A telecommunications tower in Mrauk U township, Rakhine State, Myanmar. The township is one of nine where the government has imposed an internet blackout since June 21, 2019.

© 2018 Phyo Hein Kyaw/AFP/Getty Images

Myanmar authorities have issued a surprise order reinstating the shutdown of mobile internet traffic in five townships in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine and Chin States. Added to four other Rakhine State townships where mobile internet service has been blocked since June 2019, this leaves nine townships unable to get online, causing an information blackout that affects approximately one million people.

The Ministry of Transport and Communications’ directive to internet and telecommunications providers cited security requirements and public interest as the reasons for re-imposing the shutdown, which had been lifted in the five townships in September. The Norwegian Telenor Group issued a statement to inform the public of the directive, and said it was seeking further clarification from the ministry.

This communications shutdown places civilians at risk as the fighting between the ethnic-Rakhine Arakan Army and Myanmar’s military intensifies. About 106,000 civilians have been displaced by the conflict.

Blocking local communities’ ability to communicate makes it harder for civilians to obtain help when needed, and significantly more difficult for humanitarian agencies to assist vulnerable populations. The Rakhine State government has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis by imposing restrictions on aid access in eight townships.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has condemned measures by governments to prevent or disrupt online access and information and called for free speech protections under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In a 2015 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Responses to Conflict Situations, UN and regional organization experts said that “using communications ‘kill switches’ (i.e. shutting down entire parts of communications systems) can never be justified under human rights law.”

Myanmar’s authorities should quickly restore mobile internet and telecommunications networks. The lives of many people at risk in Rakhine State depend on it.