COVID-19 Surges in Rakhine State, but Internet Restrictions Remain

September 11th, 2020  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  7 minute read
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“Is the internet being shut down to hide war crimes in Rakhine and killing people?”

In light of the recent wave of COVID-19 cases emanating from Rakhine State, it is of huge importance that the internet is fully restored in the townships in which it has been restricted since June 2019. The recent conviction of activist, Maung Saungkha, for protesting this severe curtailment on freedom of expression, however, does not bode well.

Myanmar’s second wave of COVID-19 began in Rakhine State in mid-August, and has spread throughout the country, although Rakhine State remains the most problematic region with nearly 500 cases identified in the last few weeks. With cases surging in Rakhine State, and a partial lockdown in place, it is essential that local communities have access to reliable and fast information regarding preventative measures. The easiest way, as is seen throughout the world and in Myanmar, is through the internet, and in particular, mobile phones. People can access videos, images, websites and communicate with people via audio or video to discuss the latest developments. This, however, is being denied to the people in Rakhine State, as well as Paletwa Township as only 2G services are available, which means people cannot watch videos or communicate through video while even sending messages through popular messaging apps such as Messenger is barely functioning. The UN Resident Coordinator in Myanmar said in a statement that “access to functional internet that allows applications to run on mobile phones is essential and full internet service must be restored in areas currently not having such service.” Meanwhile, civil society organizations have been calling for the lifting of such restrictions consistently and regularly.

The Myanmar military has repeatedly stated that the internet restrictions are in place to disrupt the operations of the Arakan Army, with whom the Myanmar military is engaged in armed conflict with. Yet the reality is that the information blackout is an attempt to mask the systematic human rights violations committed by the Myanmar military. However, the regularity and severity of such violations means that information does get out. Recent examples include the raiding of villages, torture, and opening fire on residents and detaining over a 1,000 villagers against their will in Kyauktaw Township. As one resident told BNI news agency, “The soldiers beat the villagers and arrested everyone—men, women and children.” Another example is the burning down of two villages by the Myanmar military near the Yangon-Sittwe Highway, where two civilians were found shot dead. Over 170 houses were set alight yet despite some local coverage, this continues to be underreported internationally due to the COVID situation and the internet restrictions.

That the government doesn’t lift the internet restrictions in Rakhine State despite the surge of COVID-19 cases there speaks volumes about the priorities of the government, which is working in concert with the military as it weaponizes the virus. This was highlighted by Progressive Voice in a report released in English in June, with the Myanmar language version released on 3 September. The report, ‘A Nation Left Behind: Myanmar’s Weaponization of COVID-19,’ outlines how the military has used the cover of the virus to intensify attacks and persecution in ethnic areas, disrupt local ethnic armed organization’s efforts to combat the virus, while both the government and the military have used the virus for their own self-promotion, while cracking down on dissent. The continuation of the internet restrictions and human rights violations in Rakhine State only adds to such conclusions.

The internet restrictions in Rakhine and Chin States are compounded by the persecution of those who speak out against such violations of freedom of expression. Most notably, the activist, Maung Saungkha from the organization, Athan, who on the one year anniversary of the internet blackout, in June 2020, along with other activists and human rights defenders, unfurled a banner under the bridge of one of Yangon’s busiest roads. The banner stated “Is the internet being shut down to hide war crimes in Rakhine and killing people?” He was subsequently charged under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law and convicted on 4 September, ultimately choosing to pay a fine over jail time. He is not the only one convicted, and Amnesty International detailed nine students convicted under the same charge, as they protested the internet blackout, two of whom were sentenced to one month in prison.

It is clear that freedom of expression plays second fiddle to the persecution of ethnic communities. In the time of a global pandemic, in which Rakhine State is the worst affected part of Myanmar, that the government still won’t fully lift internet restrictions to allow the local population to access potentially life-saving information is heartless. That those who protest such actions face jail time demonstrates that any opposition and dissent to such heartlessness is also punished. This is unacceptable. The government must stop providing cover for the violations of the Myanmar military by immediately lifting all restrictions on access to information in Rakhine and Chin States. It must also end the persecution of activists who are opposing such draconian measures. With the future of the COVID-19 pandemic uncertain, and with Myanmar’s general election approaching, freedom of information and expression is more vital than ever and international actors must apply all relevant pressure and demand greater freedom before labelling any election ‘free and fair.’


[1] 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.

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နောက်ကျကျန်ခဲ့သောတိုင်းပြည် – မြန်မာနိုင်ငံမှ COVID-19 ကို လက်နက်အဖြစ် အသုံးချခြင်း

By Progressive Voice

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.”