An internet blackout imposed by Myanmar’s government in parts of conflict-ridden Rakhine and Chin states has now been in place for nearly two months. It’s raising deep concerns about the safety of civilians in a region where researchers have already documented gross human rights violations by the military. The measure also harks back to the tight control of information under junta rule and is the latest in a long line of attacks on free speech.
It’s “a matter of great concern to our organizations as it should be to all of the millions of internet users in Myanmar,” said Yangon-based campaign group Free Expression Myanmar of the shutdown that took effect on June 21.
There was no warning, and early reports of the blackout came from a telecom operator rather than government officials. The Ministry of Transport and Communications has directed all mobile (cell) phone operators in Myanmar to “temporarily stop mobile internet traffic in nine townships in Rakhine and Chin” states, Telenor said in a statement, adding the ministry had referenced “disturbances of peace and use of internet services to coordinate illegal activities” as the basis for its request. The operator stressed that it was asking for further clarification on the shutdown’s rationale.
Yet several weeks on, information is still scarce. And with no end in sight, fears are growing for civilians in a region where humanitarian and media access were already restricted. Human Rights Watch has said the blackout “is depriving aid workers and rights monitors vital communications in a time of crisis,” while UN special rapporteur Yanghee Lee has also expressed her fears for civilians in the area.
Lee referred to Myanmar’s recent past in her call for the shutdown to be reversed. In 2017 Rakhine state was at the heart of a bloody military crackdown against the nation’s Rohingya Muslim minority. More than 730,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh and UN investigators have since called for top Myanmar generals to be prosecuted over allegations of mass killings, gang rapes, and arson. More recently the state has been hit by a new wave of fighting, this time between the military and the Arakan Army, an insurgent group comprised of mostly ethnic Rakhine Buddhists seeking greater autonomy.
The shutdown is a potentially worrying indicator of how the government might respond to future perceived threats in a country with a bitter history of withholding information from its citizens.
The ongoing nature of the undefined block “increases the possibility that this may become a useful strategy for the military on other occasions, especially outside of densely-populated urban areas,” said Lisa Brooten, an associate professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a longtime Myanmar media scholar. If it becomes a tool to control information in conflict-hit zones, “such shutdowns will disproportionately affect minority, marginalized, and poor communities,” she added.
The move to suspend mobile internet access, in turn limiting freedom of expression and information, comes at a time when Myanmar’s citizens are already under attack for voicing their opinions.
Last week filmmaker and human rights activist Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi went on trial over Facebook posts critical of the military’s involvement in politics. In April four performers of thangyat, a traditional satirical form of poetry, were arrested after live-streaming their act on Facebook. They were charged with violating the controversial section 66d of the Telecommunications Law, which HRW reports has been routinely used against those criticizing the government or military online.
This increasingly hostile climate is disillusioning voters who had hoped for more reforms from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which swept to power after a historic 2015 poll that ended half a century of brutal military rule.
“We are in a strange situation in which many in the NLD want these (freedom of expression, press freedom, access to information) rights, and many suffered due to the lack of them, but at the same time the NLD leadership has done nothing to improve the situation… our hopes that they will do something have faded to nothing,” Yin Yadanar Thein, director of Free Expression Myanmar, told The Diplomat in an email.
The attacks on free speech have also mobilized other young activists to defend deteriorating rights. Maung Saungkha, a poet who was one of the first activists imprisoned under the ruling NLD, last year launched Athan, another freedom of expression advocacy group in Yangon.
In a July report, Athan, which means “voice” in English, said the military has opened lawsuits against nearly 80 people since April 2016, when the NLD took office, with a surge in the number of cases filed over the last few months. In an earlier June statement, it said that 36 lawsuits had been filed against journalists under the NLD, the majority initiated by “government officials.”
“The NLD-dominant parliament shows no willingness to amend or abolish the laws” that are repressing free speech in Myanmar, Athan’s Program Manager Aung Khant said in a written response.
There is an acknowledgment of the party’s limitations. Under Myanmar’s constitution, drafted during military rule, the army is guaranteed a quarter of all parliamentary seats, and control of key ministries. The NLD is again pushing for amendments to reduce the military’s role in politics, but faces fierce resistance from army lawmakers.
But for activists and journalists the government’s treatment of the media is among the most concerning issues. Pulitzer Prize-winning Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were finally freed from jail in May after a global campaign for their release. They should never have been imprisoned, yet the reporters served longer behind bars than the soldiers arrested for the massacre of Rohingya Muslims that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo helped expose.
The surge in lawsuits against peaceful critics is particularly concerning given general elections due next year. But the media and civil society have been through crackdowns before and “will weather these changes and continue to push for freedom of expression,” says Brooten. It “could also create greater solidarity among them rather than weaken them,” she added.