The cutoff of internet service to conflict-affected areas of western Myanmar’s war-torn Rakhine and Chin states has created a difficult situation for civilians who cannot access donors online to make aid requests, though the state government said it will step in to fill the void and help them, locals and officials said Monday.
Citing ongoing fighting between national forces and the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar government on June 20 ordered four telecom operators to temporarily stop providing internet services to eight townships in Rakhine state and one township in neighboring Chin state where battles have taken place.
“Because we can’t use the internet, nobody knows about the difficulties we are facing here,” said Naing Oo Maung, a resident of Poeshipyin village in Rakhine's Ponnagyun township. “Because we can’t post our information online, we can only ask civil society organizations for help by phone.”
“We cannot read or listen to the news, so we don’t know the current situation,” he added. “We have no more medicine in the [displaced persons] camps now. Children are sick, but we can’t ask for help online.”
Rakhine residents also report that they cannot conduct bank transactions or connect with relatives and friends at home and aboard.
Domestic and international NGOs and other organizations say they their ability to provide aid has been limited by the internet shutdown as well because they cannot receive information to help some of the roughly 34,000 people who have been displaced by clashes between the Myanmar military and the AA, whose ethnic Rakhine soldiers seek greater autonomy in Rakhine state.
Zaw Zaw Tun, a relief volunteer in the region and secretary of the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, which is documenting the number of displaced civilians in the armed conflict, said residents displaced by fighting usually send aid organizations photos and videos so the groups know what supplies are needed.
“When we hear that people in a particular location have a problem or a need, we usually ask locals for photos and video files,” he said. “We can see the real situation in that place and can make a decision [to help or not]. If we cannot verify this, then we may receive fake reports. Because we can’t use the internet, it is difficult to believe what we have heard [without seeing it].”
Khin Maung Latt, an upper house lawmaker who represents Rakhine state’s No. 2 constituency in Myanmar’s national parliament, said political representatives can post online aid requests on behalf of their constituents.
“If we post information on social media such as Facebook, about 1,000 or 10,000 people will know [about it] in a few minutes, and they can help the IDPs [internally displaced persons] quickly,” he said. “We can let the donors know the truth about the situation of the IDPs by posting their pictures online. Now, they are suffering because internet service is cut off.”
Rakhine state government spokesman Win Myint suggested that displaced civilians call local officials for help.
“If IDPs need help, they can contact the state government office via township administrators or directly,” he said. “It would be easier for them to contact us through township administrators, [who] will inform us in a timely manner, and we will work on helping the IDPs as soon as possible.”
A ‘fundamental human right’
Rights groups say internet service is vital for people who rely on it to stay informed about developments in the armed conflict.
“Internet services are not supposed to be cut under any conditions,” said Maung Saungkha, spokesman for Athan, a domestic organization that advocates freedom of expression in Myanmar. “As a consequence of the shutdown, the citizens cannot be informed about deaths and injuries in the conflict area. There will be heavier losses.”
“Access to internet service is fundamental human right, so we implore the government to restore the internet service,” he added.
Min Lwin Oo, a legal advisor at the Norway-based Asian Human Rights Commission, agreed.
“The internet connection shutdown blocks the regular flow of information,” he said. “It delays human rights observers from acquiring relevant information on rights violations in the conflict areas. It also hinders the completion of real-time action.”
Hostilities between Myanmar forces and the AA intensified in late 2018 and again in January, when Arakan soldiers carried out deadly attacks on police outposts.
Myo Nyunt, spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, suggested last week that the rebel forces could be using the network to spy on the Myanmar military’s operations and to transfer data involving military intelligence.
On Saturday, the United States became the latest party to call for an immediate end of the blockage of internet-based communications for roughly 1 million people in the two states.
“Internet service should be restored without delay,” said a press statement issued by State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.
“Resumption of service would help facilitate transparency in and accountability for what the government claims are law enforcement actions aimed at preventing further outbreaks of violence in the affected areas, and would limit further damage to Burma’s international reputation,” it said, referring to Myanmar’s former name.
Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, along with the rights groups Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch also issued warnings last week about the cutoff of internet-based communications and called for the restoration of service in the region.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar and ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.