Myanmar is facing increasing pressure to immediately end a mobile internet blackout in parts of two of its states, with the United States becoming the latest to call for the lifting of the data restrictions.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications on June 21 ordered mobile phone operators to shut down all internet data across at least eight townships in Rakhine state and one in neighbouring Chin state.
The decision was made as the military moved against the Arakan Army, an armed group fighting for greater autonomy for the region’s ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
Morgan Ortagus, a spokeswoman for the US State Department, said on Saturday Washington was “deeply concerned” by the data shutdown that has curbed internet-based communications for as many as one million people and called for their restoration “without delay”.
“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,” Ortagus said.
In Rakhine, an estimated 30,000 civilians have been displaced by the fighting this year, in roughly the same area from where 730,000 Rohingya were driven out during a brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s security forces in 2017.
‘Gross human rights violations’
“WhatsApp is key for international nonprofits operating in Rakhine, and working without it creates additional difficulties,” it said.
Myanmar has deployed thousands of troops to the western region, where civilians have been fleeing their homes to escape heavy artillery fire in the violence that has spilled over into Chin state.
Both the military and the fighters stand accused of committing abuses and dozens of civilians have been killed in crossfire and shellings, even while taking refuge in monasteries.
Yanghee Lee, the special United Nations rapporteur who monitors human rights in Myanmar, said this week she feared troops were committing “gross human rights violations” against civilians under the cover of the shutdown.
In an interview with Al Jazeera on Tuesday, Lee said the Myanmar military was acting “with impunity”.
“Without a constitutional reform and the way the situation is now, the military and the security forces can do whatever they want under the name of national security,” she said.