A United Nations (U.N.) office in Yangon, Myanmar Monday urged the country to end an internet shutdown in the northern part of Rakhine state that has left more than 600,000 residents without internet access for more than three months.
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 that intensified in late 2018 between national forces and the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic Rakhine armed group demanding greater autonomy in Rakhine state.
The government restored internet access at the beginning of September for four of the townships in Rakhine and the one in Chin, but not in the four Rakhine townships of Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U, Minbya and Ponnagyun, areas where frequent fighting continues. Monday marks the 101st day without the internet in those areas.
In Monday’s statement, the Yangon office said U.N. humanitarian and development efforts in Myanmar rely on internet access and the blackout has hindered these efforts. The blackout has prohibited humanitarian workers from traveling to the affected regions, and also affected the well-being of local residents who already must endure frequent armed skirmishes, and difficulties in health, education and food safety, it said.
Internet access was a key component to freedom of expression, “which enables other human rights,” said the statement.
“The United Nations therefore calls on the Government of the Union of Myanmar to immediately resume internet services in the affected areas and to facilitate unhindered access for humanitarian organizations, in line with its obligations under international humanitarian law,” it said.
RFA’s Myanmar Service confirmed with local residents and members of parliament from the affected townships that access is still unavailable.
Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun of the military information committee told RFA that the government would consider the statement and act accordingly, but also said the absence of internet access has not hindered journalistic efforts in the affected area.
“It is not true that communications have been cut off due to internet shutdown. I have seen news and info related to these areas all the time,” he said.
“Whether it is the internet or telecommunication channels, people there are still able to communicate with the outside world somehow. We even get access to military news, and news outlets like RFA are also [able to publish] news for these areas. I don’t think they are crippled by the internet shutdown,” he added.
But a Yangon-based CEO of a tech firm welcomed the U.N.’s statement.
“It is good news that the U.N. released that statement. [Internet access] is crucial. In Myanmar, everybody uses the internet on their smartphones. In times like this, the internet ban severely affects their lives,” said Jes Kaliebe Petersen, head of Phandeeyar, a firm that supports and funds emerging startups.
“The internet ban should be lifted. Everybody should have access to the internet,” AA spokesperson Khine Thukha told RFA.
“The internet enables people to use social media tools for multiple purposes. For example, in the banking sector, financial transactions which require internet access are now at a standstill and affect the lives of many people. Only the people are [hurt] when the internet is shut down,” he said.
RFA attempted to contact a government spokesperson and officials from the Ministry of Communications for comment, but phone calls went unanswered.
Several community organizations voluntarily went without Wi-Fi or mobile data for 24 hours as part of “Day 101 Internet Blackout Day,” a campaign supported by Peterson to show solidarity with the 600,000 who are living without internet access.
“Through this campaign, we intend to point out that everyone has the right to get internet access. Without internet access, daily activities, communications with friends and family [members] and access to information are all disabled,” said Petersen.
“We are raising the awareness about the impact of the internet shutdown.”
Myanmar’s communications ministry ordered the internet shutdown in June, citing Section 77 of Myanmar’s Telecommunications Law, which states:
“The Ministry may, when an emergency situation arises to operate for public interest, direct the licensee to suspend a Telecommunications Service, to intercept, or not to operate any specific form of communication, to obtain necessary information and communications, and to temporarily control the Telecommunications Service and Telecommunications Equipment,” said the law.
Reported by Thant Zin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.