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To fight COVID-19 in Myanmar, a call to end the war and internet shutdown in Arakan region

Categories: East Asia, Myanmar (Burma), Freedom of Speech, Governance, Human Rights, Politics, Protest, War & Conflict, COVID-19
A geographical overview of towns where the internet has been blocked in northern Arakan. Image from EngageMedia [1]

A geographical overview of towns where the internet has been blocked in northern Arakan. Image from EngageMedia

This edited article [1] by Kyaw Lynn is from EngageMedia, a non-profit media, technology and culture organization. This story is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Check out Global Voices’ special coverage of the global impact of COVID-19 [2].

The internet is a primary source of information on the global COVID-19 pandemic [3]. But Arakan (formally known as Rakhine State) [4] in western Myanmar is now experiencing one of the longest internet shutdowns in the world. Arakan is the second poorest area in Myanmar with a very weak health infrastructure in place. The internet blockage has also caused a lack of information and knowledge concerning COVID-19.

The internet shutdown was first imposed [5] on June 21, 2019, in four townships in northern Arakan. Another five townships, including one in neighboring Chin State followed on February 3, 2020. This means that more than 330 days have passed since the first four areas have been without internet and nearly 100 days for the latter townships.

The government gave different reasons for the shutdown, such as the prevention of hate speech and disinformation, and instability due to conflict in the area. None of these are justifiable [6].

The situation in Arakan

Although the world is now fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, over one million people in northern Arakan have been neglected by the government. As of April 19, Myanmar recorded 107 confirmed cases [7] and five deaths attributed to the coronavirus. The Myanmar government has not announced any case in Arakan. But this national figure is likely to increase rapidly.

Indeed, Arakan shares a border with Bangladesh, where there are 2,456 positive cases [8] and 91 deaths as of the same date. If the Myanmar authorities do not address the situation, Arakan will remain prone to local transmissions in the border area.

What makes Arakan different is that an armed conflict is still ongoing in the region between the Myanmar Army and the armed group Arakan Army, despite the latter announcing a unilateral ceasefire until the end of April upon recommendations of a global ceasefire [9] by the UN Secretary-General. Some analysts accuse [10] the Myanmar Army of trying to take military advantage in Arakan by conducting [11] offensive military operations, thus causing more innocent civilian deaths. Between the beginning of January and April 15, 2020, the Arakan Information Center reported 377 civilian deaths, injuries, or disappearances. Most of them are women and children [12].

The conflict has resulted in about 200,000 internally displaced persons (IDP) in the region, most of whom are living in camps without any well-built shelter and well-managed food distribution. The lack of social distancing in the IDP camps, the lack of water availability, and the lack of information on COVID-19 all make it difficult to prevent a coronavirus outbreak in the area.

Unfortunately, what makes people more fearful are military attacks on civilian targets rather than COVID-19. It seems that the Myanmar government and military are more enthusiastic about fighting the Arakan Army rather than COVID-19 in the region. But under this triple challenge of an internet shutdown, a poor situation in IDP camps, and an ongoing armed conflict – the situation in Arakan could get even worse, were COVID-19 to hit it massively in the future.

My message: “Stop the war and the internet shutdowns”

During the global pandemic, we need to stop the war and internet shutdowns to fight COVID-19 in Arakan.

I am one of those people speaking out, even if I am currently now hiding from police search. On February 23, 2020, in Yangon, I led the Students’ Unions’ protest [13] against the internet shutdown and human rights violations in the conflict-affected areas of Arakan. I could be imprisoned for one month with hard labor if convicted in the trial.

But it is just my case. The more important thing to focus on is to fight against COVID-19. Over one million people in Arakan are vulnerable to the disease if we do not stop the war and internet shutdown.

Thus, let us say: Stop the war and internet shutdown to fight against COVID-19 in Arakan. Your participation is our power. Your concentration is our courage. Your word is our want.

*Kyaw Lynn is currently a postgraduate student taking his master’s degree in political science at the University of Yangon, Myanmar. He is the chairperson of Political Science Association (University of Yangon) as well as the principal officer at Arakan Students Union (Universities-Rangoon).