How internet shutdowns in Myanmar have been endangering lives and affecting humanitarian work since the coup

Image made by Ameya Nagarajan using an image by Stephan from Pixabay, under a Pixabay license.

Almost two years after the coup led by military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlainge, internet shutdowns, restrictions, and interruptions continue in most parts of Myanmar. The junta has imposed targeted internet shutdowns in regions where the military faces strong resistance from armed resistance groups accompanied by severe offline crackdowns. A press statement released by the United Nations on June 7, 2022, reported that 31 townships in seven states and regions of Myanmar have been experiencing a complete internet shutdown since August 2021, and a further 23 townships have experienced internet throttling. According to Freedom House, cuts were reported in the Yangon Region, Mandalay Region, Chin State, Magway Region, and Tanintharyi Region, which affected millions of internet users. The internet cut in Sagaing Region, where armed fighting between Myanmar's junta troops and resistance forces was happening, was particularly severe.

This repressive tactic of internet shutdown and throttling is not new to the military playbook — they used it in June 2019, before the coup, in the conflict-affected areas of Rakhine and Chin states in an attempt to cover up human rights violations and atrocities committed by the military security forces against the Rohingya ethnic group. The internet shutdown was described as the longest internet shutdown in the world, lasting two years and affecting 1.4 million people living in the conflict zones. During that time, the military claimed that connectivity disruption was imposed in order to “maintain stability, and law and order” until the “security situation” improved again in those conflict-affected areas. The authorities also justified shutdowns as combating “disturbances of the peace and use of internet services to coordinate illegal activities.” Amnesty International documented serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law committed by the Myanmar military security forces, including unlawful and indiscriminate attacks that led to the killing and injury of unarmed civilians, torture, extrajudicial execution, enforced disappearances, forced labor, and more, in places that faced internet and communication blackouts. In the post-coup context, the military's strategy of cutting off the internet and telecommunications in the name of “public security” continues to be a practice and pattern in resistance stronghold regions where “clearance operations” are launched.

On March 3, 2022, the military junta-controlled Ministry of Transport and Communications issued an order to indefinitely cut off internet access in most parts of the Sagaing region, except the four urban areas. This internet shutdown and throttling followed an escalation of military offensives and raids on villages, which frequently included the killing of civilians, burning of houses and farms, and other human rights violations. Out of 34 townships in Sagaing, eight were facing regular internet blackouts, while the other townships had access only to 2G connections. It was documented that 15,530 houses were torched or destroyed in villages within 28 townships (a district-type division in Myanmar) of Sagaing region between February 1, 2021, and May 26, 2022, while a total of 22,299 homes or buildings were destroyed across the country.

Similarly, in the Hpakant township of Kachin State, the junta cut off internet access in August 2021 in order to launch a military offensive in the area in response to the attacks of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the local People's Defence Force (PDF). Shortly after, internet blackouts — including cut off of mobile internet and Wifi-services — continued to be enforced in another 11 townships in northwestern Myanmar. As reported by Myanmar Now, the affected townships include Gangaw, Htilin, and Myaing in Magway region, and Falam, Kanpetlet, Matupi, Mindat, Paletwa, Tedim, Thantlang, and Tonzang in Chin State. At 8:30 p.m. on October 23, 2022, Myanmar military jets attacked Kansi village in Hpakant township of Kachin State, which killed at least 80 people, including singers and musicians who were attending an anniversary celebration of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). The airstrike also injured about 100 people who were attending the outdoor concert. It was reported that the military junta also blocked road access in order to bar humanitarian aid and relief groups from reaching the impact site to deliver lifesaving assistance. With the deliberate communications blackout, local media could only receive information about this massacre many hours later and reported about it on October 24.

The internet blackout has made it difficult for locals to both send and receive information on the conditions in the region, report human rights abuses committed by the military regime, raise funds for humanitarian business, spread information about the movement of military forces, and access education, health, livelihood, and other basic needs. In conflict-affected areas, online access to information can mean the difference between life and death. The internet blackout has reportedly stopped people from fleeing army raids as warnings of impending raids could not be shared via the telecommunication channels such as Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, which people in Myanmar often find more secure than talking on their mobile phones. In a Radio Free Asia interview, residents of Hnan Khar village of Gangaw township, Magway division, regarding the internet shutdown in the area stated, “As there was no flow of information, the people couldn't be warned [ahead of the raids] and were caught off guard, arrested, tortured and killed. We saw junta soldiers do whatever they pleased — killing people and burning down villages.”

Furthermore, they added that there is no way to send out evidence such as photos and video of human rights abuses and war crimes committed by military troops because there is no internet in most places where clashes are ongoing.  As mobile payment services are also being restricted or cut off, it is becoming impossible to raise donations or transfer or receive funds. Since little information gets out from conflict-affected areas, little is known about the on-the-ground situation. With the junta-enforced communication blackout, it has become more challenging for humanitarian actors to gather evidence of human rights violations, monitor the humanitarian crisis and deliver aid, and for journalists to report about incidents and political developments from those areas in a timely manner.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reported that as of the end of 2022, more than 1.4 million people remained displaced across Myanmar as a result of insecurity and violence, of which 1.1 million people were displaced as the result of the military coup. It further reported that humanitarian and protection needs are mounting, but the humanitarian response as of now is underfunded by only 28 percent. Just like access to food, shelter, health care, and education, access to information and communication is a basic need and it is a fundamental human right. While internet shutdowns in conflict-affected areas of the country continue to be a critical issue, despite the work of civil society groups and independent media to sustain awareness about the situation, very little has been done by the United Nations, international associations, or communities to restore internet access for displaced people and those living in conflict-affected areas of Myanmar.

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