One metropolitan area was rebuilt in May, but eight others, with about 800,000 residents, are still missing information.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say prolonged imprisonment is life-threatening not only because it prevents people from reporting possible human rights violations – but because it has excluded them from public health campaigns about the coronavirus pandemic.
Several cases have been found in the towns of Maungdaw and Buthidaung in the northern state of Rakhine, where more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims live in crowded camps. Many have fled the “cleansing operations” launched by the military against the Rohingya rebels in 2018. The UN has called on the Myanmar military to face an international tribunal on genocide charges for crimes committed by Rohingya Muslims. Rakhine Buddhists who have become homeless through recent struggles also live in camps in the area.
As the coronavirus pandemic spread around the world earlier this year, the Suu Kyi government launched an “No Person Left Behind” information campaign on disease prevention, such as demands for social distancing.
But MP Htoot May, who represents the Arakan National League for Democracy in the Upper House of the Myanmar Union Parliament, said on Sunday that many people living in the northern state of Rakhine and neighboring Chin do not receive public health notifications circulating on Facebook, messaging apps and government websites.
“When I ask people in my constituency if they are aware of Covid-19, I have to explain to them the global pandemic from the beginning,” Htoot May said. “I have to explain to them what social distancing is and how to apply proper hand hygiene.”
“Obviously I can’t travel because of Covid-19, so I only have so many people to warn about,” the MP continued.
“They’re not afraid of Covid-19 because they don’t know about it. At this stage they are much more worried about the fighting.”
CNN contacted Myanmar State Counsel spokesman Zaw Htay for comment.
Conflicts are ongoing
Fighting erupted in late 2018 between the Myanmar army, known as the Tatmadaw, and the well-equipped Arakan army, which wants greater autonomy for the Buddhist inhabitants of Rakhine, the majority of the population in Rakhine State.
Clashes escalated despite the internet disappearance, with 151 civilians killed and 344 wounded in crossfire between January and May, the letter said.
“This is not a conflict that can be won by any side on the battlefield,” independent Myanmar analyst Richard Horsey told The International Crisis Group. “It’s essentially a political issue where the people of Rakhine want more autonomy and talk more about their future. (Myanmar) needs to develop a political response, and that’s lacking at the moment.”
The alternative is an ongoing war, Horsey says, and the Arakan army and the Myanmar army have been charged with crimes. Khine Kyaw Moe, an MP representing the national Rakhine party, says that without an internet connection, these atrocities remain unreported and undocumented.
“Both armies can commit human rights violations and without the internet people are cut off from journalists and local and international NGOs they can report on these things,” Khine Kyaw Moe said.
An open letter Sunday, sent to Suu Kyi and signed by 79 Rakhine stakeholders, said a political solution was being sought, which would begin with the government reconnecting online.
“Freedom of speech and access to information are the foundation of democracy. At this time, access to the Internet is a democratic standard. Equality requires ready-made information on the economy, education, health and society,” the letter said.
Like many other nations, Myanmar has introduced curfews, bans on large rallies and a quarantine period for the arrival of foreigners in an attempt to control the spread of coronavirus.
The government also introduced penalties for people who did not abide by the rules, including prison sentences for those who violated quarantine orders. At least 500 people, including children, were sentenced to up to one year in prison.
The country’s reaction seems to have stopped the spread of the virus, but it did not pass without critics.
Access to the Suu Kyi pandemic could work against it as the country prepares to vote in elections later this year.
MP Htoot May said the fighting in Rakhine and the subsequent disruption of communication could also diminish voter support for Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party.
“In 2015, I believed in Suu Kyi and I was happy to work with her,” MP Htoot May said. “I would think Aung San Suu Kyi would help people in more remote areas get internet access, not cut them off from it.”
“Human rights are not something Aung San Suu Kyi can only talk about. She needs to practice it.”
On the other hand, footage of the Suu Kyi virus could not have an impact on her election result – because due to the internet shutdown, a large number of people in the far west of the country might never have known it had happened.