Myanmar has asked telecom service providers to shut down internet services in the conflict-scarred western state of Rakhine.
Troops of the Burmese army Tatmadaw are involved in an ever intensifying arc of clashes with the separatist Arakan Army in Rakhine, with fighting spreading even to urban locations and the ancient capital and heritage site of Mrauk-U.
Telenor Group said the Ministry of Transport and Communications directed all telecoms companies to ‘temporarily’ suspend internet services in nine townships in Rakhine and neighbouring Chin states, citing ‘disturbances of peace and use of internet activities to coordinate illegal activities’.
But the army said it has no knowledge of the government’s move to shutdown internet services.
“We didn’t do it. We don’t know about that,” said Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun heading the army’s True Information Team.
Telenor, however, said the shutdown went into effect late on Friday.
“Telenor Myanmar has been asking for further clarification on the rationale for the shutdown and emphasized that freedom of expression through access to telecom services should be maintained for humanitarian purposes,” the group said.
The transport and communications ministry was avoiding media queries on the order.
Rakhine hit global headlines when 730,000 Rohingya Muslims crossed into Bangladesh to evade a military crackdown in response to ARSA rebel attacks in 2017.
U N investigators have asked for prosecution of senior military officers for alleged complicity for mass killings, gang rapes and arson. The military denies the charges.
More recently, civilians have been caught up in clashes between the military and the Arakan Army, an insurgent group drawing recruits from the mainly Buddhist ethnic Rakhines.
Since November, the fighting has displaced tens of thousands of people across a large part of central and northern Rakhine and part of neighboring Chin, according to the U N office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Much of the region is off-limits to journalists and most humanitarian agencies.
Tun Ther Sein, a regional lawmaker from Mrauk-U township, in central Rakhine, told Reuters by phone the internet connection had been slow for two days before disappearing on Friday.
“People can inform us about what is happening on the ground and also send photos with the help of the internet,” he said. “Now that has been shut down.”
Earlier Posts and Telecommunications Department (PTD) director U Than Htun Aung had said the government has no plans to tell operators to shut down the internet.
“Media and civil rights groups are concerned about internet shutdowns, but since the reform process started in Myanmar, we have never issued such instructions. The Union government has no intention to shut down the internet,” he said.
The last major telecommunication shutdown in Myanmar was during the Saffron Revolution in 2007.
While the government avoided any shutdown since then, it retained the right to suspend telecoms services in certain situations, and has published no detailed criteria on what could bring about such a decision.
Clause 77 of the 2013 Telecommunications Law states that the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) may, ‘when an emergency situation arises to operate for public interest, direct the licensee to suspend a telecommunications service’.