As the general internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin states reaches one year, the ICJ repeated its call for the Myanmar Government to end mobile internet restrictions and temporarily halt hostilities with the Arakan Army.
The ICJ also called for an amendment of Section 77 of the Telecommunications Act, pursuant to which the government can order telecommunications providers to suspend internet services.
“The internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin states stifles freedom of expression, prevents information-sharing, and exacerbates the plight of affected communities by impeding humanitarian and health access during a global pandemic,” said Frederick Rawski, ICJ Asia-Pacific Director. “Such a drastic measure is disproportionate and unnecessary. The government should focus on fighting COVID-19, instead of waging a battle against its own population.
The shutdown was first imposed on 21 June 2019 by the Ministry of Transport and Communications (MOTC), purportedly to facilitate government objectives in the armed conflict with the Arakan Army.
Section 77 of the Telecommunications Law authorizes the the MOTC to “direct the licensee to suspend a Telecommunications Service, to intercept, not to operate any specific form of communication, to obtain necessary information and communications, and to temporarily control the Telecommunications Service and Telecommunications Equipments” in the event of an “emergency situation” for the “public interest.” However, the law does not define the scope of an “emergency situation.” The ICJ previously described Section 77 to be vague, and warned of abuse by authorities in the absence of independent judicial oversight by civilian courts.
In April, as Myanmar encountered its initial cases of COVID-19, the ICJ highlighted how arbitrary and unnecessary online media restrictions not only violate a person’s right to freedom of expression and information, but also deny access by affected communities to essential health information. Access to health information is a component of the right to health protected under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which Myanmar is a party.
“The internet shutdown effectively deprives large swathes of the population in ethnic minority states of the benefits of government services, and information about its COVID-19 response,” said Frederick Rawski. “Such a blanket internet shutdown is not necessary for reasons of national security, and undermines the government’s own public health efforts.”
The ICJ recalled that the ICESCR requires States to observe the principle of non-discrimination in enacting measures to protect the right to health. The internet shutdown clearly has a disproportionately adverse impact on the human rights of members of ethnic minorities.
Despite appeals from UN officials, rights groups, ethnic armed organizations, and ambassadors to Myanmar, the Myanmar Government still refuses to hold a ceasefire throughout the country, including areas of Rakhine and Chin states where the Arakan Army operates. The conflict has resulted in deaths, many from unlawful killings, as well as serious physical and emotional injury, and mass displacement of persons.
Frederick Rawski, ICJ Asia-Pacific Regional Director, e: Frederick.rawski(a)icj.org
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