This article originally appeared on VICE US.
The world’s longest-running internet shutdown has left over a million people in Myanmar in the dark for a year, and many of those in the affected region don’t even know about the global coronavirus pandemic.
The internet shutdown, along with restrictions on aid agencies’ ability to visit villages in the affected regions, has meant that people in some villages in Rakhine and Chin state are unaware of the COVID-19 outbreak, humanitarian workers told Human Rights Watch.
The government of Aung San Suu Kyi ordered telecoms companies to block mobile internet coverage in nine villages across the two states on June 20 last year, as clashes between the Myanmar military and troops from the ethnic Arakan Army escalated. At the time, the government gave telecoms companies no specific reason for blocking access to the internet.
However, despite the government’s claim that the shutdown was necessary for national security reasons, hundreds of civilians have been killed and over 100,000 have been displaced by the fighting.
“For a year now, the internet shutdown has severely impacted the rights of over a million people in Rakhine and Chin States,” Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “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.”
The government temporarily lifted restrictions in five townships from September 2019 until February 2020 when they were reinstated — just as the coronavirus outbreak was beginning to spread around the world. Then, authorities lifted the restrictions in the village of Maungdaw at the beginning of May but extended the internet shutdown in the other eight villages until at least August 1 citing security concerns.
“We will restore internet service if there are no more threats to the public or violations of the telecommunications law,” Soe Thein, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Transportation and Communications, told a media briefing last week.
But human rights activists say the internet shutdown is what is putting people’s lives at risk.
“The Myanmar government continues to justify its actions on the basis of national security, but, perversely, it’s the internet shutdown that’s endangering lives,” Matthew Bugher, ARTICLE 19’s Head of Asia Programme, said in a statement. “The shutdown calls into question the Myanmar government’s commitment to preventing the spread of the virus, particularly in ethnic minority areas.”
The government has defended the internet shutdown, saying residents can still access information via mobile SMS services and public address systems which broadcast government information. There are also a small number of fixed internet connections in the affected villages, the government says.
However, the vast majority of people in Myanmar rely on mobile internet to access online information.
As well as leaving people in the dark about the dangers of the coronavirus outbreak, the blackout has hindered the distribution of aid to conflict-affected communities, and made it difficult for aid agencies to communicate with their field teams and ensure staff safety.
Local news organizations have also decried the blackout for impeding their ability to publish timely updates on the conflict and keep locals informed about what’s happening in their area.
But even if citizens in the affected region were able to get online, the government has also blocked thousands of websites. The government said that 92 of these — mostly independent and ethnic news organizations — were providing “fake news.”
Human rights organizations are now calling on the Myanmar government to lift all internet restrictions on the villages in Rakhine and Chin.
“Vulnerable communities are being deprived of potentially life-saving public health information during an unprecedented global pandemic and intensifying violence,” James Rodehaver, a senior human rights official in the UN Human Rights Office for South-East Asia said in a statement. “It is critical to restore online access now.”
Cover: A Buddhist monk wearing face mask to help curb the spread of the new coronavirus, walks to collect morning alms from devotees in Yangon, Myanmar Monday, May 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Thein Zaw)