Myanmar partially lifts internet blackout in Rakhine, Chin states

Myanmar has partially lifted a months-long internet blackout in parts of two western states where fighting between the military and rebels battling for greater autonomy has flared up in recent months.

The shutdown has been in place in eight townships in Rakhine state and one in the adjacent Chin state since late June, prompting warnings over potential human rights abuses in a region that is largely off-limits to journalists and most humanitarian agencies.

At the time, the government had directed all mobile service providers to suspend services in the townships, accusing the rebel Arakan Army group of promoting propaganda and misinformation online.

On Sunday, Norwegian mobile operator Telenor Group said the transport and communications ministry had lifted the block in four Rakhine townships and the one in Chin at midnight.

Officials cited a “restoration of peace and stability” in the areas, Telenor said in a statement.

Peace talks

The government has recently been holding peace talks with several armed groups, including the Arakan Army, which recruits from the mainly Buddhist ethnic Rakhine population.

Soe Thein, permanent secretary of the Transport and Communication Ministry, confirmed the partial lifting of the ban.

“As the situation becomes stable in these areas, Internet services resumed since Saturday midnight,” he told Anadolu Agency by phone.

Tun Aung Kyaw, a secretary of Rakhine’s biggest political party, the Arakan National Party, identified the four Rakhine townships where the shutdown had been lifted as Buthidaung, Maungdaw, Rathedaung and Myebon.

The fighting is the fiercest in the other four Rakhine townships where the internet remains blocked, which were Ponnagyun, Mrauk-U, Kyuakdaw and Minbya, he told Reuters news agency by telephone.

“The internet restoration could be due to peace talks between the military and ethnic armed groups,” he said. “We hope for the success of the peace talks and immediate restoration of the internet to the rest of the townships.”

Myanmar conflict: Arakan violence rises in Rakhine state (2:18)

Warnings over abuses

Myanmar’s government has come under intense criticism from local and international rights groups over the blackout. 

Speaking to Al Jazeera in June, Yanghee Lee,the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar, had warned that the country’s army may be committing serious human-rights violations under the cover of the shutdown.

“This is the first time they’ve ever declared an internet blackout. This worries me very much and I think it should worry the international community, as well,” she had said at the time.

In July, the country’s Parliament showed its support to the ban by blocking a debate over the measure put forward by an ethnic Rakhine legislator.

Rakhine state drew global attention after about 730,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to neighbouring Bangladesh in 2017, following a military crackdown in response to attacks by an armed group.

UN investigators have called for senior military officers to be prosecuted over allegations of mass killings, gang rapes and arson. The military denies widespread wrongdoing.

More recently, civilians have been caught in clashes between the military and the Abakan Army, 

Since November, the fighting has displaced tens of thousands of people across a larger part of central and northern Rakhine and part of neighbouring Chin, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says.

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