Twenty-nine human rights organisations have urged Myanmar to lift internet restrictions in Rakhine and Chin states.
In a joint statement yesterday, the 29 rights bodies, including Fortify Rights, several Rakhine- and Rohingya-led bodies, Robert F Kennedy Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Article 19, among others, also asked the Myanmar government to release its justification for the internet shutdown and all information related to the process.
Myanmar government first restricted internet access in Rakhine and Chin states in June 2019 and ordered to reinstate internet restrictions in the states on February 3, 2020, according to the statement.
"This prolonged blackout suppresses the truth, and it's disproportionately affecting civilians," said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer (CEO) of Fortify Rights, in a statement endorsed by 28 other rights bodies.
"The government should immediately end restrictions and give a public response for its rationale."
The rights bodies also called on the Myanmar government to "restore internet access" and "repeal Section 77 of the Telecommunications Law."
The Telecommunications Law 2013 permits the suspension of internet services "when an emergency situation arises" and "for public interest." The telecommunications provider Telenor Group wrote in a statement that the Myanmar Ministry of Transport and Communications said the new shutdown took place because of "security requirement and public interest."
The Myanmar military and Arakan Army (AA) have engaged in armed conflict in Rakhine State since 2015. Clashes between the Myanmar military and AA displaced thousands of civilians in Rakhine State since January 2019.
Earlier, some 7.5 lakh Rohingyas fled a brutal military crackdown and took shelter in Bangladesh since August 2017.
Aung Thaung Shwe, a Rakhine lawmaker from Buthidaung Township in Myanmar, told media earlier this month that the "military has been conducting clearance operations and now internet services are shut down."
In July last year, Fortify Rights documented how the internet shutdown in Rakhine State disproportionately affects the protection of civilians through the disruption of aid delivery.
In July 2018, it had published a 160-page report detailing how Myanmar authorities made "extensive and systematic preparations" for attacks against Rohingya civilians in 2017 that constituted genocide and crimes against humanity.
Fortify Rights in the report also named 22 military and police officials who should be investigated and possibly prosecuted for genocide and crimes against humanity.
Now, around 596,000 Rohingyas remain in Rakhine and are subject to ongoing government persecution and violence.
On January 23 this year, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Myanmar to comply with several "provisional measures" to protect Rohingyas' rights and preserve evidence relating to an ongoing case against Myanmar for genocide.
On February 3, the AA published a statement online declaring that it would release evidence of mass graves of Muslims killed and buried by Myanmar armed forces in Rakhine State. The same day, the government cut internet access in the state.
"The ICJ ordered the government to preserve potential evidence of genocide, and the internet blackout raises questions about its commitment to honouring the court's ruling," said Matthew Smith.
"The government should work with the international community to hold perpetrators of atrocities accountable and provide human rights monitors unfettered access to affected communities," he added.