The Myanmar government on Monday reimposed an internet shutdown in five townships of war-torn Rakhine and Chin states amid ongoing armed conflict between national forces and a rebel army, after partially lifting the block five months ago.
Some critics of the move said Tuesday that the digital information cutoff was likely related to human rights abuses by the Myanmar military in northern Rakhine state in light of a recent order by the U.N.’s top court for Myanmar to take certain measures to protect Rohingya Muslims living in the country.
The renewed ban comes as government soldiers have engaged in escalated hostilities with the Arakan Army (AA), and ethnic Rakhine armed group, that have left dozens of civilians dead in northern Rakhine state and driven tens of thousands of others from their homes.
Norway’s Telnor Group, one of four mobile operators in Myanmar, said in a statement issued Monday that the Ministry of Transport and Communications ordered it and other mobile companies to stop providing internet service again to the five townships, the Myanmar Times reported.
The ministry cited security requirements and public interest as the reasons for ordering the additional three-month ban in Rakhine’s Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, and Myebon townships and in Paletwa township in neighboring Chin state, as armed clashes continue in the region.
The government had imposed a temporary suspension of internet service on these townships and four others in Rakhine state in June 2019, but lifted it for the five in September during peace discussions between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed groups.
Internet service continues to be restricted in the other four townships — Ponnagyun, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, and Minbya.
Rights groups decried the reinstatement of the internet ban, as they did when services were first suspended more than seven months ago.
“The internet blackout has prevented the international community and local civil rights organizations from knowing about the rights violations that have occurred in the region,” said Nickey Diamond, an activist with Southeast Asia-based Fortify Rights.
Maung Saungkha, spokesman for Athan, a domestic organization that advocates freedom of expression in Myanmar, questioned whether the internet blackout flies in the face of an order issued last month by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for Myanmar to take emergency measures to protect Rohingya Muslims still living in Rakhine and to preserve evidence from a 2017 military-led crackdown during which atrocities targeting the minority group were committed.
The crackdown left thousands dead and forced more than 740,000 others to flee to safety to neighboring Bangladesh.
“Without internet access, it severely cripples the media in their coverage of news in the area,” Maung Saungkha said. “It also prevents local people from sending information, photos, and videos of what is happening in their area to the news media and sharing them to the broader public.”
“We should question whether this internet blackout violates the ICJ’s order,” he said.
Security system ‘very vulnerable’
Ro Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist and blogger, pointed to reports that a Myanmar battalion killed two female Rohingya villagers and injured seven others during shelling in northern Rakhine two days after the ICJ issued the order on Jan. 23.
“We see that the military has committed the crimes, while it fabricates stories that the AA committed them,” he said.
“We got the information about the attack because we had internet service,” he added. “Now, there is a blackout of all such incidents in the region.”
Thein Tun Oo, director of the Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank formed by military veterans, defended the government’s action, citing reports that terrorists groups such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) have used the internet to transmit intelligence to operatives in Rohingya refugee camps.
“This internet shutdown is in response to these reports,” he said. “When it comes to national security, we need to shut down the internet because our security system is very vulnerable now.”
“The telephone lines are still operational, so shutting down the internet could prevent unnecessary tragedies and fake news,” he added.
RFA could not reach Win Khant, permanent secretary of Ministry of Communication, for comment.
Khin Saw Wai, a lawmaker from Rathedaung township, said the civilian-led government needs to announce the reasons for resuming the internet shutdown. As of Tuesday, the government had not issued any statements about the renewed blockage.
When the ban was first imposed, rights groups and domestic civil society groups called on the government to reverse course, arguing that the internet ban hindered relief efforts in Rakhine and prevented civilians from accessing information about the conflict and emergency services.
Reported by Aung Theinkha and Thant Zin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.