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Cutoff of Internet Service at Rakhine, Chin States Creates Difficulty for Civilians who Cannot Access Donors Online to Make Aid Requests

Rakhine residents also report that they cannot conduct bank transactions or connect with relatives and friends at home and aboard

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FILE - Residents carry the body of an ethnic Rakhine woman for burial in Rathedaung township, after fresh fighting in Rakhine state between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine force, Feb. 21, 2019. VOA

The cutoff of internet service to conflict-affected areas of western Myanmar’s war-torn Rakhine and Chin states has created a difficult situation for civilians who cannot access donors online to make aid requests, though the state government said it will step in to fill the void and help them, locals and officials said Monday.

Citing ongoing fighting between national forces and the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar government on June 20 ordered four telecom operators to temporarily stop providing internet services to eight townships in Rakhine state and one township in neighboring Chin state where battles have taken place.

“Because we can’t use the internet, nobody knows about the difficulties we are facing here,” said Naing Oo Maung, a resident of Poeshipyin village in Rakhine’s Ponnagyun township. “Because we can’t post our information online, we can only ask civil society organizations for help by phone.”

“We cannot read or listen to the news, so we don’t know the current situation,” he added. “We have no more medicine in the [displaced persons] camps now. Children are sick, but we can’t ask for help online.” Rakhine residents also report that they cannot conduct bank transactions or connect with relatives and friends at home and aboard.

Domestic and international NGOs and other organizations say they their ability to provide aid has been limited by the internet shutdown as well because they cannot receive information to help some of the roughly 34,000 people who have been displaced by clashes between the Myanmar military and the AA, whose ethnic Rakhine soldiers seek greater autonomy in Rakhine state.

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Arakan Army soldiers pass through a wooded area in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state in an undated photo. RFA

Zaw Zaw Tun, a relief volunteer in the region and secretary of the Rakhine Ethnic Congress, said residents displaced by fighting usually send aid organizations photos and videos so the groups know what supplies are needed.

“When we hear that people in a particular location have a problem or a need, we usually ask locals for photos and video files,” he said. “We can see the real situation in that place and can make a decision [to help or not]. If we cannot verify this, then we may receive fake reports. Because we can’t use the internet, it is difficult to believe what we have heard [without seeing it].”

Khin Maung Latt, an upper house lawmaker who represents Rakhine state’s No. 2 constituency in Myanmar’s national parliament, said political representatives can post online aid requests on behalf of their constituents.

“If we post information on social media such as Facebook, about 1,000 or 10,000 people will know [about it] in a few minutes, and they can help the IDPs [internally displaced persons] quickly,” he said. “We can let the donors know the truth about the situation of the IDPs by posting their pictures online. Now, they are suffering because internet service is cut off.”

Rakhine state government spokesman Win Myint suggested that displaced civilians call local officials for help. “If IDPs need help, they can contact the state government office via township administrators or directly,” he said. “It would be easier for them to contact us through township administrators, [who] will inform us in a timely manner, and we will work on helping the IDPs as soon as possible.”

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FILE – A local resident holds up bullet casings in a village in Rathedaung township, Rakhine state, after fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine force, Jan. 28, 2019. VOA

A ‘fundamental human right’

Rights groups say internet service is vital for people who rely on it to stay informed about developments in the armed conflict.

“Internet services are not supposed to be cut under any conditions,” said Maung Saungkha, spokesman for Athan, a domestic organization that advocates freedom of expression in Myanmar. “As a consequence of the shutdown, the citizens cannot be informed about deaths and injuries in the conflict area. There will be heavier losses.”

“Access to internet service is fundamental human right, so we implore the government to restore the internet service,” he added. Min Lwin Oo, a legal advisor at the Norway-based Asian Human Rights Commission, agreed.

“The internet connection shutdown blocks the regular flow of information,” he said. “It delays human rights observers from acquiring relevant information on rights violations in the conflict areas. It also hinders the completion of real-time action.”

Hostilities between Myanmar forces and the AA intensified in late 2018 and again in January, when Arakan soldiers carried out deadly attacks on police outposts.

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Rakhine State, Myanmar. VOA

Myo Nyunt, spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, suggested last week that the rebel forces could be using the network to spy on the Myanmar military’s operations and to transfer data involving military intelligence.

On Saturday, the United States became the latest party to call for an immediate end of the blockage of internet-based communications for roughly 1 million people in the two states. “Internet service should be restored without delay,” said a press statement issued by State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.

ALSO READ: Rakhine: Ban on Donations to Help War Refugees

“Resumption of service would help facilitate transparency in and accountability for what the government claims are law enforcement actions aimed at preventing further outbreaks of violence in the affected areas, and would limit further damage to Burma’s international reputation,” it said, referring to Myanmar’s former name.

Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, along with the rights groups Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch also issued warnings last week about the cutoff of internet-based communications and called for the restoration of service in the region. (RFA)

Next Story

India to Set Up “Border Haats” with Myanmar

The Minister said, The success of the "Border Haats" running along the Bangladesh border in Meghalaya and Tripura has prompted us to go for similar 'haats'

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To carry out border trade with Myanmar, the location for the construction of 'Border Haat' has been identified in four places -- Hnahlan, Zote, Vaphai (Saikhumphai) and Sangau (Pangkhua) in southeastern Mizoram. Pixabay

The success of the “Border Haats” with Bangladesh has prompted other northeastern states of India to go for similar arrangements with Myanmar. At the instance of the Mizoram government, the Centre is likely to set up four “Border Haats” (market) along the border with Myanmar to boost local trade and livelihood of the people living there.

“To carry out border trade with Myanmar, the location for the construction of ‘Border Haat’ has been identified in four places — Hnahlan, Zote, Vaphai (Saikhumphai) and Sangau (Pangkhua) in southeastern Mizoram,” Mizoram Commerce and Industries Minister R. Lalthangliana told IANS.

The Minister said, “The success of the “Border Haats” running along the Bangladesh border in Meghalaya and Tripura has prompted us to go for similar ‘haats’ with Mynmar in Mizoram.”

Mizoram Commerce and Industries Department Director J. Hmingthanmawia said that the state government has sent the detailed proposals in this regard to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) for its approval.

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The success of the “Border Haats” with Bangladesh has prompted other northeastern states of India to go for similar arrangements with Myanmar. Pixabay

“Once we get the green signal from the MEA, we would seek funds from the Union Industries and Commerce Ministry,” Hmingthanmawia told IANS. He said that officials of the Mizoram government and Myanmar have recently conducted a joint survey and identified the locations to set up the “Border Haats”.

Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga in his Independence Day speech had said that the proposed “Border Haats” would become important trade points between India and Myanmar.

“Land Custom Station (LCS) at Zokhawthar, the lone trade route for Mizoram with South East Asian countries, is being proposed for upgradation. Construction of Trade Facilitation Centre at Tlabung has already been completed.”

“The Indian government has also proposed construction of an Integrated Check Post (ICP) at four places at the border in Mizoram — Marpara, Tuipuibari, Silsuri and Nunsury. The construction of ICP at Kawrpuichhuah is also expected to commence shortly,” the Chief Minister added.

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Mizoram has an unfenced international border of 404 km with Myanmar and 318 km with Bangladesh. The Border Security Force (BSF) has been guarding the Bangladesh border and Assam Rifles personnel are posted on the border with Myanmar.

Experts and various studies suggest that if the “Border Haats” are set up, smuggling of drugs and other commodities would be checked to a large extent. Security expert Manas Paul said that large-scale smuggling of drugs from Myanmar via Mizoram and other neighbouring states has increased in the last few years.

“What is really worrisome is the fact that these synthetic drugs have got a domestic market inside the state, especially among the younger generation. Cross border legal activities including setting up of “Border Haats” could curb the smuggling of drugs and other contraband,” Paul, who has authored books on security and terrorism in the northeast, told IANS.

The CUTS International, a Jaipur based international NGO, with support from the World Bank, had conducted a study in 2016 to understand and examine the effect of “Border Haats” on poverty alleviation and other multiplier effects such as informal trade.

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At the instance of the Mizoram government, the Centre is likely to set up four “Border Haats” (market) along the border with Myanmar to boost local trade and livelihood of the people living there. Pixabay

CUTS International Executive Director Bipul Chatterjee said that trade will increase income, curb smuggling, and cross-border crimes will also go down.

“‘Border Haats’ have contributed to the border area development, roads have improved, trafficking of women has stopped, unemployment issues have been addressed,” said Chatterjee.

Currently four “Border Haats” are operational in Meghalaya and Tripura. The first “Border Haat” was started on July 23, 2011 at Kalaichar (India)-Kurigram (Bangladesh) in the West Garo Hills of Meghalaya. Three other “haats” followed in Meghalaya and Tripura.

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The Union Industries and Commerce Ministry has been spending on an average Rs 3.5 crore to develop the infrastructure and necessary facilities for each “Border Haat” along the Bangladesh border. The Bangladesh government is not providing any funds for the purpose.  (IANS)