In restive parts of Myanmar, internet blockages are disrupting rural life

Accessing news in the restless parts of Myanmar can be a physical undertaking.

With internet access cut off or slowed in the Sagaing area, farmers and other residents have to haul satellite dishes and televisions – along with the solar panels and batteries needed to power them – across hilly terrain.

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

The Burmese army is fighting a resistance movement in the Sagaing region. Apart from four major cities in the area, for five months, internet access has been completely cut off or speeds reduced to 2G.

With 2G internet, even basic web pages may not load and users find it difficult to share images or videos on messaging apps.

Shortly after the junta took power in the February 1, 2021 coup, it banned satellite TV.

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

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

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

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

At a press conference last year, a military representative said resistance forces had detonated explosives in 68 communications towers across the country.

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

But even if 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 is essential for business.

Without these reports, Soe said, farmers try to base their harvest forecasts on cues from nature.

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

Lack of easy access to independent information also prevents residents from keeping up to date with clashes and alleged human rights abuses since the military took over, according to analysts and journalists.

As of July 8, the military had killed more than 2,070 people and detained more than 14,500, according to the Thailand-based agency. Association for the aid of political prisoners.

“It is difficult for people in this region to know about political events, security in their own region and related news from another region,” a veteran reporter, who asked not to be named, told VOA. security reasons.

“The impact of the internet outage and the cut in phone lines had a profound effect,” the reporter said. It affects business and education opportunities and prevents information about weather conditions or infectious diseases.

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

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

“A lot of us find it hard to keep up with the news. A lot of us find it hard to keep our eyes closed. The bottom line is that we have to listen to the news,” he said.

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

Attempts by the military council to block news and silence independent voices have caused the country’s rankings to drop dramatically on the free speech and democracy indices.

Article 19 Global Expression Reportwhich 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 five worst countries for press freedom in the annual index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. The media watchdog says the 2021 coup “wiped out fragile progress towards greater press freedom”.

This article comes from VOA’s Myanmar service.