The internet shutdown in Myanmar's conflict-ridden northwest, described by rights groups as the world's longest, entered a second year Sunday with locals and campaigners appealing for an end to the blackout as coronavirus fears grip the region.
The government shut down mobile data in several townships across Rakhine state and neighboring Chin state on June 21 last year, causing panic among residents desperate for information about the unrest.
The United Nations Rights Agency (UNHRC) on Friday asked Myanmar to restore the internet in Rohingya-dominated areas of Rakhine and Chin provinces. In a statement from its Bangkok office, the UNHCR asked Myanmar to end the internet shutdown in those two provinces. The U.N. agency warned the unprecedented internet blackout is now also endangering the lives of vulnerable civilians facing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Human Rights Watch on Friday also called for an immediate end to "the world's longest government-enforced internet shutdown." "It's critical for civilians to get the information needed to stay safe" during a global pandemic, said HRW's Linda Lakhdhir.
The country has so far recorded 287 coronavirus cases including six deaths, but experts fear the low numbers are due to a lack of testing. A government official said earlier this month the internet shutdown would continue until at least Aug. 1 in eight townships. Few in Myanmar have personal computers, with the majority relying on mobile phones to access the internet for communications and information, making those under the blackout especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
Rights groups have also condemned the blocking of several local media websites and are urging telecom firms to push back against the government's orders.
Rakhine state is also home to the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group that faced a brutal crackdown by the military in 2017. The Rohingya, described by the U.N. as the world's most persecuted people, have faced heightened fears of attack since dozens were killed in communal violence in 2012. Some 750,000 fled to neighboring Bangladesh from the violence that has led to charges of genocide against Myanmar at the U.N.'s top court. The 600,000 Rohingya remaining in Rakhine live in what Amnesty International has branded "apartheid conditions," with little freedom of movement.
"We want to know more information regarding COVID-19, what's happening to the displaced people in Sittwe (Rakhine's capital) and what's happening in Bangladesh," Abdullah, a Rohingya resident from Mrauk U township, told AFP by phone. They now struggle to contact relatives, send them money or even check the weather forecast, he added.
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