Myanmar partially lifts internet shutdown in conflict-torn Rakhine, Chin states

By Sam Aung Moon
Landscape view of downtown with ancient pagodas in the background in Mrauk U

By Sam Aung Moon

YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar has partially lifted a months-long internet shutdown in two western states where government troops are battling ethnic insurgents, a leading telecoms operator said on Sunday, amid peace talks seeking to end the fighting.

Norwegian mobile operator Telenor Group said the transport and communications ministry had lifted the block, in place since June 21, in five townships in Rakhine and Chin states at midnight.

Officials cited a "restoration of peace and stability" in the areas, Telenor said in a statement.

"Freedom of expression through access to telecoms services should be maintained for humanitarian purposes, especially during times of conflict," it added.

Ministry officials did not immediately answer telephone calls to seek comment.

Rakhine state drew global attention after about 730,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to neighboring Bangladesh in 2017, following a military crackdown in response to militant attacks.

U.N. investigators have called for senior military officers to be prosecuted over allegations of mass killings, gang rapes and arson. The military denies widespread wrongdoing.

More recently, civilians have been caught in clashes between the military and the Abakan Army, an insurgent group that recruits from the mainly Buddhist ethnic Rakhine population in its fight for greater autonomy for the state.

Since November, the fighting has displaced tens of thousands of people across a larger part of central and northern Rakhine and part of neighboring Chin, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says.

Much of the region is off-limits to journalists and most humanitarian agencies.

Tun Aung Kyaw, a secretary of Rakhine's biggest political party, the Arakan National Party, said the internet shutdown had been lifted in the four Rakhine townships of Buthidaung, Maungdaw, Rathedaung, and Myebon, and one in Chin state.

The fighting is the fiercest in the four Rakhine townships where the internet remains blocked, which are Ponnagyun, Mrauk-U, Kyuakdaw and Minbya, he told Reuters by telephone.

"The internet restoration could be due to peace talks between the military and ethnic armed groups," he said. "We hope for the success of the peace talks and immediate restoration of the internet to the rest of the townships."

The government has recently been holding peace talks with several armed groups, including the AA, which also participated in a massive assault on a military academy and police outposts in northern Myanmar last month.


(Reporting by Sam Aung Moon; Editing by Poppy McPherson and Clarence Fernandez)