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Myanmar: COVID-19, conflict, and a whole year of internet blackout

“This is the 21st century. Many people use internet for a variety of different reasons. And for us, the internet is a reason we can survive.” – community member, Rakhine state, Myanmar

Sunday the 21st of June marked one year since hundreds of thousands of people across Rakhine and Chin States, Myanmar, have been without internet as they face both conflict and a global pandemic.

Since late 2018, Rakhine and Chin states have been increasingly impacted by the conflict between the Myanmar military and the ethnic armed organization, the Arakan Army (AA). As the fighting has escalated, with artillery shells falling and villages burnt to the ground, a growing number of people have been forced to flee their homes while others who have remained in their communities are struggling to access food and essential services.

Amidst this conflict, one year ago, the Myanmar Ministry of Transport and Communications issued a directive that all mobile phone operators in the country must temporarily stop mobile internet services in nine townships in Rakhine and Chin States. No end date was provided and 365 days later, the internet ban continues in what has become one of the longest internet shutdowns in world history. While this shutdown has been in place, the conflict has continued unabated, the UN Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire to fight COVID 19 has gone unheeded and public calls from hundreds of civil society organizations in Myanmar to protect civilians, end violence and restore internet access have mounted.

Photo by Development Medai Group

The situation is still dire. A youth from Ponnagyun told us, “Our community is facing dual threats of COVID19 and conflict. The Tatmadaw and AA conflict is worsening day by day. The clashes and fighting are happening very close to community areas such as paddy field and plantations and as a consequence people are often hit by artillery shelling and or the shrapnel from land mines. People do not dare to go out or to work to earn for their livelihood.”

All communities- including Rakhine, Rohingya, Chin, Mro and Daignet – across Rakhine and Chin States face difficulties surviving in these conditions. Living in one of the most impoverished and marginalized regions in Myanmar, people struggled to earn enough to get by before COVID-19 was confirmed in the country, and now with the virus, this has escalated.

“Covid-19 is very horrible. We are taking care of ourselves as much as we can. But there are many daily workers in our community. They can do nothing to support themselves in this COVID pandemic.” – community member, Rakhine State, Myanmar.

For the 600,000 Rohingya people in living Rakhine, COVID-19 brings greater fears and uncertainty as they continue to face discriminatory policies and restrictions on their movement that prevent them accessing schools, livelihood opportunities and urgent medical care. As one Rohingya community member described, “Now COVID-19 brings another storm for the Rohingyas in Rakhine State that we are not able to face. As we can’t get effective medical treatments in hospitals, we are very afraid of the COVID-pandemic.” He continued on, describing what it meant to have lost and regained connection to the internet in Maungdaw township where he lives: “For many Rohingya students like me who are not able to attend University due to the restrictions against the Rohingya community, they use the internet to pursue higher education. We also use the internet to communicate with relatives and to learn about many different things. When I regained internet in Maungdaw, I felt like I got a reason to survive. If my phone is a university, then the internet is my teacher. When I regained internet, I felt like I got back that missing part of my life.”

All communities in Rakhine and Chin face very real consequences due to the internet shutdown, from being unable to access information about COVID-19 prevention, more limited understanding of how to access humanitarian assistance and essential services, to being able to keep in touch with family and friends.

Photo by Development Medai Group.

For the hundreds of thousands of people across the eight townships in Rakhine and Chin States, they continue to be left in the dark during a time when access to information, more than ever, is a fundamental right that saves lives.

“The internet ban is a violation of our human rights and it is having socioeconomic impacts on our community as well, with people unable to do money transfers and other basic banking. For COVID-19, we received some information and supplies like masks and soap from local civil society groups… but we could not access information from the Ministry of Health due to the internet ban.” – Rakhine youth from Ponnagyun Township

Over the past year civil society groups, the international community, and communities themselves have made their calls loud and clear: it is time to end the internet shutdown and end hostilities to ensure all communities in Myanmar can access information and live in safety.

Today – one year on since the internet shutdown – a young Rohingya community member used his recently acquired connectivity to demand the same for other regions and other communities:

“End the internet shutdown and stop all conflicts in Rakhine and Chin States.”


Written by Lindsey Hurtle