Rights groups inside and outside Myanmar have called on the government to end the month-long shutdown of internet service in nine townships in the country’s war-torn western region, saying the move has had detrimental effects on the delivery of humanitarian aid to thousands of civilians displaced by armed conflict.
“The internet shutdown in Rakhine state has caused many hardships for the organizations providing the humanitarian assistance since we cannot effectively connect with the contacts we work with,” Nickey Diamond, a Myanmar human rights specialist with Asia-based Fortify Rights, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“We appeal to the government to resolve the internet shutdown as soon as possible,” he said.
The Myanmar government on June 20 ordered telecom operators to suspend internet services to eight townships in Rakhine state and one in neighboring Chin state due to ongoing fighting between national forces and the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic Rakhine armed group demanding greater autonomy in Rakhine state.
Hostilities between the two armies, which intensified in late 2018 and again in January, have caused several civilian deaths and injuries and displaced roughly 35,000 people in the region, who now live in temporary camps and depend on humanitarian aid for their survival.
On Monday, Fortify Rights issued a statement calling specifically on Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi to lift the internet blackout, noting that the measure has also prevented media access and human rights monitoring, and left businesses unable to conduct their operations.
The region is still reeling from a brutal military-led crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in 2017 that left thousands dead and drove more than 740,000 to safety in Bangladesh.
United Nations investigators, rights groups, and some nations say the campaign of violence amounted to ethnic cleansing, genocidal intent, or genocide itself, though the government has largely denied its troops committed atrocities against the ethnic and religious minority group.
“The civilian government imposed this blackout, and can lift it,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights, in a statement.
“This shutdown is happening in a context of ongoing genocide against Rohingya and war crimes against Rakhine, and even if it were intended to target militants, it’s egregiously disproportionate, affecting an estimated one million civilians for nearly a month,” he said.
Delays, deterrents for aid workers
Domestic organizations that rely on photos and data sent to them by officials and civilians via the internet to decide where to send relief supplies in Rakhine state can no longer determine which places need the aid the most.
Zaw Zaw Tun, a relief volunteer in the region and secretary of the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, said his group, which has been documenting the number of civilians displaced by the armed conflict, uses Facebook Messenger to send patient lists and photos of injured and displaced civilians that were taken by mobile phones.
“They were sent quickly and accurately,” he said. “We could also confirm sick persons by their photos.”
“The internet shutdown has affected these kinds of activities,” he said. “It has caused problems for the recipients of the aid.”
Naing Oo Maung, a resident of Poeshipyin village in Rakhine’s Ponnagyun township, one of the localities affected by the internet shutdown, said locals must now rely only on mobile calling service to reach aid workers.
“We can only communicate through mobile phones now,” he told RFA. “When we need assistance, we ask the humanitarian aid groups for help.”
“[But] it is more effective when we can post requests on the internet,” he said. “Whenever we posted something about a need, it went viral, and tens of thousands of people knew about it instantly. Now, we can only make requests of people we have phone contact with.”
Tun Thar Sein, a lawmaker who represents Mrauk-U township in the Rakhine state parliament, said displaced civilians are going hungry because humanitarian aid cannot reach them.
“These refugees face several hardships,” he said. “Some don’t receive regular meals. In that regard, the internet shutdown has caused delays and deterrents for humanitarian workers in delivering aid.”
Myanmar’s Telecommunications Law permits officials to suspend internet services during emergency situations, though the government has said that the suspension is temporary and that it will restore service once the region becomes secure and stable.
RFA could not reach the spokesman or permanent secretary of Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications for comment on the ongoing internet blackout and the problems it has causing for relief workers and displaced civilians.
Rakhine state government spokesman Win Myint said officials have not been talking about the matter.
“There is no discussion about how to handle this issue, so it’s difficult to confirm [information],” he said and suggested that RFA contact a relevant government minister.
On July 18, Yanghee Lee, the U.S. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, told reporters in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur that the government-ordered cessation of internet services has blocked important flows of information in the war-torn region, preventing reports of army atrocities from reaching outside news sources and delaying warnings of dangerous floods during the country’s monsoon season.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.