YANGON—News about armed clashes between the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, and the Arakan Army (AA), often disseminated through social media platforms like Facebook, has stalled since the Myanmar government cut internet access across northern Rakhine State and neighboring Chin State’s Paletwa on Friday.
The government’s indiscriminate network blockade muzzles information sources vital for giving updates on armed violence and rights abuses against civilians in war-torn northern Rakhine’s Mrauk-U, Minbya, Kyauktaw, Ponnagyun, Rathedaung, Buthidaung, Maungdaw, Myebon townships and neighboring Chin’s Paletwa. With reporters denied access to the areas, news had been typically shared with the wider public by quasi-activists or citizen journalists and local relief groups through Facebook or other social media applications since fighting erupted in December 2018.
So far, the armed violence has forcefully displaced more than 40,000 residents who have been sheltering in makeshift camps while hundreds of schools in the area have failed to resume for the new academic year. Most of the internally displaced rely on humanitarian aid from local relief groups as international aid agencies are prohibited from sending aid shipment, except for a partial allowance for the International Red Cross and the World Food Programme.
The internet ban has come amid fierce ongoing battles between the AA and the military in which the death toll among army troops is said to have reached over 1,000—a figure which they deny. Last week, the military conducted airstrikes on AA guerillas in remote Paletwa and the popular tourist destination of Mrauk-U.
The Democratic Voice of Burma’s (DVB’s) Sittwe-based correspondent, Ko Wunna Khwar Nyo, explained that most local journalists had been relying on information collected by local relief groups or citizens living where active combat is happening in contested areas of northern Rakhine. Journalists who do manage to travel to urban areas in northern Rakhine, like the towns of Mrauk-U and Minbya, cannot file video or text reports to their respective newsrooms in a timely way.
There are two locally known publications in Rakhine, Development Media Group (DMG) and Narinjara Journal, which have limited numbers of in-house journalists, while approximately 10 journalists based in Sittwe file reports to Yangon-based publications.
Ko Wunna Khwar Nyo said they “no longer can get breaking news from [Rakhine] Facebook users in these townships” and remarked the fear of an upsurge in “lawless actions” against civilians.
Who ordered the internet shutdown?
The National League for Democracy (NLD)-appointed Union telecommunications minister U Thant Zin Maung ordered four major telecom operators to impose a temporary internet lockdown in the nine war-torn townships. A senior official at the ministry, U Myo Swe, told The Irrawaddy Burmese that the order was handed down by the Union government and President’s Office citing instability in the region.
The official said his ministry has full authority to instruct mobile network operators to carry out necessary actions in line with the 2013 Telecommunications Law when it comes to security concerns in the country. He did not elaborate on whether the block has been issued for a specific timeframe or when the internet might be made accessible again.
The blockade has been in force since Friday when those on the Telenor network received a short notification, while three others—the State-owned MPT, Ooredoo and military-backed Mytel—remained silent on the ban.
Telenor has issued a statement saying “freedom of expression through access to telecoms services should be maintained for humanitarian purposes, especially during times of conflict.”
Over the weekend, at a press conference held by the military, the spokespersons told reporters in Naypyitaw it had not approached the ministry to request the block. Military spokesperson Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun later told The Irrawaddy Burmese that the government’s move was an effort to prevent the spread of propaganda and racial hate speech on social media.
Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun said that though the Kachin and Karen ethnic groups have a long history of armed resistance, they have never carried an agenda of racial hatred like there is in Rakhine.
“The situation in Rakhine is now heading towards complete racial discrimination between Rakhine (or Arakanese) and Burmese,” he said.
Flashbacks of a military regime
Despite the government claiming the need to crack down on hate speech and disinformation surrounding the conflict, media experts have said blocking the internet is not the right approach to solving the issues.
Internews Myanmar’s media advisor U Sein Win explained that the government’s recent actions are no different from what the military regime did to block the spread of information during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, and that it proved unsuccessful at that time. He said the internet ban endorses impunity for actions against civilians rather than assisting security forces with law enforcement on the ground.
Even though the government may claim it is trying to crack down on AA informants and ensure safer military deployment on the ground, the internet shutdown does not successfully stop the spread of information, but rather it decreases the quantity, U Sein Win said.
“If an action goes against the will of the public, the information will, somehow, definitely be leaked,” said U Sein Win.
The civilian-elected government could, as a consequence, end up losing public trust and falling behind on their goal of establishing a society in harmony with its government, he said.
“The closure of the internet is not a win-win solution for the government or the public. They should not have done it,” said U Sein Win.
Until last month, citizen journalists in northern Rakhine regularly shared real-time information about the situation on the ground thus helping the wider media industry expose the military’s wrongdoings. Examples of such incidents include the army’s airstrike against the AA in historic Mrauk-U in April and the death of seven civilians during a military round-up in Rathedaung’s Kyauktan Village in May.
An internet blackout violates human rights
Following Friday’s blackout order, 21 organizations involved in digital rights, freedom of expression and responsible business jointly issued a statement on Monday pointing out the government’s failure to follow the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution identifying “uninterrupted internet access as a fundamental enabler for the enjoyment of human rights” adopted in 2018.
Athan, an organization promoting freedom of expression in Myanmar, is one of the 21 organizations behind the statement. Founder Maung Saung Kha said that government’s internet ban in nine conflict-affected townships will disturb the timely flow of information on battles and will push civilians further into obscurity as most of these townships are already heavily restricted to journalists.
“Internet access is a fundamental right of civilians living in the conflict zone as a safeguard for their safety,” said Maung Saung Kha.
The Myanmar Center for Responsible Business (MCRB) which had been pushing the government to amend the Telecommunications Law since 2015 also signed Monday’s statement. MCRB official Daw Wai Phyo Myint told The Irrawaddy that the government’s action harms both individual rights as well as the private business sector.
“For instance, even mobile payments and transactions are dead when internet blackouts happen in these townships,” said Daw Wi Phyo Myint.
The joint statement also said the internet restriction undermines other activities such as access to emergency services and the ability for authorities to disseminate information for the safe movement of people. It urged the government to remove the block “unconditionally” and repeated calls for a review of the Telecommunication Act’s articles 77 and 78 and relevant sections of the law in order to meet fundamental human rights.
The groups also demanded network operators provide detailed information about the government’s internet restrictions and work with digital rights groups in advocating for the government to ensure the block is not repeated in the future.
UN envoy’s message to the government
In an announcement released on Monday, the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar
Yanghee Lee warned Myanmar’s government that an internet shutdown could pose serious implications for human rights and humanitarian monitoring, especially with ongoing restrictions for media and international humanitarian workers in accessing those areas.
“The entire region is in a blackout,” said Lee. “I fear for all civilians there, cut off and without the necessary means to communicate with people inside and outside the area.”
She encouraged the Myanmar government to reverse its decision and lift the internet ban as well as giving access for media and aid workers immediately. She reiterated that the atrocities committed by the security forces against the Rohingya community in 2017 should not be forgotten, pointing out that the same group has thus far avoided accountability for those actions.
Despite mounting criticism from rights groups, the UN special rapporteur and Rakhine lawmakers’ over the NLD government’s actions, neither the foreign affairs ministry headed by the country’s de-facto leader State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s, nor the telecommunications ministry have issued a public announcement as of Tuesday evening.
DVB reporter Ko Wunna Khwar Nyo said, “I have a negative sense [of the future] if the internet ban continues in Rakhine.”