(Bangkok) – The Myanmar government should immediately lift internet restrictions imposed on nine townships in Rakhine and Chin States, Human Rights Watch said today. The disruption to internet services since June 21, 2019 has exacerbated an information blackout and increased difficulties for humanitarian agencies and human rights groups to assist vulnerable populations in the face of increased fighting in the area.
Telecommunication providers said Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications ordered them to shut down internet services in Ponnangyun, Kyauktaw, Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Maruk-U, Minbya, and Myebon townships in Rakhine State, and Paletwa township in neighboring Chin State, where fighting between Arakan Army forces and the Myanmar military is taking place.
“Myanmar authorities have imposed an internet blackout in Rakhine and Chin States that is depriving aid workers and rights monitors vital communications in a time of crisis,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Governments and the United Nations should be pressing Myanmar to immediately restore full internet access crucial for the population’s safety.”
A number of international nongovernmental organizations who are working in the rural areas of Mrauk-U, Minbya, and Kyauktaw have reported the continued internet shutdown is creating difficulties for them to carry out their work. WhatsApp is key for international organizations operating in Rakhine State, and working without it creates additional difficulties.
As the basis for the shutdown, Myanmar authorities issued a directive under article 77 of the 2013 Telecommunications Law, which permits the suspension of a telecommunications service “when an emergency situation arises.” The government order did not specify when the shutdown will end. The Norwegian telecommunications provider, Telenor, issued a statement noting it “has been asking for further clarification on the rationale for the shutdown and emphasized that freedom of expression through access to telecoms services should be maintained for humanitarian purposes, especially during times of conflict.” The provider said it is in “continuous dialogue with the authorities to seek further clarity and ensure that human rights aspects as well as proportionality in terms of scope of the shutdown are being considered.”
The internet shutdown arose amid credible reports of military operations in affected areas of Rakhine and Chin States.
The media has reported that since services were cut, Myanmar military forces attacked Arakan Army forces in a remote mountain range in Mrauk-U township. Local media also reported that on June 22, Arakan Army fighters attacked a Myanmar navy tugboat moored near Sittwe, the Rakhine State capital, killing two soldiers. Villagers said an artillery shell struck their village when the attack on the navy boat occurred.
Since November 2018, fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army has displaced at least 33,000 people. Humanitarian and media access has been severely restricted in these areas. A resident of Mrauk-U township told Human Rights Watch that since the internet shutdown began on June 21, 2019, they have only had telephone services.
Under international human rights law, Myanmar has an obligation to ensure that internet-based restrictions are provided by law and are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern. Officials should not use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to curtail the flow of information, or to harm civilians’ ability to freely assemble and express political views.
The United Nations Human Rights Council in July 2016 condemned measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online, in violation of international human rights law, and said that all countries should refrain from and cease such measures.
“Myanmar should ensure that any internet restrictions are limited to a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern, but this action goes well beyond that,” Adams said. “Officials should not use broad, indiscriminate internet shutdowns to curtail the flow of life-saving information in a humanitarian crisis.”