World’s Longest Internet Shutdown Enters Second Year in Rakhine and Chin, Raising Security Concerns for Rohingya

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Human rights groups have denounced the ban as they say that the internet shutdown can pose a threat to the safety of the population in Rakhine state. — Getty Images

Zafar Aafaq | Clarion India

ON Saturday, the ban on mobile internet services enforced by Myanmar in the Rakhine and Chin states completed one year. Due to the restriction imposed through the ban, people could not interact with each other digitally, the only means of communication available to them amidst the global coronavirus pandemic.

Rakhine and Chin are the two states of Myanmar which have witnessed most of the anti-Rohingya military violence in the last several years.

On this day, the Ministry of Transport and Communications passed an order banning the access to mobile internet in at least nine townships of the region which witnessed persecution of Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar army. The ban on the use of the internet may cause ‘disturbance to peace and coordination of illegal activities’.

However, human rights groups have denounced the ban as they say that the internet shutdown can pose a threat to the safety of the population in Rakhine state. For the past several years, the military crackdown has forced 7,00,000 Rohingya Muslims  to flee their homes and take refuge in neighboring countries, mainly in Bangladesh.

The United Nations and other top global human rights bodies have called for investigation into the crimes and trials against Myanmar military generals accused of presiding over the massacre and large-scale sexual abuse of Rohingya Muslims.

Denouncing the continued ban on internet in Rakhine and Chin, Mattew Bugher, who heads Asia Programme of Article 19, a global advocacy group for freedom of speech, said, “It is disgraceful that the government would continue to deny internet access to vulnerable populations during a global pandemic and with elections just around the corner.”

Noting that the shutdown amidst pandemic is endangering lives, Bugher said it should never have been imposed in the first place and must be lifted immediately. The continued ban on the internet is raising questions over the commitment of the Myanmar government to preceding the spread of coronavirus particularly in areas where ethnic minorities live.

Calling immediate end to “what is now the world’s longest government-enforced internet shutdown”, Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser at Human Rights Watch, said, “With armed conflict between the Myanmar military and Arakan Army in Rakhine State amid a pandemic, it’s critical for civilians to get the information needed to stay safe.”

Activists fighting for the cause of freedom of expression say the blockage has denied the people in these states their right to access information about the coronavirus pandemic which has triggered an unprecedented global lockdown. The Internet is not only important in helping  people access the latest information about the ways to protect themselves from infection but also in making the idea of work from home a success thus minimising the chances of crowd swell.

In March 2020, UN experts urged the countries to keep the internet accessible to all so that the fight against the pandemic will not hamper. They said, “It is essential that governments refrain from blocking internet access; in those situations where the internet has been blocked, governments should, as a matter of priority, ensure immediate access to the fastest and broadest possible internet service.”

It is not in Myanmar alone, the Rohingya are subjected to the perils of internet shutdown in Cox Bazar of Bangladesh, the world’s largest camp of Rohingya refugees. The Bangladesh government has restricted access to the internet even as activists have urged for lifting such bans. Last week, a US Senator Edward Markey asked the Bangladesh government to enable access to 3G and 4G internet in the camps to support the delivery of life saving services.

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