Myanmar’s military said Tuesday it will maintain a year-long shutdown of internet services to war-hit areas of Rakhine and Chin states, dismissing calls from rights groups and diplomats to lift the ban, which has cut civilians off from information flows and help from aid groups amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Speaking at a press briefing in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Htun said the ban has helped the army keep order in areas torn by fighting between government forces and the separatist Arakan Army and should be maintained.
“We have no plan yet to restore the internet in northern Rakhine and Chin state’s Paletwa township,” the military spokesman said.
“We have seen military secrets, hate speech, and extreme nationalist postings published online. And because of these posts, we have seen more conflicts and fighting in these areas. That is why we have shut down the internet there,” he said.
The ban, which began on June 21, 2019, affects eight townships in an area that has been the scene of an 18-month-long conflict between the insurgent Arakan Army (AA) and Myanmar’s military that has killed 260 civilians and displaced more than 160,000.
It has been impossible to measure any real benefit resulting from the ban, though, Htu May—a parliamentarian in Rakhine state’s upper house—told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Tuesday, calling the general’s remarks “unreasonable.”
“People have been living without the internet for a year now, but do we see less hate speech? Do we see fewer people harmed, or less fighting in Rakhine? [The general] is just offering excuses,” he said.
On June 19, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on Myanmar to end the internet shutdown, which has prevented more than a million people in Rakhine and Chin states from getting information about the coronavirus pandemic and has hampered the work of aid workers in a war zone.
The ban has affected the ability of journalists to get news out of the conflict zone, and critics of the government say the shutdown’s chief aim is to cover up the military’s operations and war crimes in an information blackout—a claim that Naypyidaw has denied.
“Myanmar should immediately end what is now the world’s longest government-enforced internet shutdown,” Linda Lakhdhir, (HRW) Asia legal adviser, said on June 19.
“With armed conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army in Rakhine state, it’s critical for civilians to get the information needed to stay safe,” Lakhdhir said.
Foreign diplomats urge end to ban
Foreign diplomatic missions in Myanmar have also called on the government to lift the ban, calling access to the internet and other media “vital for people to obtain and share information for their health, safety, and security.”
“Everyone should be able to access the latest information available,” said the joint statement signed on June 21 by the diplomatic missions of Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
“Two-way communications with people in Internet-restricted areas are critical for the health sector to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Myanmar, even during a conflict,” the statement said.
Nicky Diamond of the rights group Fortify Rights told RFA that the Myanmar military has shut down internet services in Rakhine and Chin states only to conceal its atrocities, such as “killing, detaining, and burning civilians’ homes,” from the international press.
“There is no advantage from an internet blackout, only disadvantage, and no benefit for the people of Rakhine,” Diamond said.
Reported by Thet Su Aung and Thiha Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Richard Finney.