YANGON — As the government’s internet shutdown in parts of conflict-torn Rakhine State and neighboring Chin State turned one year on Sunday, calls to lift the restrictions have mounted while the impact is compounded by COVID-19.
Amid intensified clashes between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army, the government blocked mobile internet in eight townships in Rakhine State and Chin State’s Paletwa Township, citing concerns for security and the public interest. Later, the authorities lifted the restrictions in Maungdaw Township.
The ban has attracted widespread condemnation and opposition from rights groups and activists for stifling freedom of expression and for preventing information-sharing.
On Sunday, more than 100 domestic and international civil society organizations released a joint statement calling for the restoration of the internet in the remaining eight townships.
The groups called the government’s continued restriction on internet access, affecting approximately 1.4 million people, “the ongoing violation of economic, social, cultural, developmental, political and civil rights”.
The government claimed the shutdown was an effort to prevent racial discrimination between Rakhine (or Arakanese) communities and the ethnic Burmese and disinformation surrounding the conflict, especially on Facebook.
Media analysts have said blocking the internet is not the right approach to reduce tensions.
Rakhine State lawmaker U Hla Thein Aung previously told The Irrawaddy that while residents bear the brunt of armed conflicts, the internet blackout encourages human rights violations and violence.
Khaing Mrat Thu from the Rakhine Youth Group Network said in a video posted by the UK Embassy on Sunday that the shutdown has a daily impact on the economy, education, health and society. Residents were unable to look for jobs and scholarships, study interesting topics online and find updates on COVID-19. The government is increasingly using social media to release COVID-19 related information. And the blackout was stopping communication between relatives and friends, she added.
Rights activists from different cities also joined the campaign with demonstrators wearing T-shirts saying, “Oppose internet oppression”.
Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and United States diplomatic missions in Myanmar also raised concerns over the news blackout. They mentioned the impact of COVID-19 and further restrictions imposed on several news outlets and journalists, including the blocking of Myanmar-based news websites.
A joint diplomatic statement said: “Access to the internet and media is vital for people to obtain and share information for their health, safety and security, particularly as they approach the elections and face the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“At the same time, two-way communications with people in internet-restricted areas are critical for the health sector to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Myanmar, even during a conflict. Everyone should be able to access the latest information available.”
The joint statement of the 110 rights groups called for amendments to Articles 77 and 78 of Telecommunications Law which allow the Ministry of Transport and Communications to impose bans when an emergency situation arises to protect the public interest.