(YANGON, February 13, 2020)—The Government of Myanmar should lift internet restrictions in Rakhine and Chin states and release its justification for the internet shutdown and all information related to the process, said Fortify Rights and 28 organizations in a joint statement today.
The government of Myanmar first restricted internet access in Rakhine and Chin states in June 2019. On February 3, the Government of Myanmar ordered the reinstatement of internet restrictions in Rakhine and Chin states.
“This prolonged blackout suppresses the truth, and it’s disproportionately affecting civilians,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights. “The government should immediately end the restrictions and give a public response for its rationale.”
On June 21, 2019, the government first imposed restrictions on mobile internet communications in nine townships: Buthidaung, Kyauktaw, Maungdaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Myebo, Ponnangyun, and Rathedaun townships in Rakhine State and Paletwa Township in Chin State. On September 1, the government lifted restrictions in Buthidaung, Maungdaw, Myebon, Paletwa, and Rathedaung townships. On February 3, the government ordered the reinstatement of the restrictions in those five townships.
In the joint statement published today, Fortify Rights and 28 organizations—including several Rakhine- and Rohingya-led organizations, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Article 19—called on the Myanmar government to “restore internet access” and “repeal Section 77 of the Telecommunications Law.”
The 2013 Telecommunications Law permits the suspension of internet services “when an emergency situation arises” and “for public interest.” The telecommunications provider Telenor Group wrote in a statement that the Myanmar Ministry of Transport and Communications said the new shutdown took place because of “security requirement and public interest.”
The statement also calls on the Government of Myanmar to “release publicly the justification for the internet shutdown and all information related to the process by which these restrictions were imposed.”
The Myanmar military and Arakan Army (AA) have engaged in armed conflict in Rakhine State since 2015. Clashes between the Myanmar military and AA displaced thousands of civilians in Rakhine State since January 2019.
Aung Thaung Shwe, a Rakhine lawmaker from Buthidaung Township in Myanmar, told media in February 2020 that the “military has been conducting clearance operations” and “now, internet services are shut down.”
In July 2019, Fortify Rights documented how the internet shutdown in Rakhine State disproportionately affects the protection of civilians through the disruption of aid delivery. Furthermore, since September 1, 2019, the Government of Bangladesh has also put in place restrictions on mobile internet communications and authorities have confiscated SIM cards and cell phones from Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar District, Bangladesh.
In July 2018, Fortify Rights published a 160-page report detailing how Myanmar authorities made “extensive and systematic preparations” for attacks against Rohingya civilians 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.
Up to 596,000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine State today and are subject to ongoing government persecution and violence. In September 2019, Fortify Rights published a 102-page report exposing how Myanmar authorities forced and coerced Rohingya to accept National Verification Cards, which effectively identify Rohingya as “foreigners,” strip them of access to full citizenship rights, and systematically erase their ethnic identity.
On January 23, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Myanmar to comply with several “provisional measures” to protect Rohingya rights and preserve evidence relating to an ongoing case against Myanmar for genocide.
On February 3, the AA published a statement online declaring that it would release evidence of mass graves of Muslims killed and buried by Myanmar armed forces in Rakhine State. The same day, the government cut internet access.
“The ICJ ordered the government to preserve potential evidence of genocide, and the internet blackout raises questions about its commitment to honoring the court’s ruling,” said Matthew Smith. “The government should work with the international community to hold preparators of atrocities accountable and provide human rights monitors unfettered access to affected communities.”
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