This is not the first time Myanmar’s military leaders have rounded up civilian leaders and taken power. But this time, bad old habits have come with new rights abuses.
Myanmar’s military began detaining senior government officials and activists across the country on February 1, seizing control of the government. Communication networks were shut down through the use of disruption techniques targeting cellular services and so-called “kill switches” to cut off internet traffic – tactics the government has already used in conflict-wracked Rakhine and Chin States. The shutdown across large swaths of the country for several hours —including throughout Naypyidaw, Yangon, Mandalay and Sagaing Regions, and Shan and Kachin States—raises serious concerns of more prolonged and dangerous military shutdowns in the future.
Under international human rights standards, internet-based restrictions must be necessary and proportionate. Blanket internet shutdowns are a form of collective punishment. They hinder access to information and communications needed for daily life, which is particularly vital during times of crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. Shutdowns can also endanger lives in humanitarian crises, an acute concern in Myanmar where over 1 million people require some form of humanitarian assistance. Restrictions also provide cover for human rights abuses, and complicate efforts to document government violations.
Besides rescinding the state of emergency, recognizing the duly elected government, releasing all those arbitrarily detained and ending all unlawful deprivation of fundamental rights, the military authorities need to ensure access to information through the internet and mobile networks. Internet service providers should uphold their responsibilities under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which calls on companies to “[s]eek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.” This means pushing back against unjustified internet shutdowns. Service providers should insist upon a legal basis for any shutdown order, interpret requests to cause the least intrusive restrictions, and restore access as soon as possible.
Governments around the world should take joint action in response to the coup to ensure the rights of Myanmar’s people are respected. Among the front burner issues should be their access to information through the internet and cellular services.