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Leaders Want Internet Ban Lifted In Rohingya Area As COVID-19 Misinformation Spreads


Now we're going to look at how the Internet has been weaponized by two governments in Southeast Asia - not by using it to distribute malicious content, but by shutting it down. According to human rights groups, Myanmar and Bangladesh are denying Internet access to millions of people in two vulnerable communities. Michael Sullivan reports from neighboring Thailand.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: First, there was the bloody military crackdown on Muslim minority Rohingya in 2017 that caused more than 700,000 to flee to neighboring Bangladesh amid allegations of genocide. Now Myanmar's military is engaged in a bitter conflict with another ethnic minority, the Rakhine and their Arakan Army. The conflict has left hundreds of civilians dead or wounded and displaced tens of thousands. The military says the Internet ban is necessary to help keep order. Human rights groups have a different explanation.

JOHN QUINLEY: The Myanmar military's reason for shutting down the Internet in Rakhine state is to basically block out new news about human rights violations coming out of Rakhine and Chin states.

SULLIVAN: John Quinley is senior human rights specialist at Fortify Rights and says the ban makes it easier for the military to act with impunity. It wouldn't be the first time. Phil Robertson is deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

PHIL ROBERTSON: Civilians are not safe in this conflict. They are getting caught in the crossfire, and they're also being targeted indiscriminately by the Burmese military forces.

SULLIVAN: Human Rights Watch says the Internet ban is also preventing civilians from getting information about the COVID pandemic, and it's hampering efforts by aid groups to provide supplies and medical care to those who need it. And across the border in Bangladesh, there's an Internet ban, too. Rohingya crammed into refugee camps there haven't had Internet since September. The camps recorded their first COVID death earlier this month.

The UNHCR's Louise Donovan.

LOUISE DONOVAN: So it's something we continue to advocate with the government about, to reestablish this Internet connectivity.

SULLIVAN: The Bangladesh government has so far resisted, citing security concerns.

ROBERTSON: I think that the shutdown of the Internet in Bangladesh is punitive, a de facto policy by the Bangladesh government to encourage people to go back. And part of that is making their lives miserable.

SULLIVAN: Again, Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

ROBERTSON: Bangladesh says it wants to help the Rohingya; it wants to stop the spread of COVID-19. But then on the other hand, it is depriving the Rohingya of perhaps the most singly important thing that would help them.

SULLIVAN: Neither government show any sign of relenting on the respective Internet shutdowns.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.