A sweeping internet shutdown in Myanmar’s conflict-hit Rakhine state entered its fifth week yesterday as residents called on the government to end an information blackout that rights groups say could provide cover for rights abuses.
Mobile phone operators suspended internet data on June 21 in eight townships across northern Rakhine and one in neighbouring Chin state — where soldiers are fighting ethnic Rakhine rebels known as the Arakan Army (AA) who want greater autonomy.
Authorities say the internet was being used to coordinate operations while rights groups allege the blackout permits troops to act with impunity.
But it has also disrupted daily life and sown fear among residents struggling to receive news on everything from flooding updates to ongoing skirmishes.
“It’s like an information blackout,” Saw Oo from Mrauk-U township told AFP, adding that people were unable to share details on weather conditions during the rainy season.
Maungdaw township resident Hla Hla said it was also considered risky to use sim cards from neighboring Bangladesh as it could lead to arrest.
“We are really afraid of getting caught,” she said.
In recent months the military has cut off whole villages as it tries to flush out AA members and sympathizers.
The army confirmed it shot dead six Rakhine detainees in late April, saying its forces acted in self-defense.
Northern Rakhine state is also the site of a brutal 2017 army campaign that drove more than 740,000 Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh.
UN investigators have called for Myanmar’s top generals overseeing the campaign to be prosecuted for genocide.
Last week Washington banned powerful army chief Min Aung Hlaing from visiting the United States over his leadership role in the “ethnic cleansing” push.
NGO Fortify Rights said the internet shutdown was one of the world’s longest ever and was affecting an estimated one million civilians.
“Even if it were intended to target militants, it’s egregiously disproportionate,” the group said in a statement.
But Myo Swe, director general of Myanmar’s post and telecommunications department, defended the shutdown in the name of “public interest”.
“We still do not know when it (internet access) will be resumed,” he said.
According to state media the AA fired two rockets at navy boats anchored off of northern Rakhine on Saturday. There were no casualties.