Hundreds of thousands of people trapped near fierce fighting in Myanmar’s far west may know nothing about Covid-19 thanks to a year-long internet shutdown, according to rights groups.
In June last year, the Myanmar government, led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, cut off Internet access to nine cities in the area over concerns that it was being used to fabricate clashes between the Myanmar military and rebels.
One metropolitan area was rebuilt in May, but eight others, with about 800,000 residents, are still missing information.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say prolonged detention is life-threatening not only because it prevents people from reporting possible human rights violations – but because it has excluded them from public health campaigns about the coronavirus pandemic.
“With the armed conflict between the Myanmar army and the Arakan army in Rakhine State in the midst of a pandemic, it is critical for civilians to obtain the information needed for security,” Linda Lakhdhir, Asia’s legal adviser at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
Myanmar has recorded six deaths and 292 positive cases on more than 64,532 tests since Monday, according to the Myanmar Ministry of Health.
Several cases have been found in the towns of Maungdaw and Buthidaung in the northern state of Rakhine, where more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims live in overcrowded camps. Many have fled the “cleansing operations” launched by the military against the Rohingya rebels in 2018. The UN has called on the Myanmar military to face an international tribunal on genocide charges for crimes committed by Rohingya Muslims. Rakhine Buddhists who have become homeless through recent struggles also live in camps in the area.
As the coronavirus pandemic spread around the world earlier this year, the Suu Kyi government launched an “No Person Left Behind” information campaign on disease prevention, such as demands for social distancing.
But MP Htoot May, who represents the Arakan National League for Democracy in the upper house of the Myanmar Union parliament, said on Sunday that many people living in the northern state of Rakhine and neighboring Chin state do not receive public health notifications circulating on Facebook, messaging apps and government websites.
“When I ask people in my constituency if they are aware of Covid-19, I have to explain to them the global pandemic from the beginning,” Htoot May said. “I have to explain to them what social distancing is and how to apply proper hand hygiene.”
“Obviously I can’t travel because of Covid-19, so I only have so many people to warn about,” the MP continued.
“They’re not afraid of Covid-19, because they don’t know about it. At this stage, they’re much more worried about fighting.”
CNN contacted Myanmar State Counsel Zawa Htay’s spokesman for comment.
Conflicts in progress
Fighting erupted in late 2018 between the Myanmar army, known as the Tatmadaw, and the well-equipped Arak army, which wants greater autonomy for the Buddhist inhabitants of Rakhine, the majority of the population in Rakhine State.
As the war rages, shutting down the internet has resulted in more deaths of civilians by denying them real-time information, according to an open letter posted on social media on Sunday by a coalition of Rakhine political and social groups.
Clashes escalated despite the internet disappearance, with 151 civilians killed and 344 wounded in crossfire between January and May, the letter said.
“This is not a conflict that can be won by any side on the battlefield,” independent Myanmar analyst Richard Horsey told The International Crisis Group. “It is essentially a political problem in which the people of Rakhine want more autonomy and talk more about their future. (Myanmar) needs to develop a political response, and that is currently lacking. ”
The alternative is an ongoing war, Horsey says, and the Arakan army and the Myanmar army have been charged with crimes. Khine Kyaw Moe, an MP representing the national Rakhine party, says that without an internet connection, these atrocities remain unreported and undocumented.
“Both armies can commit human rights violations and without the internet people are cut off from journalists and local and international NGOs about whom they can report on these things,” Khine Kyaw Moe said.
A Sunday open letter, sent to Suu Kyi and signed by 79 Rakhine stakeholders, says a political solution is being sought, which would begin with the government reconnecting online.
“Freedom of speech and access to information are the foundation of democracy. At this time, internet access is a democratic standard. Equality requires ready information on the economy, education, health and society, ”the letter reads.
Like many other nations, Myanmar has introduced curfews, bans on large gatherings and a quarantine period for the arrival of foreigners in an attempt to control the spread of the coronavirus.
The government also introduced penalties for people who did not abide by the rules, including prison sentences for those who violated quarantine orders. At least 500 people, including children, were sentenced to up to one year in prison.
The country’s reaction seems to have stopped the spread of the virus, but it did not pass without critics.
“Throwing hundreds behind bars in crowded, unhygienic prisons defeats the purpose of curbing the spread of Covid-19,” Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said in a statement in May.
Access to the Suu Kyi pandemic could work against it as the country prepares to vote in elections later this year.
MP Htoot May said the fighting in Rakhine and the subsequent disruption of communication could also diminish voter support for Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party.
“In 2015, I believed in Suu Kyi and I was happy to work with her,” MP Htoot May said. “I might think that Aung San Suu Kyi would help people in more remote areas to get internet access, not cut them off from it.”
“Human rights are not something Aung San Suu Kyi can only talk about. She needs to practice it. ”
On the other hand, Suu Kyi’s footage of the virus could not have an impact on her election result – because due to the internet shutdown, a large number of people in the far west of the country might never have known it had happened.