Bangladesh and Myanmar: Restrictions on mobile communications deepens vulnerability of Rohingya community

Digital 6 min read
ARTICLE 19

The decision by Bangladesh authorities to restrict access to mobile telecommunications services by Rohingya refugees violates the rights to freedom of expression, information and non-discrimination, ARTICLE 19 said today. Bangladesh’s initiative to limit mobile access follows the imposition by the Myanmar government of a mobile Internet blackout in western Myanmar affecting areas that were formerly home to many Rohingya now residing in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

“The order will have an enormously detrimental impact on the Rohingya refugee population,” said Faruq Faisel, ARTICLE 19’s Regional Director for Bangladesh and South Asia. “These measures will deepen the vulnerability and isolation of a traumatised community that has suffered horrific violence and persecution. Bangladeshi authorities claim they are protecting national security and public order but have failed to put forward any credible justification for such a sweeping measure.”

On 1 September 2019, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) wrote to telecommunications operators, instructing them to ‘ensure that the Rohingya people do not get access to the mobiles for the sake of state security and importance, law and order and public safety,’ including by withdrawing SIM cards used by Rohingya and ending the sale of SIM cards to Rohingya. On 3 September, the BTRC ordered telecommunications operators to shut off high-speed mobile Internet access in the refugee camps near Cox’s Bazaar between 5pm and 6am. Companies were given seven days to report on their implementation of these orders.

Bangladeshi officials cited a spike in violent crime as the reason for the orders, but failed to provide evidence justifying the need for such broad restrictions. Non-refugee communities residing near the camps have reportedly been impacted by the changes to mobile internet services.

The Rohingya have faced intense persecution in Myanmar for decades. In August 2017, a Myanmar military operation in Rakhine State killed thousands of Rohingya and forced over 700,000 to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh, where they settled in and near refugee camps that have been home to Rohingya since the early 1970s. A fact-finding mission formed by the United Nations Human Rights Council concluded that the Myanmar military committed gross human rights violations that ‘undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law.’ It recommended investigation and prosecution of top Myanmar military officials for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Several attempts to repatriate Rohingya from Bangladesh to Myanmar have failed as a result of persistent security concerns and the lack of basic human rights for Rohingya in Myanmar, including access to citizenship.

Bangladesh is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protects the rights to freedom of expression and information. Under the ICCPR, limitations on these rights are only permissible where provided by law, in pursuit of a legitimate aim, and necessary and proportionate to achieving that legitimate aim. The rights contained in the ICCPR apply to all within a State’s territory, without distinction, including on the grounds of national origin. The government of Bangladesh has previously curtailed Internet access for its own citizens through a variety of measures, including slowing Internet speeds, blocking websites, and blocking social media and messaging apps.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the BTRC to withdraw its recent order and to ensure that the Rohingya refugee community has unrestricted access to essential telecommunications services. In its policy brief Getting Connected, ARTICLE 19 described measures that telecommunications companies and Internet service providers should take to resist government orders that violate human rights standards.

“The importance of mobile access to the Rohingya community cannot be overstated,” said Faruq Faisel. “Separated from friends, families and resources, access to communications technology is essential for their recovery and survival.”

Mobile Internet shutdown in Myanmar

The Bangladesh government’s efforts to restrict mobile access by Rohingya refugees follows the Myanmar government’s imposition of a mobile Internet blackout just across the border in western Myanmar. On 20 June 2019, Myanmar authorities ordered telecommunications companies to ‘stop mobile internet traffic’ in nine townships in Myanmar’s Rakhine and Chin States, an area including the former homeland of most of the refugees in the camps in Bangladesh. In a briefing paper, ARTICLE 19 analysed the Internet shutdown against international human rights law, concluding that the ban was a violation of the rights to freedom of expression and information. ARTICLE 19 called on the government of Myanmar to end the Internet shutdown and urged telecommunications companies to take measures to resist government orders that restrict the enjoyment of human rights. While the scope of the ban has now been reduced to only four townships in Rakhine State, it remains in effect.

“The Myanmar government seems to be getting away with one of the worst Internet crackdowns we have ever seen, despite the lifting of the ban in five Myanmar townships,” said Matthew Bugher. “The international community needs to call out the Myanmar government for this latest attack on the rights of the Rohingya.”

For more information, contact:

Faruq Faisel, Regional Director, Bangladesh and South Asia, [email protected], +88 (0) 1730 710 267 (Bangladesh)

Matthew Bugher, Head of Asia Programme, [email protected], +66 617464208 (Thailand)