People walk in the downtown area of Yangon as Myanmar's economy reopens following restrictions to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Myanmar has reported 286 cases including six deaths. (Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP)
Rights agencies have urged Myanmar’s government to lift all internet restrictions in Rakhine and Chin states as it is affecting more than a million people living in a conflict zone.
The government first imposed mobile internet restrictions in eight townships in Rakhine and one in Chin state in June 2019. It temporarily lifted them in five townships from September 2019 until February 2020, when they were reinstated.
The authorities lifted the restrictions in Maungdaw in northern Rakhine on May 2.
The internet shutdown, along with restrictions on access by aid agencies, has meant that people in some villages are unaware of the Covid-19 outbreak, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) citing humanitarian workers.
Local groups report that the shutdown has made it difficult to coordinate the distribution of aid to conflict-affected communities and to communicate with their field teams to ensure staff safety.
Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser at HRW, said Myanmar should immediately end what is now “the world’s longest government-enforced internet shutdown.”
“With armed conflict between the Myanmar military and Arakan Army in Rakhine state amid a pandemic, it’s critical for civilians to get the information needed to stay safe,” Lakhdhir said on June 19.
HRW said internet access plays a crucial role in enabling people to access information about Covid-19 and self-quarantine and to observe other protocols to prevent the spread of the virus.
Aid groups told HRW they feared that shortages of food and water were underreported in many villages in Chin and Rakhine states due to the communications blackout.
In some communities, family members had not been able to send digital payments or contact friends and relatives in conflict areas.
Over 78,000 internally displaced persons are hosted in 186 sites across Rakhine state and the southern areas of Chin state due to fighting between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army since January 2019, according to a UN report on June 16.
Internet restrictions have also impacted media workers in a conflict-torn region to safely gather information and promptly disseminate it.
“Even though our reporters went to conflict-affected areas and interviewed reliable sources, it is difficult to send the material back to the office because they don’t have internet access,” Aung Marm Oo, editor of the Sittwe-based Development Media Group, told HRW.
Furthermore, Myanmar’s authorities have ordered the blocking of websites of independent and ethnic news media, among many other sites.
Between March 19 and May 11, telecommunications operators and internet service providers received five directives from the Transport and Communications Ministry to block 2,172 specific websites, of which 92 were alleged to provide fake news, according to the rights group.
Independent and ethnic media sites such as Development Media Group, Narinjara, Karen News and Voice of Myanmar were among those ordered blocked.
“The government should lift the shutdown, unblock websites and amend the Telecommunications Law to bring it in line with international standards,” Lakhdhir said.
Myanmar has reported 286 cases of Covid-19 including six deaths and 187 recoveries.