RATHEDAUNG, Myanmar — The security forces, with their geriatric rifles, formed a wary patrol, scanning the forested hills where members of an ethnic insurgency roam. A crater on the pitted road attested to the rebels’ skill at fashioning explosive devices.
Rakhine state, a ribbon of marsh and mountain on the western coast of Myanmar, is isolated in the best of times, racked by guerrilla warfare and ethnic violence that takes place far from international scrutiny.
Now, an internet blackout has all but severed parts of the state from the outside world, in a dramatic display of how easily a government can silence a population in the digital age.
“The internet will resume when stability is restored in that area,” said Myo Swe, chief engineer for Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications.
The blackout, which came at the behest of the Ministry of Transport and Communications, was “for the benefit of the people,” Myo Swe said.
Government-mandated internet or social media shutdowns, which have occurred with increasing frequency in places like Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Sudan, are often deemed necessary for silencing the kind of innuendo and rumor that causes online mobs to catalyze real ones.
But such telecommunications embargoes can be designed to foil members of the political opposition as well. And they can particularly hurt vulnerable communities in conflict areas, who depend on internet connections to keep them out of the crossfire or publicize abuses in remote locations.
“I’m worried that there will be more human-rights violations during the internet shutdown,” said Aung Thaung Shwe, a member of Parliament from Buthidaung Township in northern Rakhine state, where civilians have been killed as hostilities have increased between insurgents from the Rakhine ethnic group and the Myanmar military.
“It seems like the internet shutdown is only for the military’s sake,” he added. “It destroys the rule of law and security.”
The online blackout for cellphones, which began June 21 and affects eight townships in Rakhine state and one in neighboring Chin state, “is depriving aid workers and rights monitors of vital communications in a time of crisis,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Telenor Myanmar, one of the nation’s largest cellular providers, said in a statement that “freedom of expression through access to telecoms services should be maintained for humanitarian purposes, especially during times of conflict.”
The United States joined the condemnation, saying that the shutdown “has curtailed some forms of internet-based communication for as many as one million people,” according to a statement by Morgan Ortagus, a State Department spokeswoman.
“Internet service should be restored without delay,” Ortagus said, to “limit further damage to Burma’s international reputation.”
The United States refers to Myanmar by its previous name, Burma.
Once hailed for what its army leaders portrayed as a peaceful transition toward democratic governance, Myanmar has had its reputation battered by continuing military aggression, most notably against ethnic minorities, who make up at least one-third of the nation’s population.
The nation’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize, has declined to speak up for besieged groups or to publicly hold the military to account.
Since 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have been expelled from Myanmar, in a murderous campaign that some United Nations officials say may constitute genocide. The pogroms by the Myanmar military were aided by mobs of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
This year, a long-simmering ethnic Rakhine insurgency exploded as well, complicating the security landscape in an already wounded region. The Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine armed group that claims 7,000 soldiers, has launched fatal raids on Myanmar soldiers.
The response by the Myanmar military has been fierce, human rights groups say: massacred children, arbitrary detentions and the destruction of Rakhine historical monuments. More than 35,000 ethnic Rakhine have fled the fighting, according to the United Nations.
Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said that the internet suspension could be designed to cloak abuses by the military, known as the Tatmadaw.
“I am told that the Tatmadaw is now conducting a ‘clearance operation,’ which we all know by now can be a cover for committing gross human-rights violations against the civilian population,” Lee said. “We must not forget that these are the same security forces that have so far avoided accountability for the atrocities committed against the Rohingya in Rakhine state less than two years ago.”
Lee, who has spoken out in defense of Myanmar’s persecuted ethnic groups, has been barred from the country.
A decade ago, when the country was still fully controlled by a military junta, few people had internet access, particularly in remote regions like Rakhine. SIM cards could cost $2,000, far more than the average yearly income.
But as the military began transferring some power to a civilian government led by Suu Kyi, Myanmar began opening up. SIM cards are now affordable. Facebook has become a key news source, even as hate-filled posts, some fanned by the military, have heightened communal tensions.
This time around, the internet blackout in Rakhine was again due to social-media excesses, said Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, a spokesman for the Myanmar military.
“There is racial hatred in Rakhine,” he said, “because of racial hate speech and propaganda on social media.”
Under pressure for having allowed hate speech to fester on its platform, Facebook has taken down accounts associated with the Arakan Army and the Myanmar commander in chief. But far more incendiary accounts have not been banned.
At an army base in Rathedaung, a few miles from where the Arakan Army had launched an attack earlier this year, soldiers crouched behind fences of barbed wire and branches.
Rakhine villagers walked by, avoiding eye contact with the infantrymen. Tensions between the two sides reach back centuries.
Next to the base was a telecommunications tower, shiny and new, also encircled by crude fencing.
After much of the state’s Muslim population was forced to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, Myanmar officials vowed to reinvigorate Rakhine through investment. In the northern townships, where most of the Rohingya used to live, a construction boom is bringing new government buildings, roads and other infrastructure.
But the renewed fighting has dimmed the state’s economic prospects. Internet stoppages will only dissuade potential investors further.
“The government says the internet shutdown is for the benefit of the people, but I don’t see any benefit for the people,” said Kaung Mrat Naing, a resident of Maungdaw, a northern Rakhine township. “This only makes trouble for the people.”