The Myanmar government has shut down internet access in Rakhine State for over a week. Critics say the military may be using the blackout as cover to commit atrocities and warn of new authoritarian tactics and abuse of power.
In Myanmar’s Rakhine State, local residents have relied on mobile internet and social media to share news of the ongoing violent conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA). Activists and residents in the north of the region send videos and photos of military operations and the impacts of the conflict to journalists and contacts across the country and abroad.
But last week, on June 20, telecom companies shut off mobile internet in northern Rakhine and part of Chin State following an order by the Ministry of Transport and Communications (MTC). Minister of Communications U Thant Zin Maung issued a statement claiming that people were using the internet to coordinate illegal activities but there has been no further official explanation.
Critics warn that the military may be using the shutdown as cover to carry out operations unmonitored and have condemned the open-ended and opaque the blackout. A coalition of civil society groups in Myanmar is calling for the government to lift the shutdown and review the 2013 Telecommunications Law to ensure it complies with international human rights standards.
“The decision to shut down internet access in nine townships in Rakhine and Chin States without any prior notice or limitation clearly infringes [on] human rights,” the coalition said in a statement.
The groups estimate that the blackout has cut off internet access for over one million users.
“If this internet shutdown… becomes a precedent for other situations of ‘instability’, this has the potential for wide-ranging negative impacts throughout the country,” Vicky Bowman, Director of Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, told ASEAN Today.
Violence continues amid the shutdown
The blackout began after security forces claimed local residents were transmitting information on the military’s troop movements and activities to the Arakan Army (AA). Since December 2018, the violent conflict between the AA and the Myanmar military has displaced over 40,000 people.
UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Yanghee Lee warns that the blackout may have grave consequences for human rights and humanitarian monitoring.
“I am told that the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s army) 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,” said Lee.
The UN cited reports from June 18 and 19, the day before the blackout began, that allege that Myanmar military had carried out helicopter attacks in central Rakhine. Soon after, the AA attacked at least one navy vessel near Sittwe, killing several soldiers.
One man has died in military custody during the blackout. Journalists based in Sittwe, the Rakhine capital, have been cut off from key sources of information.
Critics say the blackout signals a troubling trend
The lack of transparency has sparked fears among critics and rights groups that the military may expand its use of the Telecommunications Law. Under the law, the government may direct telecom companies to suspend service or intercept communications to protect the public interest in the case of an emergency.
“We have been instructed [to shut down internet services] for the sake of security and the public interest,” said U Myo Swe, chief engineer at state-run telecom company Myanma Posts and Telecommunications (MPT), adding “It has been temporarily suspended. It will be resumed when stability is restored.”
“The justification of the shutdown… lacks details that could justify why this measure may have been necessary,” Wael Eskandar, Project Coordinator at digital rights group Tactical Tech, told ASEAN Today. “Moving forward there could be more shutdowns with vague and broad security considerations that continue to impact freedom of expression and violate international human rights law.”
Telenor Myanmar, a subsidiary of the Norwegian telecom corporation, responded to the shutdown with a statement arguing that “freedom of expression through access to telecoms services should be maintained for humanitarian purposes.” Telenor also said they’re arguing for proportionality and limitations on the time and scope of the blackout.
The country’s other internet providers, Ooredoo and the military-affiliated Mytel, haven’t published any statements or information. The coalition of civil society and digital rights groups in Myanmar has called for the companies to release any information on the directive from the government.
Legislators in Rakhine State have also submitted a proposal urging the central government to reinstate internet access to the affected areas immediately.
Special Rapporteur Lee said that the unilateral blackout imposed by the military demonstrates the need for constitutional reform in Myanmar.
Under the current constitution, the civilian government has no power to prevent the military from implementing this sort of emergency measure. Without such reforms, similar blackouts could be used to cut off communication in other conflict areas across Myanmar. It’s unclear when the shutdown in Rakhine will end and when it does, there’s no guarantee that the military won’t order companies to block access again.