(New York, NY) — Against a backdrop of escalating violence against protesters, the military junta in Myanmar continues to escalate its restrictions on free expression and access to information this week, ordering internet service providers to shut down wireless internet services. PEN America condemns this action, which will further curtail already drastically restricted internet access in Myanmar, leaving only those with fixed line access at home or elsewhere able to get online. 

“The junta continues to demonstrate its ruthlessness in violating human rights and basic democratic freedoms in pursuit of its authoritarian aims in the face of mass domestic protests and international outcry,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of PEN America’s free expression at risk programs. “When a government turns off the internet, it means that it knows the truth is its enemy. The junta’s decision to continue and escalate its internet blockage—even as it rolls out increasingly sophisticated surveillance tools, targets journalists, and employs violence and legal repression—is illegal, intolerable, and must be reversed.”

Since its coup on February 1, the junta has imposed increasingly draconian digital, legal, and military measures against the public, seeking—and failing—to turn the tide on the mass protests and resistance it has faced. Nightly curfews have been paired with internet outages for well over a month, and officials have ramped up surveillance of opponents; arrests, including of journalists, writers, and creative artists; and violence against protesters. The junta has paired these escalations with new legal measures and emergency powers designed to intimidate and to justify its abuses.

“The junta is trying to silence its opponents, prevent reporting on its egregious abuses, and prevent the people of Myanmar’s voices from being heard, both inside the country and beyond its borders. These efforts will continue to fail,” said PEN America’s Karlekar. “But the human cost is unacceptable and mounting.” PEN America has repeatedly called on the Myanmar junta to reinstate the elected government and to respect the fundamental rights of expression, assembly, and access to information

In a separate worrying development, reports have emerged that deposed political leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as several other Cabinet members and advisers, are now facing charges under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act (OSA), which provides for prison terms of up to 14 years. Suu Kyi has been detained since the February 1 coup and was already facing lesser charges of violating COVID-19 regulations and illegally importing two-way radios.

The OSA has been used in recent years to charge a number of journalists, most notably Reuters reporters and 2018 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award winners Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were convicted in September 2018 under the act and sentenced to seven-year prison terms. After spending nearly 18 months behind bars, they were released in a presidential amnesty in May 2019. Five years ago, on the eve of the recently-deposed civilian government assuming power, PEN America’s report, Unfinished Freedom: A Blueprint for the Future of Free Expression in Myanmar, offered an in-depth analysis of the ways in which expression has long been restricted, and provided recommendations for meaningful reform, including the repeal or amendment of a range of repressive laws that have long been used to punish dissident voices.