On June 21, Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications ordered telecommunication and mobile phone operators to shut down internet services across at least eight townships in Rakhine state, as well as at least one town in neighbouring Chin state. The government order was justified by the authorities in relation to the ongoing conflict between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army; an armed group fighting for greater autonomy for the region’s ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
Under article 77 of Myanmar’s 2013 Telecommunications Law, authorities can suspend telecommunications service “when an emergency situation arises.” This week’s government order did not specify the duration of the shutdown. The IFJ takes a serious view on such controls which exacerbate the long-running information blackout in the troubled region and create difficulties for its vulnerable population.
One of the telecommunications providers, Telenor Group, issued a statement that it had sought further clarification from the ministry on the rationale for the shutdown and “emphasized that freedom of expression through access to telecoms services should be maintained for humanitarian purposes, especially during times of conflict.” Residents under the internet blockade can still make calls and receive and send SMS.
Conflict in Rakhine State has displaced some 730,000 Rohingya Muslims since 2017. The IFJ remains critical of the swathe of controls in the state, which remains heavily restricted for journalists in terms of access. In 2017, two Reuters journalists were arrested and jailed for seven years possessing ‘classified’ state documents on the murder of 10 Rohingya by military, despite the documents being on the public record. They were released earlier this year. Reporters attempting access to the region without authorisation face harassment, threats and confiscation of equipment. One exception is the practice by the central and local state governments of heavily guided media package tours of the region.
The IFJ said: “We condemn the order on telecommunication providers which effectively also thwarts the role of the media to report the critical story of Rakhine state. Citizens in conflict areas rely heavily on the internet and we urge authorities to review controls which are a clear human rights violation for Myanmar’s people."