(YANGON, July 22, 2019) – Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi should immediately lift an internet blackout that the government has imposed for more than one month in western Myanmar, Fortify Rights said today. On June 21, the government ordered the shutdown of internet services in nine townships—eight in Rakhine State and one in Chin State—severely impeding humanitarian aid, business, media access, and human rights monitoring.
“We can’t move anywhere and now we can’t communicate with anyone,” a Rohingya resident in Maungdaw Township told Fortify Rights. “We are in total darkness.”
“The civilian government imposed this blackout, and it can lift it,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights. “This shutdown is happening in a context of ongoing genocide against Rohingya and war crimes against Rakhine, and even if it were intended to target militants, it’s egregiously disproportionate, affecting an estimated one million civilians for nearly a month.”
The Myanmar Ministry of Transport and Communications directed all mobile phone operators in Myanmar to disable internet services in Ponnangyun, Kyauktaw, Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Mrauk-U, Minbya, and Myebon townships in Rakhine State, and Paletwa township in Chin State. The Myanmar military and Arakan Army are fighting in these areas, and many of the areas are sites of previous military-led attacks against Rohingya civilians.
A local aid worker in northern Rakhine State who works for an international non-governmental organization told Fortify Rights: “We have no access to information…Providing aid without internet is very difficult. We cannot share information and communicate effectively with the headquarters or other offices to deliver aid.”
The length of this shutdown is one of the world’s longest ever and is disproportionately affecting civilians and their protection, Fortify Rights said.
A vague provision of the 2013 Telecommunications Law permits the suspension of internet services “when an emergency situation arises” and “for public interest.”
The Myanmar military and Arakan Army have engaged in armed conflict in Rakhine State since 2015. Clashes between the two armies displaced more than 30,000 civilians in seven townships of Rakhine State since January 2019. Fortify Rights documented how civilians, including children, were killed and injured during the conflict, and how the Myanmar Army forced Rakhine civilians to dig graves and carry supplies under the threat of death.
On June 24, Yanghee Lee Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar said in a statement, “As there is no media access and serious restrictions on humanitarian organisations in the conflict-affected area, the entire region is in a blackout.”
Myanmar military spokesperson Major-General Zaw Min Tun told Frontier on July 8 that the military had no role in the decision to shut down internet services in Rakhine State.
In 2016 and 2017, the Myanmar Army forcibly displaced more than 800,000 Rohingya from northern Rakhine State to Bangladesh. Fortify Rights published a 160-page report in July 2018 detailing how Myanmar authorities made “extensive and systematic preparations” for attacks against Rohingya civilians in Rakhine State in 2017 that constituted genocide and crimes against humanity. Fortify Rights named 22 military and police officials who should be investigated and possibly prosecuted for genocide and crimes against humanity.
On July 16, the United States Government designated four senior Myanmar military generals, including Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, as responsible for atrocities against Rohingya, preventing their entry to the U.S.
Pending legislation in the U.S. would enable further sanctions against Myanmar military personnel and military-owned enterprises.
“The Trump Administration and U.S. Congress should urgently use every possible tool against those responsible for genocide and war crimes,” said Matthew Smith. “Travel bans against generals aren’t enough. Rohingya and Rakhine civilians are at grave risk and it’s essential that the international community come together to demonstrate these violations won’t be tolerated.”
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