In Myanmar communities face COVID-19, conflict, and one of the longest running internet blackouts in history

Myauk-U residents face limited internet service on Pha-Yar-Thone-Su mountain, Myanmar. Credit: Development Media Group

“This is the 21st century. Many people use internet for a variety of different reasons. And for us, the internet is a reason we can survive.” — Mohamed Ayas, Rakhine state, Myanmar

Today — June 21st — marks one year since hundreds of thousands of people across Rakhine and Chin States, Myanmar, have been left without internet as they face both conflict and a global pandemic.

Since late 2018, conflict has been escalating in Rakhine and Chin states between the Myanmar military and the ethnic armed group, the Arakan Army (AA). With artillery shells falling and villages burnt to the ground, a growing number of people have been forced to flee their homes while others who have remained in their communities are struggling to access food and essential services.

Citing national security considerations linked to the conflict, the Myanmar Ministry of Transport and Communications ordered all mobile phone operators in the country to cut mobile internet services in nine townships in Rakhine and Chin States. No end date was provided.

365 days later, the internet ban continues in what has become one of the longest internet shutdowns in history.

While this shutdown has been in place, the conflict has continued unabated.

The UN Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire to fight COVID-19 has gone unheeded, amid mounting public calls from hundreds of civil society organizations in Myanmar to protect civilians, end violence and restore internet access.

The situation is dire. Than Myint, a young man from Ponnagyun told us, “Our community is facing dual threats of COVID-19 and conflict. The Tatmadaw and AA conflict is worsening day by day. The clashes and fighting are happening very close to paddy field and plantations; and people are often hit by artillery shelling and or the shrapnel from land mines.

“People do not dare to go out or to work to earn for their livelihood.”

Myauk-U residents face limited internet service on Pha-Yar-Thone-Su mountain, Myanmar. Credit: Development Media Group

Communities — including Rakhine, Rohingya, Chin, Mro and Daignet — living in Rakhine and Chin States, face difficulties surviving in these conditions.

Living in one of the most impoverished and marginalized regions in Myanmar, people struggled to earn enough to get by before COVID 19 was confirmed in the country and with the virus that has been made worse.

“Covid-19 is very horrible. We are taking care of ourselves as much as we can. But there are many daily workers in our community. They can do nothing to support themselves in this COVID-19 pandemic.” — Mohamed Ayas, Rakhine State, Myanmar

Not being able to access information due to the internet shutdown can be devastating during a pandemic and even more complex in light of an active conflict.

For the hundreds of thousands of people across Rakhine and Chin, not being able to access information about COVID-19 prevention online, means limited understanding of the virus and prevention measures, how to access lifesaving assistance and essential services. It also means within lockdown people are not able to keep in touch with family and friends.

“Covid-19 is very horrible. We are taking care of ourselves as much as we can.”

— Mohamed Ayas, Rakhine State, Myanmar

Aung Kyaw Moe, the Director of Center for Social Integrity (CSI), a local NGO responding to the crisis also warns of the impacts of the internet ban on trust between people affected by conflict: “In the context of an internet blackout, word of mouth communication becomes the norm. Misinformation — fueled by fear and rumors — quickly festers into harmful narratives and behaviors, which can weaken social cohesion and spur violence, discrimination, marginalization and xenophobia.”

For the 600,000 Rohingya people living in Rakhine, COVID-19 brings greater fears and uncertainty as they continue to face discriminatory policies and restrictions on their movement preventing them from accessing schools, earning income and getting urgent medical care. As one Rohingya community member described, “Now COVID-19 brings another storm for the Rohingyas in Rakhine State that we are not able to face. As we can’t get effective medical treatments in hospitals, we are very afraid of the pandemic.”

But the internet in these conditions is a lifeline of hope.

One Rohingya student describes regaining connection to the internet in Maungdaw township where he lives: “For many Rohingya students like me who are not able to attend University due to the restrictions against the Rohingya community, they use the internet to pursue higher education. We also use the internet to communicate with relatives and to learn about many different things.

“When I regained internet in Maungdaw, I felt like I got a reason to survive. If my phone is a university, then the internet is my teacher. When I regained internet, I felt like I got back that missing part of my life.”

“Now COVID-19 brings another storm for the Rohingyas in Rakhine State that we are not able to face.”

For the hundreds of thousands of other people, they continue to be left in the dark at a time when access to information is lifesaving, more now than ever.

“For COVID-19, we received some information and supplies like masks and soap from local civil society groups… but we could not access information from the Ministry of Health due to the internet ban.” — Than Myint from Ponnagyun Township

“The internet ban is a violation of our human rights and it is having socioeconomic impacts on our community as well, with people unable to do money transfers and other basic activities,” he adds.

It is time to end the internet shutdown and end hostilities to ensure all communities in Myanmar can access information and live in safety.

Today — -one year on since the internet shutdown — a young man, Mohamed Ayas, used his recently acquired connectivity to demand the same for other regions and other communities:

“End the internet shutdown and stop all conflicts in Rakhine and Chin States.”

This entry posted 21 June 2020 by Lindsey Hurtle, Policy & Advocacy Coordinator, Oxfam in Myanmar

Read more about and support Oxfam’s work tackling the coronavirus pandemic.

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Oxfam International

Oxfam is a world-wide development organization that mobilizes the power of people against poverty.