Myanmar — already notorious for the world’s longest ongoing civil war — now owns the dubious distinction of having the world’s longest internet shutdown. And it’s threatening people’s lives.
Myanmar authorities ordered the shutdown in the armed-conflict areas of Rakhine and Chin states a year ago. More than a million people living in these war-torn zones lost their right to access information they need to stay safe, such as news about the COVID-19 pandemic. To make things worse, loss of the internet has isolated the regions from those trying to help them and made it logistically more difficult for aid to reach the neediest areas.
Internet freedom is a human right recognized by the United Nations. In a 2016 report, it noted the importance of “providing and expanding access to the internet and for the internet to be open, accessible and nurtured.” Unfortunately, however, certain governments continue to block online freedom.
Countries like China and Russia strictly limit access to the internet and censor what their citizens can see and do online. In March, China enacted a law banning people from posting negative comments about the country on the internet to “create a positive online ecosystem” and “preserve national security and the public interest.”
The Myanmar government has also cited national security and public safety concerns to justify the internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin. Internet service will only be restored if there are “no more threats to the public or violations of the telecommunications law, according to Soe Thein, the permanent secretary of transportation and communications.
What Soe Thein fails to mention is the Myanmar government’s culpability in prolonging the conflict with armed ethnic groups. The military’s brutal “clearance operations” have forced more than 730,000 Rohingya — a Muslim ethnic minority living mostly in Rakhine state — to flee to neighboring Bangladesh and beyond. Many international organizations labeled it as military-led ethnic cleansing and condemned the Myanmar government for the crisis. In January, the International Court of Justice issued provisional measures ordering the Myanmar government to prevent further harm to the Rohingya.
However, according to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of civilians have been killed and about 106,000 displaced since January 2019 because of fighting between the military and the Arakan Army, the largest insurgent group in Rakhine state. It’s the government’s own policies that are hurting people. What is needed in Myanmar now is not an internet shutdown but a change in its peace policy.
Myanmar’s Telecommunications Law is also problematic because it’s inconsistent with international human rights standards such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an international human-rights treaty adopted by the UN which guarantees everyone the right to freedom of expression, including seeking, receiving, and imparting information. The Myanmar law has been used to charge at least 71 people with online defamation since it was issued in 2013. More than a dozen journalists were also charged or arrested during the first year of the civilian government’s leadership.
Myanmar partially amended the law in 2017, but it still authorizes the Ministry of Transportation and Communications to suspend telecommunication services during “an emergency.” This broad language allows the government to act without judicial review in a variety of circumstances. Using this authority, Myanmar has blocked more than 2000 websites, including independent and ethnic media outlets.
The people’s right to access information and express themselves freely online must be protected. Any country that intentionally disrupts these freedoms deserves condemnation. As such, the international community should put more pressure on the Myanmar government to end its record-setting internet shutdown. Of course, merely stopping this practice isn’t enough; the international community should also empower and support Myanmar’s civil society to promote the free flow of information, expand internet literacy, and increase internet access across the country.
People in Myanmar have already suffered a half century of isolation under an oppressive military regime in their struggle for freedom. They don’t deserve to be isolated again, especially under a civilian government that took power with promises to work toward a more democratic Myanmar. It’s time to end the lockout and give the people of Myanmar back their human rights.
Jieun Pyun serves as Senior Program Manager of the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.