A government ban on internet service in western Myanmar’s war-torn Rakhine state — criticized as harmful by rights groups and relief workers — keeps troop movements offline and secret while dampening speech that incites ethnic tensions, a spokesman for the country’s military said Monday.
The military’s justification for the 13-month shutdown follows renewed calls to end the denial of internet service to townships where Myanmar forces have been fighting the rebel Arakan Army (AA), a policy which has hampered aid workers helping war refugees and left people uninformed about the coronavirus pandemic.
The internet service ban, which comes up for renewal on Aug. 1, has brought two benefits, Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told RFA on Monday.
“First, it has reduced the content posted by the AA and its supporters that incite the ethnic tensions between the Rakhine and Bamar people,” he said.
Both mostly Buddhists, the Bamars are the majority in Myanmar, while the Rakhines are the largest group in the Bay of Bengal state of the same name.
“Second, it has reduced the sharing of military-related news and classified information on the internet,” Zaw Min Tun said.
In June 2019, the government ordered mobile network operators in the country to cut off service to eight townships in northern Rakhine state and to adjacent Paletwa township in Chin state. The government temporarily lifted the restrictions in some of the Rakhine townships in September 2019, but reimposed them last February.
In May, the government removed restrictions only in Rakhine’s Maungdaw township. In the other eight townships, the government allows access to 2G networks for only text messages and voice calls.
‘Great harm’ to locals
Rights groups, including New York-based Human Rights Watch (HWR), say the shutdown has stymied the coordination of relief work and the collection of accurate information in the war zones. It also has hampered the monitoring of rights abuses and the sharing of information about the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Quite clearly, the government is not interested in having information get into Rakhine state or to have reports about human rights abuses come out of Rakhine,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, told RFA during an interview on Monday. “That’s the main reason they are banning the internet.”
“It’s causing great harm to local people,” he added. “And it is very sad that the civilian government is continuing to go along with this policy. This really is originating from the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military].”
At the time of the original shutdown, the Myanmar military said it did not play a part in the decision to suspend internet service.
HRW issued a statement on Monday calling again for the government to immediately lift internet restrictions in Rakhine and Chin states that have put civilians at added risk.
The rights group also rejected an assertion made by Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on June 30, when it told the United Nations Human Rights Council that the blackout was needed in part to “prevent the AA from exploiting mobile internet technologies to detonate IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and landmines.”
Robertson said, however, that “anybody with any knowledge about IEDs knows that is not the case.”
“The reality is that there are much easier ways to set up IEDs with a normal mobile phone [or] shortwave radio devices,” he said.
The AA has acknowledged using landmines and other explosive devices and technology to “carefully control” their use, but has denied using mobile internet technologies to detonate them remotely, HRW’s statement noted.
“It seems to me that the Myanmar government is just trying to make up reasons to continue justifying what is the deprivation of over a million people’s internet access because of that internet ban,” Robertson said.
‘Conflict has escalated’
Pe Than, a lawmaker from Rakhine’s Myebon township, one of the areas affected by the internet service ban, said the shutdown has not stopped the two armed forces from intensifying their 19-month-long conflict.
“The conflict has escalated, [and] the number of causalities has been rising on both sides,” he told RFA. “The internet shutdown is not beneficial to anyone, neither the government nor civilians, so the government should look into alternatives.”
About 200 civilians have been killed since the conflict erupted at the end of 2018, while about 200,000 others have been displaced, according to a tally by the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, a local NGO.
Ann Thar Gyi, chairman of the local civil society organization Thingaha Kanlat Rakhita Aid Association, said his group’s activities have nearly stopped because of the internet shutdown.
“After internet access was banned, we couldn’t perform relief work effectively in the areas where it was shut down, so we could not learn the latest news from those areas,” he said.
“We missed lots of opportunities to help people who were in need,” he said.
Soe Thein, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Transport and Communications, said at a news conference on June 10 that the government will reconsider lifting the ban only when fighting tapers down in the region.
At a weekend press conference in the capital Naypyidaw, military spokesman Zaw Min Tun said that the armed forces in Rakhine not only face ambushes by ethnic armies, including the AA, but also diatribes by the media.
“We are facing double attacks from both the enemy and the media,” he said. “We are not just ambushed by enemy troops, but also by the media.”
Zaw Min Tun did not specify how the media have attacked the military, which has tried to prosecute journalists who interviewed AA members after the government declared the ethnic army an illegal, terrorist organization in March.
Maung Maung Soe, an ethnic and military affairs analyst, said that most of the conflict zone has been off limits to the media.
“It is certain that they don’t have the opportunity to cover the news in the conflict area openly or to report the news freely,” he told RFA.
“Most of the news media have tried to objectively report narratives from both sides. I don’t see the media as being biased.”
Reported by Phyu Phyu Khine, Moe Myint, and Aung Theinkha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.