Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International groups have revealed that hundreds of thousands of people trapped in war torn zone in far west of Myanmar may know nothing about COVID-19 due to a yearlong internet shutdown in the area.
In June 2019, the Myanmar government, led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, cut internet access to nine townships in the area due to concerns that it was being used to inflame clashes between the Myanmar military and insurgents, CNN reports.
The fight broke out late 2018 between the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, and the well-equipped Arakan Army, which wants greater autonomy for Rakhine Buddhists, the majority of the population in Rakhine state.
As the war rages, the internet shutdown has however resulted in more civilian deaths by denying people real-time information, according to an open letter published by a coalition of Rakhine political and community groups on Sunday.
Internet service was restored to one of the townships in May, but eight others, with a total population of about 800,000 people, remain in an information blackout.
The Human Rights Watch stated that the extended shutdown is putting lives at risk, not only because it is preventing people from reporting possible human rights abuses, but because it has cut them off from public health campaigns about the coronavirus pandemic.
Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser at Human Rights Watch in a statement said;
With armed conflict between the Myanmar military and Arakan Army in Rakhine State amid a pandemic, it is critical for civilians to get the information needed to stay safe.
As at Wednesday, Myanmar has recorded six deaths and 293 positive cases from over 64,000 tests, according to Myanmar’s Ministry of Health.
A handful of cases have been found in the Maungdaw and Buthidaung Townships in northern Rakhine state, wheremore than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims live in crowded camps.
As the coronavirus pandemic spread around the world, Suu Kyi’s government launched a ‘No Person Left Behind’ information campaign on disease prevention, such as social distancing requirements.
However a member of parliament Htoot May, who represents the Arakan National League for Democracy in the Upper House of Myanmar’s Union Parliament, on Sunday revealed that many people who live in northern Rakhine state and neighboring states are not receiving the public health notices circulated on Facebook, messaging apps and government websites due to internet cut.
Htoot May stated;
When I ask people in my constituency whether they are aware of Covid-19, I have to explain the global pandemic to them from the beginning. I have to explain to them what social distancing is and how to practice proper hand hygiene.
The MP added;
I cannot travel widely because of COVID-19, obviously, so there is only so many people I can warn. They are not afraid of COVID-19 because they do not know about it, at this stage they are far more concerned about the fighting.
This comes as governments around the world intensifies its fight against the disease that has infected over 9 million people globally, with over 480,000 people dead.