“This is the 21st century. Many people use internet for a variety of different reasons. And for us, the internet is a reason we can survive.” – community member, Rakhine State, Myanmar
Imagining what it is like to go a day or even a week in this digital age without internet is truly unfathomable for most of us. Now imagine what it might be like to live without internet in the midst of an active conflict and global pandemic. That has been the reality for hundreds of thousands of people in Rakhine and Chin states in Myanmar for the past year. Unable to access online information about the prevention of COVID-19, unable to stay in touch with family and unable receive quick updates about the latest aspect of a conflict that is at your doorstep, communities across these states have been left in the dark at a time when being connected and informed is more important than ever.
This Sunday - June 21st - marks one year that hundreds of thousands of people across Rakhine and Chin have been without internet as they face both an active conflict and a global pandemic.
Since late 2018, communities in Rakhine and Chin states have been increasingly impacted by the conflict between the Myanmar military and the ethnic armed organization, the Arakan Army. As the fighting has escalated, a growing number of people have been forced to flee their homes while others who have remained in their communities are struggling to access food and essential services.
One year ago, in the midst of this conflict, the Myanmar Ministry of Transport and Communications (MoTC) directed all mobile phone operators in the country to temporarily stop mobile internet traffic in eight townships in Rakhine and Chin States that have been heavily impacted by the fighting. No end date to the shutdown was provided.
One year on, the impacts of the internet shutdown on communities, including civil society organizations, has been immense. As Thant Sin, Oxfam’s Civil Society Strengthening Programme Manager in Rakhine, described, “Rakhine civil society organizations are heavily impacted by the internet shutdown, which has left them struggling to coordinate with staff and volunteers and communicate with local authorities and communities. These challenges are further magnified in light of access restrictions due to the conflict: without a physical presence in many of these communities, the ability to communicate and share information online is all the more important. The internet shutdown is impacting every aspect of humanitarian and COVID-19 response operations in affected townships.”
All communities in Rakhine and Chin face very real consequences due to the internet shutdown. As one community member described, “The internet ban is a violation of our human rights and it is having socioeconomic impacts on our community as well, with people unable to do money transfers and other basic banking, for instance. For COVID-19, we received information and supplies like masks and soap from local civil society groups...but we could not access information from the Ministry of health due to the internet ban." For community members, faced with conflict, the internet shutdown and the COVID-19 crisis, the challenges feel overwhelming. As one community member in Rakhine described it, “During this time, surviving without internet is not easy at all.”
For the hundreds of thousands of people across the eight townships in Rakhine and Chin States, they continue to be left in the dark during a time when access to information, more than ever, is a fundamental right that saves lives.
In the words of a young community member in Rakhine State, “End the internet shutdown and stop all conflicts in Rakhine and Chin States.”