“It’s absolutely unacceptable to reverse the result of the elections and the will of the people.

Myanmar department of agriculture workers in the capital wear red ribbons in protest against the coup, 4 February
image captionDepartment of Agriculture works wearing red ribbons in protest

Western countries have condemned the coup unreservedly, but efforts at the Security Council to reach a common position failed as China dissented. China is one of five permanent members with a right of veto in the council. 

Beijing has long played a role of protecting the country from international scrutiny, and has warned since the coup that sanctions or international pressure will only make things worse. 

Alongside Russia, it has repeatedly protected Myanmar from criticism at the UN over the military crackdown on the Muslim minority Rohingya population.

Myanmar at a glance

Myanmar is a country of 54 million people in South East Asia which shares borders with Bangladesh, India, China, Thailand and Laos.

It was ruled by an oppressive military government from 1962 to 2011, leading to international condemnation and sanctions.

Aung San Suu Kyi spent years campaigning for democratic reforms. A gradual liberalisation began in 2010, though the military still retained considerable influence.

A government led by Ms Suu Kyi came to power after free elections in 2015. But a deadly military crackdown two years later on Rohingya Muslims sent hundreds of thousands fleeing to Bangladesh and triggered a rift between Ms Suu Kyi and the international community.

She has remained popular at home and her party won again by a landslide in the November 2020 election. But the military have now stepped in to take control once more.

Map of Myanmar

Trump in action: Trump bans investments in ‘Chinese military companies’

US President Donald Trump has issued an order banning American investments in Chinese firms the government determines have ties to the Chinese military.

In the order, Mr Trump accused China of “increasingly exploiting” US investors “to finance the development and modernisation of its military”.

The ban is to go into effect in January.

It could affect some of China’s biggest publicly-listed firms, including China Telecom and tech firm Hikvision.

Throughout his administration, Mr Trump has made efforts to disentangle the US from its close economic ties with China.

He has raised border taxes on billions of dollars worth of China goods and imposed sanctions on some of its tech companies.

Relations between the two superpowers have also soured over issues such as coronavirus, and China’s moves in Hong Kong.

Officials said the new order had been under review for months. It applies to shares owned directly or indirectly in 31 firms identified by the US earlier this year as backed by the Chinese military, a list that includes tech firms and large state-owned construction companies among others.

US investors have a year to comply with the rules.

Mr Trump, who recently lost to challenger Joe Biden in the US presidential election, is due to leave the presidency shortly after the order goes into effect.

Mr Biden has not outlined his China strategy, but during the campaign he promised to challenge the Chinese government on similar issues as Mr Trump, including trade abuses and cyber-theft.

Mr Trump’s stance on China is one of the rare areas in which he has sometimes received support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Several politicians in Congress have also proposed laws to block US investment in firms the White House designates as threats.

Earlier this year, Mr Trump ordered the pension fund for government employees to abandon a plan to invest in Chinese companies. The US has also said it is considering de-listing Chinese firms from US stock exchanges if they do not comply with US audit rules.

US Defense: A revolving door at the Pentagon

US Pentagon

Tara McKelvey

BBC News, Washington

Long-serving defence secretaries have been polarising figures. But a defence secretary who serves in the role over a period of years and is supported by the president provides continuity for those at the defence department and for US military allies.

In contrast, Trump distanced himself from Defence Secretary Mark Esper publicly and then sacked him. 

If Christopher Miller, the National Counterterrorism Center director, becomes acting defence secretary, as Trump has planned, he will be the fifth to serve under the Trump administration – and is only likely to serve for a short amount of time before the Biden administration kicks in.

Whoever the new defence secretary is under Biden, they are likely to remain in place longer than their predecessor, with the open support of their boss. This will make things easier for people who work at the Pentagon and for the nation’s allies too.