Myanmar’s internet ban, lack of COVID-19 info endangers Rakhine refugees – NGO


A civil society group demanded this week that Myanmar’s government must lift its ban on internet service in war-ravaged Rakhine state to permit tens of thousands of displaced civilians to access information about the coronavirus.

Myanmar authorities shut down mobile internet access in eight townships in Rakhine and in Paletwa township in neighbouring Chin states in June 2019, citing security reasons amid armed conflict between Myanmar forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA).

The ban was later lifted in five of the townships that September, but then re-imposed in February.

The Rakhine Ethnic Congress (REC), a Sittwe-based relief group that assists internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the region, issued a statement on Wednesday calling on officials to reinstate internet access and provide information on COVID-19, as the virus is officially known, to residents of the nine townships.

The group said that the restoration of the service is vital for IDPs who do not have access to radio, television, or electricity to get news and information. The government has claimed that there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19, as the virus is officially known, in the country.

The more than 140,000 IDPs tallied by the REC are largely unaware of the rapidly spreading virus, declared a pandemic by World Health Organization, because of the government’s restriction on information, a statement issued by the REC said.

REC secretary Zaw Zaw Tun said the coronavirus could spread rapidly among the IDPs if only one of them caught it.

“There is a risk that when one IDP becomes infected, it will spread to thousands of others in the camp in one or two days,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “The risk is not just for the camp; it could affect the entire region and cause mass deaths.

Because of this, we demanded the lifting of the internet shutdown no matter what the reason for imposing it.”

San Kyaw Hla, a lawmaker in the Rakhine state parliament, agreed that those living in displacement camps are at the risk of catching the virus.

“Health education campaigns cannot reach everywhere in the state. They need the internet to reach everywhere, so this demand is reasonable,” he said.

“If there is an outbreak, they will be doomed because they lack basic knowledge of prevention,” he added. “No one is educating these IDP about the virus. There are crowded conditions in the IDP camps, and they are very vulnerable to the infection.”

RFA could not reach Win Myint, Rakhine state’s spokesman and minister of municipal affairs, or officials at the Ministry of Transport and Communications for comment.

As of Wednesday, Myanmar had 157 suspected cases of coronavirus with 64 in Yangon, 31 in Mandalay, 25 in Shan state, and 37 in other states and regions, but none confirmed, according to the Ministry of Health and Sports. On that day, the government closed all border checkpoints to foreign tourists as a preventative measure against the virus.

The ministry also said that some individuals who were under observation recently died, but were confirmed to have had diseases other than COVID-19 that led to their deaths. (Source: RFA)