Protest in Myanmar's commercial hub, Yangon, on July 13 seeking an end to conflicts in Chin and Rakhine states as fighting continues between the military and the Arakan Army. (Photo by Sai Aung Main/AFP)
It has been five weeks since internet restrictions were imposed by Myanmar’s government on parts of Rakhine State amid a crackdown on Buddhist rebels of the 'Arakan Army' militia.
On June 21, the Ministry of Transport and Communications directed four mobile service providers to temporarily shut down internet access in nine townships of Rakhine and neighboring Chin State.
Voice calls and SMS texts are excluded from the ban, but it stops the posting on social media of material critical of the authorities in general and the military in particular.
The affected townships have about one million inhabitants.
Authorities said earlier that internet services would resume when peace and stability were restored to the region.
Myanmar's military reportedly claimed to have no role in what it described as a government decision.
Aid groups said the internet ban impeded relief operations for thousands of people displaced by the ongoing conflict.
They said it was also hampering efforts in villages to collect photographic and video evidence in relation to civilian casualties and rights abuses.
Zaw Zaw Tun, secretary of an aid group called Rakhine Ethnic Congress based in Rakhine's capital, Sittwe, said volunteers from villages normally send information about internally displaced persons (IDPs) and rights abuses through Facebook, Messenger or Viber along with photos and videos.
"We have faced much difficulty receiving accurate information from the ground and it hampers our relief work to provide food and non-food items to IDPs," Tun told ucanews.com.
The number of IDPs is increasing daily with some people fleeing their homes due to the arrival of troop reinforcements, according to Tun.
"They [IDPs] are in need of rice, proper shelter and non-food items as the government's support is not enough," Tun said.
Nancy McNally, a spokeswoman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), said it was difficult only being able to make telephone calls and send SMS texts but of greater concern was restrictions on physical access to many areas.
She estimated that, as a result, 100,000 people are without humanitarian and development assistance.
At present, there are travel restrictions applying to seven rural areas of Rakhine State.
While there can be exceptions in relation to the provision of food relief, McNally said other humanitarian activities had come to a halt, including provision of shelter, water and sanitation as well as medical attention and educational assistance.
Pe Than, a Lower House MP for the Buddhist majority supported-Arakan National Party, said the National League for Democracy (NLD) dominated parliament is defending the government's move.
The NLD is led by former pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
Pe Than said attempts to raise the concerns in parliament have been blocked, even though the internet restrictions were hurting ordinary people and the business sector.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has said the internet ban is undermining the effectiveness of the government's own natural disaster preparedness planning.
Lee, who on July 18 concluded an 11-day visit to Thailand and Malaysia as part of probing rights abuses in Myanmar, also said the communications ban could be "a cover for committing gross human rights violations" against the civilian population.
Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of a group called Fortify Rights, said on July 22 that even if the ban was intended to target militants, it was "egregiously disproportionate" in affecting non-combatants.
At least 35,000 civilians have been displaced by fighting between the military and the Arakan Army in Rakhine since last December, according to the U.N.
The Arakan Army is a largely Buddhist militia fighting for greater autonomy from the national government for so-called indigenous "ethnic Rakhine" in the state.
In Rakhine State, there is also the separate conflict that has seen more than 700,000 Muslim ethnic Rohingya flee to neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017 due to military offensives.
An Amnesty International report in May stated that Myanmar's military is committing new war crimes and other human rights violations in Rakhine, such as extra-judicial executions, arbitrary arrests, torture and enforced disappearances.