Longest internet disruption in Myanmar’s Rakhine state sets dangerous precedent

Protest in Yangon calling for the restoration of internet access in Rakhine State on December 24, 2019. Photo from the Facebook page of Radio Free Asia Burmese service, used with permission.

On 21 June 2019, Myanmar authorities ordered the blocking of the internet in nine townships of Rakhine and Chin States in northern Myanmar. Six months later, the internet remains blocked in four Rakhine townships: Mrauk U, Kyauktaw, Minbya, and Ponnagyun, establishing a dangerous precedent and prompting protests.

The order to block the internet in June was issued following clashes between the military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine rebel group. Myanmar counts over a hundred ethnic groups, some of which are waging armed struggle to assert their right to self-determination.

Authorities cited the need to protect national security in justifying the restriction of the internet. Even the entry of journalists in Rakhine , which counts over three million inhabitants, is strictly regulated by the government.

On 1 September, the Transport and Communications Ministry lifted the internet ban in some townships. Yet 600,000 residents in Rakhine’s four townships continue to be affected by internet restrictions.

Reports showed that the internet blocking in Rakhine has undermined business operations, delivery of e-government services, and tourism activities. Residents said they encountered difficulties in processing mobile money services and communicating with their relatives who are working in other provinces and countries.

On 21 December, civil society organizations issued a joint statement condemning the internet suspension in Rakhine. They described it as one of the longest internet shutdowns in the world. They rejected the argument of the government that internet needs to be restricted in order to restore law and order.

There has been no evidence that the disproportionate decision has had any positive effect on reducing the conflict, which remains pervasive.

They called for the lifting of the restriction, the review of the 2013 Telecommunication Law which allows the state to arbitrarily block the internet, and refrain from cutting off internet access in the future.

On 24 December, around 50 activists staged a protest in Yangon, Myanmar’s main urban center, and demanded the restoration of internet access in all parts of Rakhine. One of the speakers in the protest was U Oo Hla Saw, a member of the Lower House for Mrauk-U. He shared with Myanmar Times his views about the internet restriction:

Everybody knows that Burma [Myanmar] is in a democratic transition. But we [still] cannot fully enjoy democratic rights, especially for the Rakhine people. In Rakhine, there is communal violence, military conflict and – after that – now we have no internet access. Internet access is a universal right. But now we cannot enjoy that. This is unjust.

Ma Yin Yadanar Thein, director of the  Free Expression Myanmar NGO warned that the continuing internet shutdown in Rakhine can be used as precedent to ban internet access in other parts of the country:

If the government can shut down the internet without public outcry, they will be more likely to do it again. Today it is Rakhine but tomorrow it could be Shan, Kachin, or even when there are protests in Yangon.

Below are some photos of the protest in Yangon:

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