Thousands of people might be unaware coronavirus exists in the South East Asian country of Myanmar due to ongoing conflict and an internet shutdown.
Humanitarian workers told Human Rights Watch eight townships in Rakhine and Chin States, in the country’s west, currently have internet restrictions on them. They were imposed on June 21, 2019.
Myanmar’s government says the internet shutdown is due to ongoing fighting with the Arakan Army, which has been labelled by authorities as a terrorist group. The government says the Arakan Army used the internet to attack the country’s military.
Soe Thein, secretary for the Ministry of Transportation and Communications, said the government will restore the internet “if there are no more threats to the public or violations of the telecommunications law”.
Myo Swe, director-general at the Ministry of Transport and Communications, which ordered the blackout, said it was for security.
"The internet might encourage instability and destructive activities," Myo Swe told Reuters by phone.
It’s expected to last until at least August 1.
But aid workers are concerned the shutdown is blocking access to crucial information such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Human Rights Watch said it, and a number of other non-government organisations, are pushing for the World Health Organisation to urge Myanmar to end the shutdown.
It added the internet plays a “crucial role” in the pandemic as it not only educates people about coronavirus but also on how to self-isolate and prevent its spread.
The government claims people still have mobile and SMS services. It said it also has used public awareness campaigns via TV and radio.
Ray Than Naddy, 22, from Buthidaung, one of eight townships affected, said “it's like we lost our sight”.
After the internet was switched off, she said, she had to close her online shop, losing income that paid for her brother's schooling.
Former UN human rights envoy Yanghee Lee said the shutdown could be used to conceal war crimes. Rights group Amnesty International says civilians feel isolated and have few options to report abuses.
However, some areas of Myanmar have strict lockdowns such as Yangon - the country’s largest city.
While slowly easing a lockdown, people are not allowed to gather in groups of more than five in public and social distancing measures are due to stay in place until the end of June.
Myanmar currently has 293 cases of coronavirus and six deaths.
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