Deprived of access to the outside world, people in the poor Rakhine and Shin states have little to no information about the pandemic.
It has been a year since the Myanmar government switched off the internet in its poorest states of Rakhine and Shin to counter an insurgency. But rights groups say the shut down enforced on June 21, 2019, which has continued intermittently since, is stopping people from getting vital information about the coronavirus pandemic.
Approximately 1.4 million in the western region close to Bangladesh, are not able to use the internet on their phones. A 2019 survey by Myanmar Survey Research found almost all the internet users in the country accessed the internet via their mobile devices.
“Myanmar should immediately end what is now the world’s longest government-enforced internet shutdown,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“With armed conflict between the Myanmar military and Arakan Army in Rakhine State amid a pandemic, it’s critical for civilians to get the information needed to stay safe.”
Rakhine came under global focus in 2017 when Myanmar’s military carried on what the United Nations has called the “ethinic cleansing” of minority Rohingya Muslims.
More than 700,000 Rohingyas have been forced out of their homes after their villages were bombed and attacked by the military and Bhuddist extremists. Many of the Rohingyas have taken refuge in Bangladesh.
Backed by the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, the military faces accusations of executing civilians, and raping women during the operation.
Now the military is engaged in a deadly conflict with the Arakan Army, which is made up of mostly Buddhist locals who want greater autonomy for the Rakhine state. The Myanmar state dominated by the Bamar ethnic group has ignored development in Rakhine and neighbouring Shin for decades.
It fairs badly on most of the UN Human Development indicators compared to the national average.
"In some areas, people are not even aware of the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic as they are not able to access up to date information online," Htaike Htaike Aung, director of the tech NGO Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO), told DW.
The internet blackout has also hurt businesses and traders who are not able to source timely information about products and customers.
Besides the curbs on the internet, the government forces have made civilian movement difficult in the region, hampering essential aid work.
Without the internet, journalists have not been able to report from the conflict zone, depriving the local population important information.
“Independent and ethnic media sites such as Development Media Group, Narinjara News, Karen News, and Voice of Myanmar were among those ordered blocked,” says HRW.
Altogether, around 2,171 specific websites have been blocked by the Transport and Communications Ministry under a controversial law.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has joined other organisations to call for immediate restoration of internet access.
Access Now, which lobbies for digital rights, says the government has not provided evidence to back its claim that the internet was cut off due to the violations of telecommunication law and security threats.
“The internet shutdown in the Rakhine and Chin states is being used to censor the most vulnerable and hide egregious human rights violations,” said Berhan Taye, Access Now senior policy analyst.