Around 1 million people in eight townships in Rakhine state and one township in neighbouring Chin state have been deprived of all forms of Internet connection for the past five days as a result of orders that the ministry of transport and communications gave to four telephone service operators on 20 June to disconnect the Internet the next day.
This was confirmed by one of the operators, the Norwegian company Telenor. The grounds given by the government were “disturbances of peace” and “use of Internet activities to coordinate illegal activities.”
“This Internet disconnection is all the more unacceptable because journalists trying to cover the tension in this region are already systematically obstructed,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“Aung San Suu Kyi’s government needs to understand once and for all that prevention of conflicts and the search for a lasting peace require the free flow of reliable news and information that journalism enables. This shocking violation of the freedom to inform is yet another sign of the impasse in Myanmar’s transition to democracy.”
During the past six months, the region where the Internet has been disconnected has seen an increase in clashes between the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar armed forces) and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine rebel group fighting for regional autonomy.
Around 730,000 members of the Muslim Rohingya community were forced to flee the same region as a result of an operation launched by the armed forces in August 2017 that the UN described as genocidal.
Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in December 2017 for trying to cover the military’s persecution of Rohingyas and were sentenced in September 2018 to seven years in prison. Although they were pardoned in May, their 18 months in prison was chilling signal to all other journalists tempted to cover subjects that are off limits.
Myanmar is ranked 138th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index, one place lower than in 2018 and seven places lower than in 2017.