On 20 June 2019, Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications ordered mobile phone operators to ‘stop mobile internet traffic’ in nine townships in Rakhine State and Chin State due to ‘disturbances of peace and use of internet services to coordinate illegal activities’. Government officials from the Ministry of Transport and Communications have declined to publicly comment on the order. The shutdown is now entering its seventh week.
Since the beginning of the shutdown, serious concerns have been raised about the safety of the population in Rakhine State, where the Myanmar military has repeatedly attacked civilians. Military attacks on the Rohingya population prompted the flight of over 700,000 refugees from Rakhine State to Bangladesh in late 2017, leading the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar to call for senior generals to ‘be investigated and prosecuted in an international criminal tribunal for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes’. The shutdown affects an area where the Myanmar military has recently engaged the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed organisation. Human rights researchers have documented serious human rights abuses against civilians by both parties to the conflict. The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar expressed grave concern over the Internet shutdown, citing an ongoing military ‘clearance operation’, that she worried would be used as ‘cover for committing gross human rights violations against the civilian population’. In Myanmar, the Internet is overwhelmingly accessed through mobile phones. The shutdown therefore has a severe impact on the ability of individuals to communicate with one another and access information. Human rights organisations, telecommunications providers, and chambers of commerce have called attention to the negative impacts of the internet shutdown. These include concern that the shutdown will:
- Inhibit dissemination of key information relating to safety and security
- Prevent civilians from contacting one another in case of an emergency
- Impede access to basic rights, including healthcare
- Negatively impact the economy
- Impede the operations of organisations working and delivering aid in rural areas, which often rely on messaging services; and
- Frustrate attempts to document ongoing human rights abuses.
Our briefing analyses the situation of communications shutdown in Myanmar against international legal standards. We provide recommendations to the Government of Myanmar and Telecom companies to uphold human rights in Myanmar.