Early on the morning of February 1, Myanmar’s military seized power from the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, but Swe Pann, a university student in the country’s westernmost Rakhine state, didn’t know until more than a day later.
“I couldn’t access the internet, so I didn’t have much information,” says the 22-year-old. “It felt like a normal day.”
For the past 18 months, Swe Pann was living under the world’s longest internet shutdown, a near-total internet blackout across much of Rakhine and Chin states. Her name and those of the other Arakanese people interviewed for this piece have been changed for their protection. Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, had been engaged in conflict with the Arakan Army — an armed rebel group seeking autonomy for the Arakanese. Nearly 1,000 people have been killed or injured, and 230,000 have been displaced, since an escalation in late 2018. In June 2019, amid intense fighting, the government blocked internet services in nine townships, claiming it was necessary to “maintain stability and law and order.” Since then, the restrictions ended in one township and have been partially lifted in the other eight, but with 3G and 4G services blocked, the internet remained effectively unusable.
On February 2, the day after the coup, the military abruptly restored services.
“People in my camp told me they could access 4G internet services,” says Thar Htoo, who was displaced by the conflict and serves as an informal leader of the camp where he now resides. “As soon as I heard the news, I checked my phone, and I saw there was 4G internet. At that time, I felt like I was equal with other people, and I was really happy.”
More than a million people were affected by the blackout in Rakhine and Chin States. An Arakanese human rights activist, whose name has been withheld altogether for their safety, said that during the internet shutdown, affected populations were “in the dark.”
“Local news couldn’t reach national and global audiences, and local people didn’t get any timely updated news,” the activist said. “There was a lot of misinformation, disinformation, and rumors.”
Those restrictions created a dangerous situation for people living in an active conflict zone, who were unable to find out quickly where fighting was happening, how to reach humanitarian assistance, and how to flee to safety. “Conflict-affected people have an acute need for timely information, which can literally make the difference between life and death,“ said Matthew Bugher, head of the Asia Program at Article 19, a U.K.-based freedom of expression and information organization.
The internet blocks also hampered civilians’ ability to document and share information about human rights abuses. “By cutting off reliable mobile connections in Rakhine and Chin States, Myanmar authorities created a black box, in which it was difficult to monitor the conduct of the military and non-state armed groups,” Bugher said.
Most Arakan Army supporters are Arakanese, also called ethnic Rakhine, a predominantly Buddhist population. Rakhine State is also home to a large mostly Muslim Rohingya population, of whom more than 740,000 fled to Bangladesh in 2017 amid a Tatmadaw campaign of murder, rape, and arson, for which Myanmar now faces genocide charges at The Hague.
In April 2020, a U.N. Special Rapporteur said the Tatmadaw should be investigated for allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in relation to its conduct against civilians during the conflict with the Arakan Army in Rakhine. The U.N. official also noted that the Arakan Army had conducted its hostilities in a manner that had negative impacts on civilians, including by kidnapping local authorities and parliamentarians.
Swe Pann, who is Arakanese, is familiar with the military’s brutal tactics. “When Myanmar soldiers are walking on the street, I don’t dare to look outside,” she said. “In areas of my township, the Tatmadaw has violated villagers’ rights.”
Alongside the internet restrictions, the government also prohibited reporters from traveling independently to conflict-affected areas, blocked the websites of local media outlets which it alleged were producing “fake news,” and prosecuted journalists for covering the conflict.
“To get news and information, I climbed a hill where I could access some internet services,” said Htun Hla, a mobile shop owner. That was a common way for people to try to connect to the network during the conflict, until the Tatmadaw banned the practice. Others would attach bamboo poles to their roofs with their phones in bags hanging from the poles to try to access a signal, according to a report by Frontier Myanmar.
The economic impact of the shutdown was severe. Businesses were unable to communicate with customers and suppliers, and mobile money transactions were all but impossible. According to the internet research firm Top10VPN, internet restrictions cost Myanmar $75.2 million in 2019 and $189.9 million in 2020.
Htun Hla, the mobile phone shop owner, says sales dropped and his business faltered. He considered learning a new skill but lacked access to online resources. “Due to the internet shutdown, my skills became useless, and I wasn’t able to learn anything new,” he says.
In August 2020, Rakhine state was at the epicenter of a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, and its poor health infrastructure, combined with the ongoing conflict, plunged the state further into crisis. The blackout hindered access to health prevention information and left people relying on word-of-mouth and phone updates. While students in other cities were able to take classes online, Swe Pann was left unable to study. While the Ministry of Health provided detailed Covid-19 updates on its website, those in shutdown-affected areas were unable to access it and had to rely on SMS and audio announcements from the government.
“I felt like a blind man because I couldn’t access the news,” said Thar Htoo, the leader of the displacement camp. He is usually a key source of information for other camp residents but told Rest of World that he has been unable to verify the information that he has been receiving and passing on. “I didn’t know any news accurately and was poorly informed,” he said.
The Tatmadaw has not said why it restored internet service in Rakhine and Chin, but the move came the day before it announced that a member of the Arakan National Party, which is popular among Arakanese voters, had accepted a role under the Tatmadaw’s new State Council. The Tatmadaw had also been courting ethnic leaders in the months leading up to the coup, emblematic of its longstanding divide-and-rule tactics.
The Burmese military is the antithesis of a champion of free expression. During a junta rule that lasted from 1962 to 2011, the Tatmadaw aggressively spied on the public and maintained tight pre-censorship over all publications. On seizing power on February 1, it restricted access to the internet across the country. On February 4, it blocked Facebook access and access to virtual private networks (VPNs), and on February 6, it shut down Twitter and Instagram as well. Many users circumvented the blocks using proxy links, but on February 6, even these went down.
“Since the coup, the junta has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to arbitrarily restrict internet access to advance its own nefarious goals. There is no reason to believe the lifting of restrictions in Rakhine and Chin States demonstrates a change in policy or values,” Article 19’s Bugher said. “Rather, the experience of the past week only underscores the military’s contempt for internet freedom and access to information.”
In Rakhine, the Arakanese activist interviewed by Rest of World was also skeptical. “I see the reopening of the internet as a way the military is trying to build trust with the [Arakanese] people,” he said. But experience tells him that, now that they are in charge, the Tatmadaw will continue — and probably accelerate — their repression.
“[The Tatmadaw] will arrest and charge anyone who criticizes and writes about their actions, and they may eliminate all people who are against them,” he said. “Now, they hold all power in their hands and can do what they want. Our speech and expression will be under watch and attack.”