Myanmar junta blocks Facebook, clamping down on opposition to coup

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NEW YORK, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Myanmar's junta blocked Facebook (FB.O) on Thursday, trying to shut off an important channel for opposition to this week's military coup as sporadic protests flared.

Military ruler General Min Aung Hlaing has moved quickly to consolidate his hold after overthrowing elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and detaining her and allied politicians on Monday.

He told a business group on Wednesday he could keep power for six months after a one-year state of emergency ends in order to hold what he said he would be fair elections.

But in a show of defiance to the generals, a group of the lawmakers elected in a Nov. 8 ballot convened a symbolic parliamentary session in the quarters where they have been staying since the takeover.

Small protests took place in the main city Yangon and elsewhere, with activists saying three protesters had been arrested - among around 150 people who have been detained since the coup, according to one rights group.

Doctors were also spearheading a campaign of civil disobedience.

But in a country with a bloody history of crackdowns on demonstrations, there was no mass outpouring of opposition on the streets.

The army seized power on Monday alleging irregularities in the election, derailing Myanmar's long and troubled transition to democracy. The move was condemned by Western governments, who have urged the junta to respect Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy's landslide victory.

The U.N. Security Council called on Thursday for the release of Suu Kyi and other detainees, and voiced concern over the state of emergency. But it stopped short of condemning the coup. read more

Council members include China and Russia, who have traditionally shielded Myanmar from significant council action. China also has a big economic interest in Myanmar.

Opposition to the junta has emerged strongly on Facebook, Myanmar's main social media platform, including for business and government.

The Ministry of Communications and Information said Facebook would be blocked until this Sunday, Feb. 7, because users were "spreading fake news and misinformation and causing misunderstanding". Facebook's WhatsApp messaging was also blocked. read more

Facebook was still available sporadically and demonstrators in the second city of Mandalay used it to livestream the first street protest since the coup.

"People's protest against military coup," read one banner.

The group of around 20 people chanted: "Our arrested leaders, release now, release now."

Three people were arrested after the protest, student groups said. Reuters was unable to contact police for comment.

A dozen or so people also staged a protest in the main city of Yangon but dispersed quickly.

At least 147 people have been detained since the coup, including activists, lawmakers and officials from Suu Kyi's government, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said.


Staff at some government hospitals stopped work on Wednesday or wore ribbons in the NLD's red colour. In response, the army said people could get treatment in military hospitals.

Pictures shared on Wednesday showed workers at the agriculture ministry joining the campaign of disobedience.

Other signs of anger have emerged. For a third night, people in Yangon and other cities banged on pots and pans and honked car horns. In Yangon, streets resounded to the sound of clapping at 5 p.m. (1030 GMT) by coup opponents.

"Lights are shining in the dark," said Min Ko Naing, a veteran of past campaigns against military rule, in a call to action. "We need to show how many people are against this unfair coup."

Suu Kyi, 75, has not been seen since her arrest along with other party leaders. Police have filed charges against her of illegally importing and using six walkie-talkie radios found at her home and she has been detained until Feb. 15.

The daughter of the former British colony's independence hero Aung San and the longtime leader of its democracy movement, Suu Kyi spent about 15 years under house arrest between 1989 and 2010. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

She remains hugely popular at home despite damage to her international reputation over the plight of Muslim Rohingya refugees.

The new junta has declared a one-year state of emergency, but Min Aung Hlaing told a business group he could stay on beyond that.

"The army had to take charge for several reasons, but will not go beyond the democratic path," he was quoted as saying by pro-army People Media.

The NLD won about 80% of the parliament seats in the November election and trounced a pro-military party, according to the election commission. The army refused to accept the result, citing unsubstantiated allegations of fraud.

The United Nations said it would step up international pressure to ensure the will of the people is respected. Washington said it was reviewing possible sanctions.

Norway's Telenor Asa (TEL.OL), Myanmar's leading mobile network operator, said it had to comply with the directive to block Facebook but did not believe the request was based on necessity in accordance with international human rights law.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols Editing by Chris Reese

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