Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communication last week directed all telecom operators in the country to “temporarily” shut down internet services in nine towns in the states of Rakhine and Chin, reports Reuters citing officials from Telenor Group. The shutdown went into effect late on June 21st (at 10 pm local time), according to a Telenor statement. Telenor Myanmar’s customers in the affected areas are being informed via SMS, said the company. The government’s order to Telenor did not specify when the shutdown will end. MediaNama has reached out to the Telenor Group for comment.
Tensions between government troops and ethnic rebels are high in the region; the ministry ordered the shutdown citing “disturbances of peace” and potential use of the internet to coordinate illegal activities. In 2017, about 730,000 Rohingya Muslims fled from Rakhine into Bangladesh following a military crackdown. Interestingly, a military spokesperson said that the army had no information about the shutdown since they “didn’t do it”. The Myanmar government can intercept, suspend, or obtain any information that threatens the national security and prevalence of law in the country, according to the country’s telecom laws.
Arguments to ensure proportionality and limitations to the scope and time of the shutdown have also been put forward by Telenor Myanmar, and will be further highlighted as part of continued dialogue with the authorities. . . . . Together with Telenor Myanmar we are actively looking to restore affected services as soon as possible.
– Telenor’s statement
Telenor Myanmar has been asking for further clarification on the rationale for the shutdown and emphasised that freedom of expression through access to telecom services should be maintained for humanitarian purposes, “especially during times of conflict”. The UN had earlier said that Facebook was used to spread hatred against the Rohingya community by top officials in the military, and criticised it for being “slow and ineffective”.
Censorship in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh
Myanmar’s fellow South Asian countries including Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have witnessed censorship on communication tools by the state.
- In Indonesia, social media usage was partially banned in May amid violent post-election riots in Jakarta.
- In Sri Lanka, the government imposed bans on social media usage on three different occasions, in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings in April.
- Bangladesh’s telecom regulator ordered telecom operators in the country to to suspend 3G, 4G services in December last year during the general elections to “prevent rumours and propaganda surrounding the vote”.