A grim milestone was passed earlier this month, as 21 June marked one year since the order to block internet services in Rakhine and northern Chin States came into effect, and has left 1.4 million people without access to essential information in a time of several crises. For those protesting this extremely damaging restriction, as human rights defenders in Yangon and Rakhine State bravely did, they face the consequences from a government that does not tolerate dissent. Given the threat of more ‘clearance operations’ that sparked fear among villagers in Rathedaung Township, Rakhine State over the weekend, it is imperative that people have access to information to keep themselves safe from the violence of the Myanmar military.
The situation in Rakhine State is one of heavy fighting, human rights violations, displacement, and tension. There are more than 160,000 people displaced, hundreds have died, and the Myanmar military has been arbitrarily arresting people, torturing, killing and burning down homes of villagers. Armed clashes between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA) are occurring every day. The internet is thus essential for people within the state to keep updated on the ground situation, and for journalists, civil society organizations, and human rights defenders to document and report the violence and atrocities that are being committed and to help alleviate the dire need for humanitarian aid that is being blocked in reaching those either trapped in or impacted by the conflict. The justification for the ongoing ban by the Myanmar military is for national security reasons and to prevent the spread of hatespeech. This is a bit rich seeing as the biggest threat to national security is the Myanmar military itself. It is also one of the main beneficiaries of the destabilization effects of the spread of hatespeech as it can present itself as the protector of the nation.
The fear in Rakhine State of the Myanmar military is very present and widespread. On 21 June, the Myanmar military informed the Rakhine State government that it would conduct ‘clearance operations’ in Rathedaung Township and in turn, local administrators warned 40 villages of impending operations and that they should evacuate. This, understandably caused panic, as previous ‘clearance operations’ against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine State, caused nearly one million people to flee to Bangladesh as the military went on a genocidal rampage. The UN called for “urgent measures to spare civilians” while several embassies put out a joint statement calling for “restraint.” A military spokesperson put this down to a mere misunderstanding, and it was assured that the Myanmar military wouldn’t simply burn people’s homes down, ransack and destroy villages and commit gross human rights violations against a civilian population as it has done time and time again. Rather, it was a ‘military’ operation against the AA, as opposed to a ‘clearance’ operation. Regardless of whether or not it was a military or clearance operation, the impact on civilians is always the same relentless, unjustified violence. Consequently, thousands still fled their homes.
It is particularly disappointing that as people in Rakhine live in fear, with little access to information regarding the conflict or urgent humanitarian aid, and lest it be forgotten, a global pandemic, those who are trying to change this dire state of affairs are also punished. On 21 June, to mark one year of internet shutdown, five activists from the civil society organization, Athan, unfurled a banner from one of the busiest bridges in downtown Yangon, stating “You cut internet access because you don’t want us to know you’re committing war crimes and arbitrary killings?” The response of the authorities was to charge them under Article 19 of the Peaceful Association and Peaceful Procession Law, a commonly used article of an unjust piece of legislation that is stifle dissent. Similarly, an activist who led a similar demonstration and two Rakhine National Party youth members who posted photos of themselves with the slogan “oppose internet oppression” on their t-shirts, all in Rakhine State, were charged under the same Article.
The state of freedom of expression in Myanmar is appalling, with access to information severely restricted in an area of the country that needs it the most. It is no surprise that the (delayed) UN Human Rights Council Resolution brought attention to the ongoing internet blackout and restrictions on freedom of expression. As the Arakan Civil Society Network stated “Freedom of expression is a primary foundation of democracy, and access to information is a fundamental right for all citizens. The Myanmar government’s actions against human rights defenders and activists who are fighting for those basic rights contradict the principles of democracy and human rights.” The UN call for “urgent measures to spare civilians” and the embassies’ joint statement calling for “restraint” are simply not enough to convince Myanmar government to act if the international community has a serious commitment to end these violations and atrocities. With ongoing war, pandemic, and an election in just a few months, the Myanmar government must commit to doing all it can to repeal legislation that impinges on people’s freedom of expression, to lift the internet ban, and drop all charges against peaceful activists. The situation needs to get better, not worse.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
By 45 Organizations
By Arakan CSO Network
By Burma Human Rights Network
By Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK
By Burma Human Rights Network
By Chin Human Rights Organization
By Chin Human Rights Organization
The United Nations Expresses Concern Over the Humanitarian Impact of Conflict in Rakhine and Southern Chin States and Calls on All Parties to Respect International Humanitarian Law and Allow Humanitarian Access
By United Nations
By Women’s League of Burma, Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma, Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, Vimutti Women’s Organization, Asia Justice and Rights
By Women’s League of Burma, Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma , Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, Vimutti Women’s Organization, Asia Justice and Rights
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”