Myanmar police have charged six activists who participated in protests against a year-long government-ordered internet service shutdown in Myanmar’s conflict-ridden Rakhine state, accusing them of violating the country’s peaceful assembly law.
Five of the activists are from Yangon-based Athan, a freedom of expression advocacy group. They were taken into custody for denouncing the internet ban by hanging posters on an overpass in downtown Yangon on June 21, questioning whether the ban was intended to cover up possible atrocities committed by the Myanmar military in the conflict zone.
Myo Min Tun, an activist from the Ramree Township Youth Network in Rakhine state, also was charged for participating in a protest in Ramree town on the same day. A group of young people wearing T-shirts saying “Oppose Internet Oppression” demanded the restoration of internet access, according to photos the group posted on Facebook.
All six activists have been charged under Section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which entails criminal liability for organizing or participating in an assembly for which notice has not been given to local officials.
Rights groups have criticized the statute as incompatible with democracy, saying its provisions are vaguely written and could be used arbitrarily to restrict freedom of expression. They also point to the law's inclusion of prison sentences for peaceful protests.
Ye Wai Phyo Aung, an Athan cofounder, said police informed the group that five of its members, including executive director Maung Saungkha, had been charged, but provided no details or the identities of the others arrested.
“They have filed the charges for the protests at the Sule overpass downtown,” he told RFA. “They displayed posters and banners to protest against the internet shutdown.”
Pe Than, a lawmaker from Rakhine’s Myebon township, said the internet service blackout has hurt residents. He has appealed to the government to lift the ban.
“There have been several losses for the local people in terms of education, health, and social and government administration,” he said.
“It has also intensified the spread of fake news, rights violations, and war crimes,” he added, referring to the growing state of lawlessness in the conflict zones. “The local people are paying the price.”
The internet shutdown originally was imposed in June 2019 in eight townships in Rakhine sate and in Chin state’s Paletwa township amid intensifying clashes between government forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA). Authorities later lifted the restriction in Rakhine’s Maungdaw township.
The 18-month-long conflict that has killed 260 civilians and displaced more than 160,000 others.
The government has extended the ban until Aug. 1, saying it will lift it when the region is secure.
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said Tuesday that the internet shutdown in the remaining townships must remain in place to prevent the leakage of army information and the spread of hate speech on social media.
Rights groups and foreign diplomats in Myanmar have called on officials to reinstate the service, arguing that the cutoff has prevented civilians from accessing information about COVID-19 and from contacting humanitarian aid groups.
Reported by Waiyan Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.