No Internet in Western Myanmar until Security Situation Eases: MPT Official

By Htet Naing Zaw 24 June 2019

NAYPYITAW—Internet services will resume in western Myanmar when stability is restored in the area, said the chief engineer of Myanma Posts and Telecommunications (MPT).

Out of concerns for security and the public interest, the Ministry of Transport and Communications, with the approval of the Union government, ordered telecom companies to shut down internet services in eight townships in Rakhine State and Chin State’s Paletwa Township under Section 77 of Telecommunications Law, MPT chief engineer U Myo Swe told The Irrawaddy. The Ministry of Transport and Communications oversees the MPT.

“We have been instructed [to shut down internet services] for the sake of security and the public interest. 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. It will be resumed when stability is restored,” U Myo Swe said.

Section 77 of the Telecommunications Law states that when an emergency situation arises the ministry may, to protect the public interest, direct a licensee to suspend a telecommunications service, to intercept or not to operate any specific form of communication, to obtain necessary information and communications, or temporarily take control of the telecommunications service and telecommunications equipment.

The MPT has only suspended internet services; other services—such as phone calls and SMS—are available in the nine townships, U Myo Swe said.

Clashes erupted between the Myanmar Army (or Tatmadaw) and the Arakan Army (AA) in November 2018. Since then the fighting has intensified and spread to Rathedaung, Buthidaung, Kyauktaw, Ponnagyun and Mrauk-U townships in northern Rakhine.

Security authorities believe some local Arakanese have reported Tatmadaw troop movements and locations to the AA via the internet using smartphones. There have long been calls on the social media for an internet shutdown in the area.

U Aung Thaung Shwe, an Arakanese lawmaker who represents Buthidaung Township in the Lower House, said internet access contributes a great deal to both security and the rule of law in Rakhine by allowing the rest of the world to see what is happening in the state.

“What if human rights violations and injustices occur there while there is no internet access. How would we know? It raises questions about whether the government has done this intentionally to obstruct the rule of law in the area,” he said.

“You can’t do this only from a military perspective. It has economic, social, health and other impacts. These things need to be taken into consideration. The government shouldn’t suspend a telecommunications service only from a military perspective,” he added.

The internet is a tool of communication that seriously impacts not only the security situation but also the economy and society, said former Lieutenant-General U Thaung Aye of the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party.

“Security is just one aspect. It is the responsibility of the current government to ensure security. There are other ways [to do that]. But doing this will disrupt many other activities that are dependent on the internet,” he said.

U Maung Maung Soe, an analyst of Rakhine issues, said shutting down the internet is not the way to reduce tensions in the area.

“People can still communicate because voice and message services are still available. I think the suspension has been imposed to prevent the spread of propaganda on social networks. I don’t think it will be effective,” he said.

All telecom operators—MPT, Telenor, Ooredoo and Mytel—have suspended internet services in northern Rakhine State and Chin State’s Paletwa.

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