Pressure is rising on Myanmar to end its mobile internet shutdowns in areas of two impoverished states, with the United States saying the restrictions should be ditched.
The Ministry of Transport and Communications ordered telecoms firms to block internet data across eight townships in Rakhine State and one in neighbouring Chin State.
The army has launched an attack on the Arakan Army, a Buddhist armed group fighting for greater autonomy for the isolated state, separated from the rest of the union by the Himalayan foothills.
Norway’s Telenor Group said on June 22 that the Ministry of Transport and Communications ordered the temporary shutdown of internet services, saying there were “disturbances of peace and the use of the internet to co-ordinate illegal activities”.
The government’s order did not specify when the shutdown will end.
A military spokesman denied the generals were behind the blackout.
Morgan Ortagus, a spokeswoman for Washington’s State Department, said the US was “deeply concerned” by the shutdown, blocking communications for up to 1 million people.
“Resumption of service would help facilitate transparency in and accountability for what the government claims are law enforcement actions aimed at preventing further outbreaks of violence in the affected areas,” Ortagus told the media.
In resource-rich but impoverished Rakhine State, around estimated 30,000 civilians have been displaced by the fighting this year which erupted in January.
The military’s artillery fire has displaced numerous civilians and the violence has spilled over into Chin State.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the blackout had increased difficulties for humanitarian agencies and rights groups assisting victims of the violence.
“The Myanmar authorities have imposed an internet blackout in Rakhine and Chin states that is depriving aid workers and rights monitors vital communications in a time of crisis,” said Brad Adams, the Asean chief at the NGO. “Governments and the United Nations should be pressing Myanmar to immediately restore full internet access crucial for the population’s safety.”
WhatsApp is key for NGOs in Rakhine State, HRW said.
Yanghee Lee, the United Nations rapporteur on Burmese human rights, said she feared troops were committing “gross human rights violations” against civilians during the shutdown.
The Korean envoy said the troops were acting “with impunity”.
“Without a constitutional reform and the way the situation is now, the military and the security forces can do whatever they want under the name of national security,” she added.
The tourist attraction of Mrauk U is in one of the areas that has lost its mobile internet access. Picture credit: Asean Economist