Myanmar Junta’s Internet Blackout Leaves Food Delivery Riders Struggling to Survive

By The Irrawaddy 19 April 2021

Foodpanda rider Ko Myo Myint Maung used to make a decent income that enabled him to support his family, which includes his wife, mother and younger brother, even when the COVID-19 pandemic badly affected Myanmar last year. But he has been out of the work for the last two and half months because of the junta’s mobile internet blackout that followed their Feb.1 coup.

Now Ko Myo Myint Maung cannot afford to buy the medicine his mother needs or supplements for his two-month old daughter.

“We are even struggling to find the money for three daily meals. We have to keep apologizing to the landlord for delaying payment of the rent,” Ko Myo Myint Maung told The Irrawaddy.

He is not the only one who is out of a job following the coup. Thousands of riders from food delivery services across the country are facing the same fate after the military regime cut mobile internet and wireless broadband services to try and prevent news of its bloody crackdowns on anti-coup protesters from being widely seen.

Since the military takeover, the regime has ordered a series of national internet shutdowns after nationwide anti-coup protests gained strong support on social media. In mid-February, the junta blocked internet access from 1:00 a.m. to 9:00 am every day. But with protesters still posting images of the brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy supporters, the junta further throttled communications by blocking mobile internet services in late March. On April 2, the regime ordered the shutdown of all wireless broadband services until further notice.

“Most of us have lost our jobs since mid-February because the internet service was on and off so frequently. I have not been able to support my sick parents for months,” Ma Malar Htun, a female Foodpanda rider in Yangon’s Sanchaung Township, told The Irrawaddy.

Food delivery services such as Food2u, Yangon Door2Door, Foodpanda, Hi-So Mall and Grab Food became much more popular in Myanmar in 2019, as smartphone and internet services spread further. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 further boosted demand for food deliveries from the mobile apps as people sought to avoid going to public places. The growing food delivery industry employed thousands of young people in major cities, but especially in Yangon, the commercial capital.

Among them, Foodpanda is one of the most popular food delivery services in Myanmar. More than one million customers nationwide have signed up for its services since the business entered the Myanmar market in December 2019, and over 7,000 people worked as delivery riders.

A rider from Foodpanda is seen in Yangon in March 2020./The Irrawaddy

But now all the food delivery services face an uncertain future thanks to the regime’s constant internet disruptions.

Several food delivery riders told The Irrawaddy that they had earned between 80,000 kyats and 150,000 kyats per week before the internet was cut by the junta.

“I have had no income from food delivery since the mobile internet was cut. I have a family to feed, it is very difficult for us,” Ko Thet Naung Myint, a food delivery rider told The Irrawaddy.

“My daughter is just four months old. I am no longer able to afford supplements for her,” he said.

Despite being jobless, food delivery riders have taken part in many of the anti-regime protests in Yangon and elsewhere. In early March, a 20-year-old Foodpanda delivery man, Ko Zaw Thein Aung, was shot dead while he was helping an injured woman during a crackdown by the regime’s forces in Sagaing Region’s Monywa.

Moreover, most of the riders in Yangon have provided a free delivery service for the civil servants who are participating in the civil disobedience movement and refusing to work for the regime’s administration.

“Our future looks lost, but I still want to help those who are fighting to restore civilian rule,” Ko Myo Myint Maung said.

An official from one food delivery service told The Irrawaddy that business was down 80 percent following the coup. They can only deliver to very limited locations and just 20 to 30 riders are able to make delivery services each day by using public Wi-Fi services.  However, the app does not work properly due to the internet disruption.

“Riders aren’t able to access GPS services. So it is very hard for them to find customer locations. They don’t have mobile internet. As soon as they leave the restaurants, we lose contact with them. It is extremely inconvenient,” he said.

“Security forces are everywhere in Yangon. It is totally not safe for them as well,” he added.

There have been many reports of the regime’s forces stealing food and money from food delivery riders in Yangon. On Saturday, security forces reportedly looted food and 500,000 kyats from a Foodpanda rider near Yangon’s Hledan Centre.

Some food delivery riders have started posting on public Facebook groups that they can buy anything for customers including meals, goods and medicines from Yangon’s markets.

“Our family is struggling for a living. Please help us and just ring…I can buy and deliver to your doorstep anything you want,” some wrote.

Despite the junta’s internet shutdown affecting tens of thousands of people, nobody knows when the regime will reinstate internet access. In late March, the junta’s spokesperson said that there is still no plan to reopen internet access.

One 24-year-old female food delivery rider is now offering a service buying medicine and goods for customers. She lives in a hostel in Yangon’s Sanchaung Township. Until the coup, she gave financial support to her parents who live on the outskirts of Yangon. “Now we get around 2,000 to 2,500 kyats for one-way delivery service. Sometimes, I get one or two deliveries a day. But sometimes nobody asks for delivery service,” she said.

“I could not pay my rent last month or this month,” she added.

Ko Thet Naung Myint has also requested customers to call him if there is anything they want delivered from the markets and restaurants, despite living in a township where the security forces are extremely active every day.

“We are risking our lives just to get money for our daily meals,” he said.

“Many people don’t want to spend money as they don’t know what will happen in the future,” he added. “Our income is extremely low. Our finances have become too tight. Now, we can’t afford to get sick.”

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