International telecommunications company Telenor group has said Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications has ordered all mobile phone operators to temporarily shut down internet services in nine townships in the state of Rakhine and neighbouring Chin.
“The directive, which makes references to the Myanmar’s Telecommunication Law, does not specify when the shutdown will end,” read the statement issued on Friday. “As basis for its request, the MoTC has referenced disturbances of peace and use of internet services to coordinate illegal activities.”
The company said that it has asked for more clarification about the rationale for the shutdown. It also said “freedom of expression through access to telecoms services should be maintained for humanitarian purposes, especially during times of conflict”.
The local unit of Telenor has put forward arguments to ensure proportionality and limitations to the scope and time of the shutdown, the telecom operator added. “Telenor Group believes in open communication,” it said, adding that it was working on restoring communications fast.
However, an unidentified military spokesman said at a press conference on Saturday that the Army had no information about the shutdown, Reuters reported. “We didn’t do it,” Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun was quoted as saying. “We do not know about that.”
This comes amid increasing tensions in the region as Myanmar military has vowed to continue cracking down on ethnic rebels in the two states.
On June 18, a report by the United Nations on its own conduct in Myanmar had highlighted that the government “appeared to exploit the diverse narratives that they were hearing from different UN entities to play one against another”, and forward its own agenda. Myanmar has denied widespread wrongdoing and reiterated that the 2017 military campaign across hundreds of villages in northern Rakhine state against Rohingya Muslims was carried out in response to attacks by insurgents from the ethnic group. The agency had also condemned its own “obviously dysfunctional performance” over the past decade, and said there was a “systemic failure” in its foundational mandate to protect human rights.
Exodus to Bangladesh and India
More than seven lakh Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh in August 2017 as the Myanmar Army began to retaliate after attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, an insurgent group, on police posts and a military base. Most of them now live in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in the country’s southeast coast. In February, Bangladesh requested India to help with the early repatriation of the Rohingya to Rakhine province.
A number of the Rohingya also sought refuge in India. However, since May 2018, at least 2,000 of them have reportedly left for Bangladesh. Rohingya refugees face open hostility in India, from both the society and the state. India followed through with its threat on October 4, deporting seven Rohingya refugees to Myanmar despite opposition from human rights organisations. Five more were deported on January 4. None of them were granted citizenship rights in Myanmar even though the Centre had assured the Supreme Court they would be accepted as Myanmarese nationals.