YANGON— Four civil society organizations (CSOs) launched a 21-day countdown in Yangon on Monday to Sept. 30, the 101st day that internet access will have been shut down in several townships of western Myanmar’s Rakhine State; on that day, they are calling on businesses and individuals to abstain from the internet themselves in a show of solidarity with those living under the internet ban in Rakhine State.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications, with approval from the Union government, ordered telecom operators to shut down mobile internet service in parts of Rakhine State and neighboring Chin State in June of this year amid growing clashes between the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, and the Arakan Army.
At midnight on Saturday, Aug. 31, the ban was lifted on the northern Rakhine townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung and Myebon, and neighboring Chin State’s Paletwa Township, but the shutdown remains in the four Rakhine State townships of Ponnagyun, Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U and Minbya.
U Myo Swe, Myanma Post and Telecommunications (MPT) chief engineer, told The Irrawaddy at the time the order was made out of concern for security and the public interest under authority of Section 77 of the 2013 Telecommunications Law.
Article 77 of the Telecommunications Law allows for a temporary suspension of service, though the ongoing shutdown in Rakhine State has been open-ended.
“All of us know the situation in Rakhine. People are in trouble, and many people have been displaced. The internet is one of the contributors to this, so it has been temporarily suspended,” he said. “It will be resumed when stability is restored.”
But, said Oliver Spencer, adviser to Free Expression Myanmar (FEM), that justification is too vague to meet international human rights standards.
“Every authoritarian government in the world uses the same argument about national security and closing down information,” he said. “The internet has been shut down now for 70 days—what effect has it had on the conflict? The conflict continues.”
The UN, in declaring internet-enabled access to information a human right in 2016, likened the internet to the modern public square; limiting citizens’ access to it, it decided, is a human rights violation.
In certain extreme circumstances, according to UN policy, these rights can be limited—threats to border integrity by foreign invasion, say—but justifications must not be vague or arbitrary and must not be used to hide human rights violations—worries the UN has voiced in the Rakhine State context.
“Is this argument in Rakhine State legitimate or not?” Spencer asked.
“In Rakhine we have no idea when it will finish—that is vagueness. And the risk shouldn’t be hypothetical—they need to show very specifically what the risk is, they cannot just say it’s a possible risk,” he said.
“We need to consider an internet blackout as exactly the same as a total curfew [on] people being able to go into a public, physical place … Without access to the public space, there are many other rights violated because they cannot access information—to health, education, culture, economic development,” he said.
Jes Petersen, CEO of Phandeeyar, the Yangon tech incubator that hosted the event, spoke to the blackout’s impacts on economic development in particular.
“There are very few businesses in Myanmar who are not using the internet—and not just big corporations. All over the country SMEs [small- and medium-sized businesses] … even farmers, are increasingly reliant on an effective digital infrastructure,” he said.
“Turning off the internet is really bad for business,” he said, citing a report that found targeted internet shutdowns in India to have cost businesses more than US$3 billion (4.6 trillion kyats) over a five-year period. “This stuff has real impact,” he said.
But, a press release from the campaign organizers noted, “In conflict areas such as northern and central Rakhine State, an internet shutdown has even more serious consequences for safety. Local residents need access to the internet to obtain help, emergency services and humanitarian aid.”
The shutdowns have also reportedly impacted access to remittances from overseas through mobile money services.
The campaign is organized by FEM, the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB), Phandeeyar and the Myan ICT for Development Organization.
MCRB Director Vicky Bowman emphasized the role telecom operators have to play in responding to such demands from the Myanmar government responsibly.
“It is the responsibility of businesses, especially telecoms, to respect human rights. The only company that has taken that responsibility seriously is Telenor. They informed their users immediately and put out statements regarding their views,” actions she said all operators should have followed.
“None of the other telecoms have done this,” she said. “Despite recent development funding of $300 million, Ooredoo continues to be silent,” she added.
In 2016, Qatar-based Ooredoo, one of the major telecom operators in Myanmar, received $300 million in loans from the Asian Development Bank and the International Finance Corporation—funding that came with certain requirements for the respect of international human rights standards.
Organizers of the campaign are asking companies and employees to discuss the role internet access plays in their daily lives and what the impact of a total shutdown would be for them before Sept. 30.
“Under the existing legal framework, they could lose access to their data without warning or any formal indication of when that could be turned back on,” Bowman said, referring to Article 77.
On Sept. 29 organizers are asking all to set up an email auto-response with a message about the blackout and to change their Facebook profile photo to the campaign’s logo.
On Sept. 30 they are asking participants to abstain from using the internet in solidarity with those in Rakhine State.
“Be aware that the right to internet data is becoming a fundamental enabler for all, and that that human right can be taken away very quickly under Article 77 of the Telecommunications Law and the way it’s being used in Rakhine State. All internet users should be aware,” said Bowman.
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