Campaign launched to highlight “data darkness” internet shutdown in Rakhine State

By GEOFFREY GODDARD | FRONTIER

YANGON — Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business and three partners have launched a campaign to highlight the impact of an internet blackout on residents of four townships in Rakhine State.

The campaign will culminate on September 30 with “Myanmar Internet Blackout Day 101” to “show solidarity with over 600,000 people in Rakhine who will have had not access to the internet for 101 days,” MCRB said in a statement on its website.

“On that day, MCRB encourages anyone who cares about internet access, whether from business, government or non-government organisations and individuals to turn off their mobile data, turn off their wifi, put an out-of-office message on email, and close Facebook, and see what it feels like,” it said.

“Alternatively, tell us why you can’t survive one day without internet access, let alone 101.”

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The campaign to highlight the government’s “unprecedented order” on June 20 to shut down all mobile phone operators in eight Rakhine townships and Paletwa Township in neighbouring Chin State, which affected more than one million people, also involves civil society groups Free Expression Myanmar, Myan ICT for Development Organisation (MIDO) and community tech hub, Phandeeyar.

On the night of August 31, the government lifted the restriction in five townships – Rathedaung, Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Myebon, as well as Paletwa – but it remains in force in Ponnagyun, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw and Minbya.

The shutdown was the first to be ordered under section 77 of the 2013 Telecommunications Law and came as fighting continued in Rakhine between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army, which says it is fighting for greater autonomy for the state’s Rakhine people.

MCRB said those affected in the original nine townships, including their elected representatives, have tried to draw the government’s attention to the impact of the “data darkness” network shutdown on their daily lives.

“For example, access to mobile money services for remittances from overseas family members is blocked, small businesses, such as traders, are unable to conduct business easily, and information has been cut off for those seeking work or education,” it said.

“As services – including e-government – go further on line, those who are denied access to the internet will be further discriminated against, increasing inequality.”

It said the internet shutdown in conflict areas of Rakhine was having serious consequences for the safety and welfare of residents. Local residents need access to the internet to obtain help, emergency services and humanitarian aid, to facilitate contact between displaced families, and to share information about the situation on the ground, it said.

The organisers offer a range of suggestions for those who wish to support the campaign, including discussing with workplace colleagues whether or not they or their organisation could exist without data for a day.

They also suggest supporters copy and paste the following response to appear in their email auto-response box between 00.00 and 23.59 on September 30: “On 30 September, I am participating in Myanmar Internet Blackout Day 101 to show solidarity with over 600,000 people in Rakhine State who have gone for 101 days without access to the internet, on the orders of the Myanmar government. As part of this campaign, I will turn off data on my mobile phone and internet for 24 hours. In case of urgency, please call my phone or send me an SMS.”

MCRB said that although section 77 refers to “temporary” suspension, the order on June 21 was open-ended, did not explain the public interest for the shutdown, and has been in place for more than two months in the four townships without any indication when it will be lifted.

MCRB, MIDO, FEM and Phandeeyar have worked together to organise Myanmar Digital Rights Forums in 2016, 2018, and 2019. The forums have brought together business, government, and civil society organisations to discuss how Myanmar’s transition to the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be achieved in ways that protect, respect and enhance the enjoyment of human rights.  

Participants at the Myanmar Digital Rights Forums – as well as the United Nations – have consistently stressed the importance of universal access to the internet as a fundamental enabler of a wide range of human rights, MCRB said. 

Geoffrey Goddard

Geoffrey Goddard

In a journalism career spanning nearly 50 years, Geoffrey Goddard has worked in Australia, Thailand, China, Cambodia, Singapore and Myanmar. This is his second stint with Frontier Myanmar.
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