Myanmar shuts down internet in conflict areas

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A top United Nations (UN) official has warned of “serious implications for human rights” in parts of Myanmar after the government shut down mobile data networks.

According to Telenor, a Norwegian telecoms firm which operates mobile internet services in Myanmar, all mobile phone operators were ordered to “temporarily stop mobile internet traffic in nine townships in Rakhine and Chin State” on June 20.

“The directive, which makes references to the Myanmar’s Telecommunication Law, does not specify when the shutdown will end. Officials referenced disturbances of peace and use of internet services to coordinate illegal activities,” Telenor said in a statement.

The Myanmar military, also known as the Tatmadaw, has been conducting major security operation and crackdown in the western province of Rakhine since August 2017, when alleged Rohingya militants attacked police posts.

More than 720,000 Rohingya are estimated to have been forced to flee into Bangladesh as a result of the ensuing violence, which US lawmakers and international human rights bodies have said amounts to ethnic cleansing, and even genocide.

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The unrest caused by the anti-Rohingya crackdown and exodus has been exacerbated by conflict between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army, a Buddhist insurgent group, which has been fighting with the government since last year. More than 35,000 civilians have been displaced by the conflict, according to the UN, with violence spilling into neighbouring Chin state.

U Myo Swe, an official of the Ministry of Transport and Communications, said this month’s internet shutdown was “for the sake of security and the public interest”.

“All of us know the situation in Rakhine. People are in trouble, and many people have been displaced. The internet is one of the contributors to this. So, it has been temporarily suspended. It will be resumed when stability is restored,” U Myo Swe said.

But Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said the internet shutdown could have the precise opposite effect, however.

She said in a statement: “As there is no media access and serious restrictions on humanitarian organisations in the conflict-affected area, the entire region is in a blackout. I fear for all civilians there, cut off and without the necessary means to communicate with people inside and outside the area.”

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