As authorities resort to nightly internet shutdowns, customers are urging internet providers to speak out against the junta’s directives – and offer refunds.
When Myanmar authorities cut nearly all internet access in the early hours of February 15, as part of efforts to quell the growing pro-democracy movement, Ma Shin Thant, a 22-year-old Yangon resident, thought it would only be for one day.
“But the government has cut the internet daily [since then],” Shin Thant told Frontier on February 18. “We have to rebel against it, and put pressure on the ISPs [internet service providers]. If not, we will suffer under whatever the military wants to do.”
Amid the growing civil disobedience movement in Myanmar, much of which has taken place online, since February 15 the military regime has stifled internet connectivity every night for several hours, re-opening access around 9am each morning.
On February 22 – a day of massive protests across the country referred to as the “22222 uprising” – internet restrictions were in place until midday, although they were not uniformly implemented by all providers and ISPs.
Shin Thant’s internet provider, Myanmar Net, is one of more than 60 ISPs in the country. It and others are facing growing calls from customers like her to push back and speak out against the military junta’s directives.
Myanmar Net’s Facebook page has also received a number of negative comments from customers, with many complaining that they are being charged for 24-hour internet access, despite it being unavailable for around one-third of each day. They are asking for a refund from the company, which until now has remained silent.
Some companies have taken steps to address customer dissatisfaction. On February 17 and 18, providers such as 5BB Broadband, Yatanarpon Teleport and Myanmar Broadband Telecom apologised to customers, and promised to provide refunds or free additional hours at the end of this month.
But few have been willing to criticise the government for ordering the shutdown. Under section 77 of the Telecommunications Law, the Ministry of Transport and Communications is able to direct mobile operators and ISPs to suspend services “when an emergency situation arises”. In its statement, Yatanarpon said only that the company is not directly responsible for cutting the internet.
It is this perceived acquiescence that Shin Thant wants to change.
“Actually, we don’t really want the money back – we want the ISPs to put pressure on the ministry,” she said. “Because businessmen are more powerful than regular people, aren’t they? But we understand that they are all tied to doing whatever this illegal military government wants.”
An IT expert working for a Myanmar ISP who spoke on condition of anonymity said internet service providers lease bandwidth from companies operating internet gateways into Myanmar. As a result, when the government orders gateway companies to shut the internet, there’s nothing the ISPs can do about it.
The expert said there are four mobile operators and 18 internet gateway companies in Myanmar, as well as 67 ISPs.
“People say that the time the internet is cut and re-opened differs between 15 and 30 minutes [for each user]. This is because the internet gateways do not always open and close at the same time,” they said.
On February 17, the ministry’s Posts and Telecommunications Department issued a statement warning ISPs that they must follow its instructions, and failure to do so would result in the ministry taking action in accordance with the rules in the license agreements, including by potentially withdrawing their licences.
Ko Nay Phone Latt, a National League for Democracy lawmaker and co-founder of the Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation, said it was clear that ISPs and mobile operators were in a difficult position.
“If they speak out against the military, they might have their licences withdrawn and their company deregistered,” he told Frontier on February 18. “In recent days, [Norwegian telco] Telenor published the military’s instructions, but soon the military warned them to be quiet. At the moment, the internet companies are in this crisis.”
Despite the challenges they are facing, Nay Phone Latt is encouraging people to continue putting pressure on the ISPs rather than accept the junta’s restrictions passively.
“It is a way for people to speak out. Our young generation does not accept what the military is doing. It is good to see them fighting back,” he said.
He said the military thought that people would accept the internet cut because it’s in the middle of the night, but warned that if people don’t push back it will only embolden the military regime to curb more rights. “So, we need to show we are unhappy about it.”
Frontier requested an interview with Myanmar Net’s communications department, who said they would submit the request to their senior officials. They had not responded before deadline. A representative from the company’s complaints department contacted by phone said that officials were holding a meeting, and that they would release a statement once a decision was made. As of February 22, none had been forthcoming.
A representative from Myanmar Broadband Telecom said there were no senior officials in the office to answer Frontier’s questions.
Shin Thant, the Myanmar Net user, said she would calculate her internet bill by hours used this month and pay it accordingly.
“I will not pay for the hours that the internet was cut. If [Myanmar Net] don’t accept it, I will not use them anymore,” she said. “If customers demand it, they’ll have to take action.”