The military junta that has taken over the southeast Asian nation of Myanmar and ousted the democratically elected Aung San Suu Kyi has banned Facebook until at least Sunday.
The ban follows efforts by opponents of the military regime using the social media network to organise a resistance to the undemocratic coup. Facebook is used by half the country’s population.
The ban was enacted on Wednesday and will last until at least Sunday, after a civil disobedience page hosted on Facebook reached close to 200,000 followers and garnered the support of local celebrities in the days following the military takeover. A related hashtag was reportedly used millions of times, according to Reuters.
“The Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] sees Facebook as their internet nemesis because it’s the dominant communication channel in the country, and has been hostile to the military,” Human Rights Watch Asia Deputy Director Phil Robertson told Reuters. “Since the Burmese people are rapidly moving online to organize a massive civil disobedience campaign, shuttering access becomes a top priority.”
A spokesperson for Facebook called on the Myanmar regime to restore access to both Facebook and WhatsApp to the country's residents. Facebook faces a steep challenge in how it manages the situation, depending on the outcome of the ongoing crisis.
In Vietnam, Facebook was forced to give in to government demands to censor political speech in order to avoid a ban of its network entirely. The company has managed thus far to avoid shutdowns in various countries outside of China, where it has been blocked for several years. Facebook is facing challenges in India and Turkey for its refusal to censor political speech.
Reuters reports that the social media network banned army chief Min Aung Hlaing in 2018, as well as 19 other senior officers and organizations tied to the military for coordinated inauthentic behaviour. Min is currently Myanmar’s military leader.
According to Facebook, the platform banned a network of 70 fake accounts and pages run by military forces that coordinated a campaign to vilify Suu Kyi and her party.
Dozens of pages and accounts alleging election fraud were cited as a reason by the army to perform the coup. Many of the pages demanded military intervention to stop election fraud ahead of the military takeover, Reuters reports.
“And just two days before the coup, the new military-installed information minister, Chit Hlaing, shared a story purporting to be from Radio Free Myanmar, which Facebook banned after it was used in anti-Rohingya disinformation campaigns. The minister was not immediately reachable for comment,” reports Reuters. “By Wednesday, both his account and the post were taken down. A spokesman for the military did not respond to multiple calls for comment.”
The wire service found through its investigation that the same pages later justified the takeover and accused Suu Kyi’s government of fraud. The pages coordinated posts that attacked Suu Kyi, as well as journalists and activists.