Human Rights Watch Friday called on Myanmar to end its yearlong internet shutdown, which has prevented more than a million people in Rakhine and Chin states from getting information about the coronavirus pandemic and hampered the work of aid workers and journalists in a war zone.
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.
“Myanmar should immediately end what is now the world’s longest government-enforced internet shutdown,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“With armed conflict between the Myanmar military and Arakan Army in Rakhine state amid a pandemic, it’s critical for civilians to get the information needed to stay safe,” she said.
In a statement, the New York-based NGO said that the lack of internet access had left some in the area unaware of the coronavirus outbreak, and limited the ability of aid groups to distribute resources to villages affected by armed conflict.
The ban also has affected the ability of journalists to get news out of the conflict zone. 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 Naypyidaw has denied.
Naypyidaw cited security reasons in ordering the shutdown last year in Buthidaung, Kyauktaw, Maungdaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Myebon, Ponnagyun, and Rathedaung townships in Rakhine state and in Paletwa township in Chin state.
The government ended the ban in five of the townships in September 2019 only to replace it in February this year.
At the beginning of May, access was restored in Maungdaw, but the other eight townships remain offline, with the government announcing last week that it would extend the ban until at least August 1.
The Ministry of Transportation and Communications told media that service would be restored if there were no more public threats or violations of Myanmar’s Telecommunications Law.
Section 77 of the Telecommunications Law allows the ministry to use emergency powers to restrict specific types of telecommunications.
It has used these emergency powers not only to block mobile internet access to the townships, but also to block more than 2,000 individual websites, including those of local ethnic news outlets, according to HRW.
The NGO said the ambiguous law should be amended to reflect international standards that protect freedom of expression.
HRW was also critical of the Myanmar government’s contention that internet access in the area was still available via fixed connections.
The rights group pointed out that most people in the country connect to the internet via their mobile devices, which can be their only option during crises or conflict situations. It cited a recent survey that said all of Myanmar’s internet users had used mobile devices to connect.
The lack of mobile internet has made difficult the monitoring of the ethnic Rohingya situation, pointing out that the International Court of Justice ordered Myanmar to protect them from genocidal acts, HRW added.
“Under international human rights law, Myanmar has an obligation to ensure that internet-based restrictions are provided by law and are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern,” the statement said.
“Officials should not use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to curtail the flow of information or to harm people’s ability to freely assemble and express political views,” it added.
“For a year now, the internet shutdown has severely impacted the rights of over a million people in Rakhine and Chin states,” Lakhdhir said.
“The government should lift the shutdown, unblock websites, and amend the Telecommunications Law to bring it in line with international standards.”
A presidential office spokesperson declined to comment on HRW's statement during a press briefing in Naypyidaw on Friday.