As Myanmar marks 101 days of internet shutdowns, members of the global #KeepItOn coalition call on the government to restore internet access.
Re: Internet shutdown in Rakhine State in Myanmar
Your Excellency, Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of Myanmar
U Thant Sin Maung, Minister of Transport and Communication, Government of Myanmar
We write to urgently request your support in restoring internet access in four townships in Rakhine State of Myanmar. The #KeepItOn coalition welcomes the government action in restoring internet access in some parts of Chin and Rakhine states and we implore you to restore the internet in the remaining four townships of Rakhine State.
In justifying the original shutdowns, Mr. U Nyo Swe, chief engineer for Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications, insisted that the shutdowns were for the benefit of the people. Nonetheless, research shows that internet shutdowns and violence go hand in hand. Shutdowns disrupt the free flow of information and create a cover of darkness that shields human rights abuses from public scrutiny. Journalists and media workers cannot contact sources, gather information, or file stories without digital communication tools. Humanitarian efforts are obstructed without internet connectivity. Shutdowns cut off access to vital information, e-commerce, and emergency services, plunging whole communities into a state of fear. We strongly believe that internet shutdowns around the world – in particular, the present shutdowns in Rakhine State – do not benefit people, and instead only place individuals at greater risk.
The United Nations Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) is deeply concerned about the impact of this conflict on civilians and has issued a war crime warning against the Myanmar Military. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, stated: “The entire region is in a blackout… I fear for all civilians there, cut off and without the necessary means to communicate with people inside and outside the area.” Mr. Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesperson, United Nations, also expressed his concerns: “We want to make sure that freedom of opinion and freedom of expression is upheld.” Several other nations have already joined in demanding the restoration of the internet in Myanmar. Given the sensitive situation in the affected areas, the shutdown makes the marginalized population of these areas more vulnerable, unable to report war crimes and other gross human rights violations that may have been committed.
A growing body of findings and resolutions holds that intentional disruptions to the internet violate international law. The UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly have passed, by consensus, multiple resolutions that unambiguously condemn internet shutdowns and similar restrictions on freedom of expression online. For example, the UN Human Rights Council in Resolution A/HRC/RES/32/13:
Condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law and calls on all States to refrain from and cease such measures.
Experts from the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Organization of American States, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, declared that internet “kill switches” can never be justified under international human rights law, even in times of conflict.
A number of Myanmar-based civil society organizations have previously issued a joint statement asking the Myanmar government to “immediately lift all restrictions on internet access and to restore telecommunication unconditionally to full capacity.” Telecommunications operators in Myanmar have also expressed their concerns and are asking for clarification on the rationale for the shutdown; at least one has spoken out to emphasize that access to the internet should be maintained by the government for humanitarian purposes, especially during times of conflict.
There is an urgent need for providing access to information and channels of free expression for all users in Myanmar.
In solidarity with Myanmar-based civil society organizations, we respectfully call on you to:
- Immediately lift all restrictions on internet access and to restore telecommunication unconditionally to full capacity in all currently impacted townships of Rakhine State
- Refrain from restricting internet access in the future, either in these currently affected areas or elsewhere in Myanmar, including in other conflict areas, and during periods of elections
- Publicly declare your commitment to protect the digital rights of all people in Myanmar
- Review Articles 77 and 78 and other Articles of the 2013 Telecommunication Law and amend them to align with human rights standards
- Publish the orders given to telecommunication service providers to shut down the internet and censor information, and explain the legal rationale behind the orders.
- Encourage telecommunications and internet service providers to respect human rights through public disclosures on policies and practices that impact users.
The undersigned civil society organizations around the world appreciate your swift attention to these recommendations and pledge our support of your efforts to restore internet access.
Association for Progressive Communications
Bloggers of Zambia
Center for Media Research – Nepal
Committee to Protect Journalists
Consortium Of Ethiopian Human Rights Organizations, Ethiopia
Digital Rights Foundation, Pakistan
Digital Rights Lawyers Initiatives
Freedom Forum, Nepal
i freedom, Uganda
Internet Freedom Foundation
Internet Sans Frontières
Jamii Forum, Tanzania
Media Matters for Democracy, Pakistan
Open Net, Korea
Open Observatory Network Interference, OONI
Software Freedom Law Center, India
Swathanthra Malayalam Computing, India
The Bachchao Project, India
The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA)
Unwanted Witness, Uganda
West African Human Rights Defenders Network
 Telecommunications Law Law No. 31/ 2013 dated 8 October 2013