Myanmar’s government must lift its ban on internet service in war-ravaged Rakhine state to permit tens of thousands of displaced civilians to access information about the coronavirus, a civil society group demanded this week, warning of mass deaths if crowded refugee camps become infected.
Authorities shut down mobile internet access in eight townships in Rakhine and in Paletwa township in neighboring Chin state in June 2019, citing security reasons amid armed conflict between Myanmar forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA).
The ban was later lifted in five of the townships that September, but then reimposed in February.
The Rakhine Ethnics Congress (REC), a Sittwe-based relief group that assists internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the region, issued a statement on Wednesday calling on officials to reinstate internet access and provide information on COVID-19, as the virus is officially known, to residents of the nine townships.
The group said that the restoration of internet service is vital for IDPs who do not have access to radio, television, or electricity to get news and information. So far, the government has claimed that there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country.
The more than 140,000 IDPs tallied by the REC are largely unaware of the rapidly spreading virus, declared a pandemic by World Health Organization, because of the government’s restriction on information, the REC's statement said.
REC secretary Zaw Zaw Tun said the coronavirus could spread rapidly among the IDPs if only one of them catches it.
“There is a risk that when one IDP becomes infected, it will spread to thousands of others in the camp in one or two days,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “The risk is not just for the camp; it could affect the entire region and cause mass deaths.”
“Because of this, we have demanded the lifting of the internet shutdown no matter what the reason was for imposing it,” he added.
San Kyaw Hla, a lawmaker in the Rakhine state parliament, agreed that those living in displacement camps are at risk of catching the virus.
“Health education campaigns cannot reach everywhere in the state. They need the internet to reach everywhere, so this demand is reasonable,” he said.
“If there is an outbreak, they will be doomed because they lack basic knowledge of prevention,” he added. “No one is educating these IDPs about the virus. There are crowded conditions in the IDP camps, and they are very vulnerable to the infection.”
RFA could not reach Win Myint, Rakhine state’s spokesman and minister of municipal affairs, or officials at the Ministry of Transport and Communications for comment.
APHR weighs in
The blackout also has placed people already in a dangerous situation even more at risk by limiting their access to livelihoods and basic information, and by hindering the work of human rights monitors, journalists, and aid organizations, said ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) in a statement issued Thursday.
“Not only are people in Rakhine state targeted by the violence, unable to communicate among themselves and the outside world, but they are also restricted in accessing necessary humanitarian aid,” said Kunthida Rungruengkiat, a former Thai lawmaker and APHR member.
In February, the APHR and 28 other international and Myanmar-based rights groups called on the Myanmar government to immediately lift the internet service restrictions.
As of Wednesday, Myanmar had 157 suspected cases of coronavirus with 64 in Yangon, 31 in Mandalay, 25 in Shan state, and 37 in other states and regions, but none confirmed, according to the Ministry of Health and Sports. That same day, the government closed all border checkpoints to foreign tourists as a preventive measure against the virus.
The ministry also said that some individuals who were under observation recently died, but were confirmed to have had diseases other than COVID-19 that led to their deaths.
Food, accommodation shortages
The REC also reported that the growing number of IDPs are facing shortages of food and accommodations, prompting more than 3,000 of them to leave overcrowded camps where supplies are scarce and seek shelter in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe.
“There are crowded conditions in the IDP camps because of the influx of IDPs, and they are facing shortages of food and accommodations,” Zaw Zaw Tun said. “So, they have decided to leave their homes forever and go to Sittwe.”
During the past five days, more than 200 IDPs from Rathedaung and Mrauk-U townships have arrived Sittwe, taking shelter in Buddhist monasteries, he said.
The IDP numbers continue to climb because of ongoing attacks on villages amid the fighting between the government military and the AA, Zaw Zaw Tun added.
“There have been attacks by the Air Force and Navy using heavy artillery on villages,” he said. “The villagers are fleeing to take temporary shelter in the nearest towns.”
Maung Win Naing, who fled with his family from Rathedaung’s Ngasin Raw village, said they went to Sittwe because it was no longer safe for them to remain in their home.
“A 50-something year-old women was shot,” he told RFA. “Another one was injured by a landmine attack. We are too afraid to live in Rathedaung, so we fled to Sittwe.”
Seen Shwe Maung, 66, who fled from Rathedaung’s Yaysoe Chaung, said that once soldiers move into an area and begin firing randomly on villages, residents can no longer make a living.
“We cannot go into the forests and cannot go out to fish in the rivers,” he said. “Our livelihoods are bases on the forests and mountains. If we cannot go out, we cannot make a living.”
“We are no different from being dead, as we cannot earn our living and live our lives,” he added.
Military spokesmen have repeatedly dismissed reports that government soldiers are firing indiscriminately on villages where there is no combat in the immediate area, and have denied causing civilian deaths and injuries.
Villagers who say otherwise also have reported that Myanmar troops have arrested civilians and tortured them during interrogations to ferret out those with ties to the AA, a mostly Buddhist ethnic Rakhine army seeking greater autonomy in the state.
The AA, too, has committed abuses against civilians though abductions and arbitrary detentions, although it claims to be fighting for the rights of ethnic Rakhine, according to villagers and rights groups.
Though the REC has counted more than 140,000 IDPs since an escalation in hostilities between the two armies in early 2019, the government put the figure at over 57,000 in 124 temporary camps in northern Rakhine as of Feb. 23.
The government only counts IDPs in camps and not those who have fled to monasteries or to the homes of friends and family members.
Those who have fled their villages are increasingly complaining that government food rations for IDPs, which are based on the official count, have become inadequate.
Kyaw Min, director of Rakhine’s Disaster Management Department, said services provided by the state cannot reach IDPs in remote areas.
“Some of the IDPs are located in very far-flung regions, [and] they cannot reach local general administration departments, so they are not on the list of government records,” he said. “Government assistance for IDPs is based on official data, so many IDPs may not be receiving adequate assistance.”
“We are working with both the Union government and state government to make sure all IDPs on the list are receiving assistance,” he said.
Reported by Waiyan Moe Myint and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.