Local residents on Feb. 21 carry the body of an ethnic Rakhine woman for burial in Rathedaung township after fighting in Rakhine State between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army. (AFP photo)
Myanmar authorities have shut down internet services in troubled Rakhine State amid claims by local Buddhists, who are seeking greater autonomy, of human rights' abuses by the security forces.
There are fears that rights’ violations will intensify under cover of the ban during military 'clearance' operations.
In Rakhine State there is also the separate conflict that has seen about one million Muslim ethnic Rohingya flee to neighboring Bangladesh in recent years.
The Ministry of Transport and Communications has now directed four mobile service providers to temporarily shut down Internet access in nine townships of Rakhine and neighboring Chin State. The order was effective from June 21.
Soe Thein, the ministry's permanent secretary, told local media that Internet services will resume when peace and stability are restored to the region.
Myanmar's military has reportedly said it did not know about the government's internet ban.
Hla Tun Kyaw, an ethnic Buddhist member of the Hluttaw Rakhine state legislature for the Arakan National Party (ANP), said the closing down of the internet constituted a denial of citizens' rights.
Pe Than, another ANP member of the state Hluttaw legislature, said the ban was motivated by people uploading news and photos about the Myanmar military continuously committing rights' abuses in Rakhine.
He said the internet ban would allow such abuses to escalate without the public being informed.
On June 24, the Rakhine legislature member submitted an urgent motion calling on the national government to reverse its closing of internet services.
Twenty-one digital rights' organizations and civil society groups released a statement on June 24 referring to United Nations' resolutions identifying uninterrupted Internet access as a fundamental right.
Yanghee Lee, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said she fears for all civilians who have been denied the means to communicate with people inside and outside the area.
"I am told that the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) is now conducting a 'clearance operation', which we all know by now can be a cover for committing gross human rights' violations against the civilian population," Lee said in a June 24 statement.
Lee said there were credible reports that army helicopters carried out attacks in Minbya township in central Rakhine on June 19, and that on the following day the Arakan Army fired on a navy vessel, killing and injuring several soldiers.
Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations human rights chief, told the U.N. Human Rights Council on June 24 that the ongoing conflict in Rakhine has included use of heavy weaponry, air strikes and helicopter gunships with "significant loss of life on all sides and a severe impact on civilians."
More than 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 ethnic Rakhine in the state.
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 extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, torture and enforced disappearances.