Myanmar has had an internet blackout for a year. Some of its citizens still don’t know there’s a pandemic.

Released Rohingya prisoners wearing face masks amid concerns of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic arrive in Sittwe jetty in Rakhine State after being transported by military boat on April 20, 202 STR/AFP via Getty Images
  • On June 21 2019, Myanmar imposed a total internet blackout on mobile internet in nine cities and townships in the states of Rakhine and Chin.
  • The blackout remains in place for eight of those areas and is so severe that some villages in the vicinity are completely unaware of the coronavirus pandemic, according to advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
  • Rakhine and Chin are conflict zones, and human rights organisations have called on Myanmar and the international community to end the blackout.
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A year-long internet shutdown in Myanmar means that some of its citizens are so cut off, they haven’t even heard of the coronavirus.

The shutdown has been in force since June 21 2019 and affects more than a million people in the states of Rakhine and Chin. Both these states are active conflict zones. Rakhine is home to Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim population, hundreds of thousands of whom have fled persecution by the military into neighbouring Bangladesh.

According to New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, hundreds of civilians have been killed and a further 106,000 displaced since January 2019 by the fighting between the Myanmar and the insurgent Arakan Army which wants more autonomy for Rakhine’s Buddhist population.

The internet shutdown was targeted at nine specific areas and townships in Rakhine and Chin, and was officially imposed. The government cited broad security concerns and said the Arakan Army was using mobile internet to target the military. One of the towns has had the shutdown lifted, but it remains in force in the other eight.

“We will restore internet service if there are no more threats to the public or violations of the telecommunications law,” a government official told the press on June 12 after announcing an extension of the shutdown until at least August 1.

Human Rights Watch said in a press release on June 19 humanitarian workers have reported back from villages where people are completely unaware of the coronavirus pandemic.

Htoot May, an MP for the Arakan National League for Democracy in Myanmar’s parliament, told CNN that government public health warnings aren’t getting through. “When I ask people in my constituency whether they are aware of COVID-19, I have to explain the global pandemic to them from the beginning,” she told CNN. “I have to explain to them what social distancing is and how to practice proper hand hygiene.”

“They’re not afraid of COVID-19 because they don’t know about it, at this stage they’re far more concerned about the fighting,” she added.

Human Rights Watch’s Asia legal adviser Linda Lakhdhir said Myanmar should restore internet access to its citizens.

“Myanmar should immediately end what is now the world’s longest government-enforced internet shutdown. 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,” she said.

A group of non-profits including Human Rights Watch and PEN America wrote a letter to the World Health Organisation on May 26 calling on it to urge Myanmar to end the shutdown.

The shutdown affects mobile internet data, which is the main way internet users in Myanmar access the web.

“Myanmar came online late compared to many other parts of Southeast Asia,” Human Rights Watch’s Asia Deputy Director Phil Robertson told Business Insider. “Before 2010, it was virtually impossible for most people in Myanmar to obtain a mobile phone, let alone access the internet via a hand-held device.

“Once Myanmar decided to open up, mobile internet was a cheap and effective way to bring people online quickly, the results of which have both been both amazing and devastating.”

Robertson said it’s uncertain how much of a threat COVID-19 poses to the villagers who are unaware of its existence.

“While Myanmar appears to have done well to limit the number of community transmissions, testing has been far too low to give a clear understanding of what real infection rates might be,” he said. At the time of writing Myanmar has only reported 292 cases of COVID-19, and six deaths.

He also said Myanmar’s government have brought in disturbing laws that inhibit the reporting of confirmed cases.

“Anyone reporting on the ‘process related to an infectious disease outbreak which can frighten the public or cause panic’ could be subject to six months in prison and a fine. Authorities have also used the Natural Disaster law to charge and imprison individuals seen to be flouting COVID-19 regulations,” he said. At least 500 people have already been imprisoned under these new laws.

“By extending the restrictions beyond August 1, it’s clear the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] wants to continue the information blackout in this region, thereby limiting people from reporting the many international human rights violations and war crimes taking place right now in those affected areas,” said Robertson.