Myanmar cuts internet to Rakhine state amid unrest

UN special rapporteur says blackout has led to rights violations and a ‘clearance operation’ was taking place

More than a million people in Myanmar’s conflict-ridden Rakhine state have been plunged into an information blackout three days after authorities ordered telecommunications companies to stop providing internet services to the area.

Rights groups have condemned the move as threat to civilians’ safety.

The shutdown came with no warning on 21 June, one day after Myanmar’s ministry of transport and communications ordered four companies to temporarily suspend mobile internet services to nine townships in northern Rakhine state and southern Chin state.

The military has been clashing throughout the year in the region with Arakan Army (AA) insurgents, who want political autonomy for Rakhine Buddhists.

The clashes have displaced 30,000 civilians in the last six months, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The area also saw the systematic expulsion of 730,000 Rohingya Muslims starting in 2017, which UN investigators say the military perpetrated with genocidal intent.

The AA are a more formidable force than the fighters claiming to represent the Rohingya and have inflicted historically higher death tolls on the military.

The ministry’s directive allows it to suspend telecommunications services “when an emergency situation arises”. Soe Thein, ministry’s permanent secretary, told local media on Monday that “internet service will resume when the peace and stability are restored to the region”.

Only one of the four telecommunications operators has publicly acknowledged the internet blackout. Telenor said in a statement on Friday that it “has been asking [the ministry] for further clarification on the rationale for the shutdown and emphasised that freedom of expression through access to telecoms services should be maintained for humanitarian purposes, especially during times of conflict.”

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