The Myanmar government’s shutdown of mobile Internet access in parts of Rakhine and Chin States violates the rights to freedom of expression and information, said ARTICLE 19. In a briefing published today, the organisation called on the Myanmar Government to end the shutdown, which is now entering its seventh week.
Matthew Bugher, Head of Asia Programme at ARTICLE 19 said:
“The authorities seem intent on plunging Rakhine State into a black hole by denying access to information and blocking means of communication. It is particularly worrying to see the Myanmar government closing down mobile communications in an area where gross human rights violations have been committed on a massive scale.
People in this region need mobile communications capabilities in order to communicate, access healthcare and stay safe and secure in a conflict zone.
“Blanket internet shutdowns such as this one are unambiguous violations of international human rights law. The government has not offered a shred of evidence to support its justifications for the blackout, and seems entirely unconcerned with its human rights obligations.”
The shutdown began on June 21, a day after the Ministry of Transport and Communications directed telecommunications companies to block mobile Internet traffic in nine townships in Rakhine State and Chin State due to ‘disturbances of peace and use of internet services to coordinate illegal activities’. The shutdown affects an area where the Myanmar military has been battling the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed organisation. Human rights researchers have documented grave human rights abuses against civilians by both parties to the conflict. In 2017, a campaign of violence directed at the Rohingya population in the area caused more than 700,000 refugees to flee across the border into neighbouring Bangladesh.
The shutdown has been widely condemned by human rights organisations, telecommunications companies and others, who have warned about threats to civilian safety, communications, human rights reporting, healthcare, aid delivery and the local economy.
Internet shutdowns violate international law
ARTICLE 19’s briefing elaborates on the ways in which the Internet shutdown violates international human rights law, including the following:
- It is based on an overly broad legal provision—Section 77 of the Telecommunications Law—that fails to meet international human rights standards.
- It lacks a credible and legitimate justification. The Myanmar government claims the shutdown was implemented to prevent ‘disturbances of peace and use of internet services to coordinate illegal activities’, but has offered no further explanation or evidence.
- All blanket Internet shutdowns are inherently disproportionate restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and information, no matter how governments attempt to justify them.
Role of telecom companies
As well as calling for the Myanmar government to end the shutdown, ARTICLE 19 called on telecommunications companies to resist, to the extent possible, government orders that violate international human rights law. Bugher added:
“Companies also have a role to play in upholding human rights in Myanmar. We urge telecoms companies to challenge Internet shutdowns where possible, including through legal channels.”
The briefing sets out detailed recommendations to affected companies on their own obligations to mitigate rights violations.
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