Internet prices rise in Myanmar on non-political opponents alike | Internet news

Yangon, Myanmar – When Lilly moved to her hometown of Shan State in Myanmar after the coup last year, the chancellor was able to keep working thanks to access to cheap and reliable internet.

These days, Lily struggles to stay online during the workday, which often includes at least two hours of virtual meetings, due to the high cost across all carriers.

Following a series of orders issued by the ruling military council, mobile data prices have doubled in the past two months. Like most of Myanmar outside of major cities, Lilly has patchy internet access via fixed lines.

“The rise in internet prices has a huge impact on daily working life,” Lilly, who asked to use a pseudonym to avoid state retaliation, told Al Jazeera. “Not only are internet prices rising, internet connections are slowing down as well.”

For many people in Myanmar, the digital landscape is becoming increasingly barren.

Many civil society observers see the price hikes as an excuse to discourage the organization of real-world opposition against the military government, which seized power from the democratically elected Aung San Suu Kyi administration on February 1, 2021.

Citizens who have become dependent on the increasingly accessible internet in their country are now struggling to adapt to the new cost barriers that are rapidly escalating around the digital space.

Myanmar’s telecom regulator in December ordered service providers to raise prices for mobile data plans, which most residents rely on, citing the need to align fees with other countries and reduce harmful internet use.

The country’s leading carriers – Telenor Myanmar, Ooredoo Myanmar, military-backed MPT and Mytel – now sell nearly 1 gigabyte (GB) of data for 1,799-1999 kyats ($1), compared to 935-999 kyats ($0.50). Previously, according to the digital rights advocacy group AccessNow.

In January, the military government announced that it would triple the corporate tax rate for mobile and fixed-line internet service providers to 15 percent, adding pressure on telecoms to raise their rates.

The authorities also ordered sellers to charge a one-time “activation fee” of 20,000 kyats ($11) for each new SIM card sold, in addition to the price of the card itself.

General Min Aung Hlaing
Min Aung Hlaing seized power in Myanmar in a coup last year [File: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP]

Against the background of these cost barriers, the government has renewed its push to pass a cybersecurity law that criminalizes, among other things, the use of VPNs, which are typically used to bypass a long blacklist of websites, including popular social media platforms such as Facebook.

While the legislation has yet to become law, the military has already started implementing some of its provisions, such as preventing people on the street from searching their phones for VPNs.

Wai Vaiu Mint, AccessNow’s representative in Myanmar, told Al Jazeera that rising mobile data prices and concerns about the cybersecurity law would push people away from the internet – regardless of their political leanings.

“We see this deliberate attempt to make sure that this mobile data is not affordable and that the Internet is unavailable to the majority of people who depend on this connection,” Wifeo said.

Before the coup, Myanmar’s telecom industry was growing at a rapid pace, driven by insatiable demand for mobile data. Speaking at a 2018 media event, Lars Eric Tillmann, CEO of Telenor Myanmar, reported that customers used an average of 5.6 gigabytes of data per month, while expecting usage to increase dramatically by 2022 due to “the growing hunger for mobile data.” among the general public in Myanmar.

The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has driven much of everyday life online, is likely to accelerate this demand.

“During the Covid situation, we need the internet more than ever,” Wai Phyo said.

“There are children who go to school online, there are people who get medical services online. So the actions of the army have been very decisive. They are trying to cut off the basic needs of the people in an attempt to stop the revolution, but at the same time, this affects many who are not in the revolution.”

The impending collapse of Myanmar’s post-coup economy – which the International Labor Organization estimates will lose about 1.6 million jobs last year – has drained household budgets little. The comprehensive nature of the government’s actions ensures that many families are affected whether or not they are involved in the country’s ongoing civil disobedience movement against the military.

Internet disconnection

Vicki Bowman, a long-time resident of Myanmar and director of the Yangon-based Myanmar Center for Responsible Business, told Al Jazeera that higher prices would have a greater impact on lower-income families.

“The economic downturn has meant that some people are resorting to foreclosure or selling their cell phones to buy food,” Bowman said, citing local surveys of garment workers that highlighted the trend. “There is the opportunity cost of carrying the phone when you need to eat, as well as lower data affordability. This should lead to less usage.”

One of the military’s first actions after seizing power was to tighten its grip on the digital world, particularly through internet outages.

Although the government has eased regular internet shutdowns in Yangon, other parts of Myanmar, notably Karenni State, still suffer from persistent outages in access.

In a report released last month, digital rights group Top10VPN estimated that the Myanmar government would cost the economy $2.8 billion by shutting down the internet in 2021.

While families across the country feel the economic pain, the military government itself is also feeling the bite.

Jack Myint, senior director of Myanmar for the US-ASEAN Business Council, told Al Jazeera that the military likely viewed higher taxes on the telecom sector as a way to achieve its security goals and raise much-needed funds.

“The junta needs to increase its spending on the military and the procurement of weapons to maintain cohesion and loyalty between its rank and file, whose morale is at an all-time low,” Mint said.

This creates real financial needs, and a very clear reason why they should raise taxes on all fronts. It’s making big hikes for carriers and SIM cards to serve the dual mission of increasing their coffers while also limiting use of the public internet, which is the main forum for the opposition.”

Kay Maile, who wrote under a pseudonym, contributed to this report.