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The internet shutdown in Myanmar’s conflict-ridden northwest, described by rights groups as the world’s longest, has entered a second year. Locals and campaigners are appealing for an end to the blackout as coronavirus fears grip the region.

On Friday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for an immediate end to “the world’s longest government-enforced internet shutdown”.

“It’s critical for civilians to get the information needed to stay safe” during a global pandemic, said HRW’s Linda Lakhdhir. The country has so far recorded 287 coronavirus cases, including six deaths, but experts fear the low numbers are due to a lack of testing. Earlier this month, a government official said the internet shutdown would continue until at least August 1 in eight townships. Telecom companies said the government ordered the blackout to prevent “illegal activities”.

The Myanmar military has been embroiled in a bloody civil war since January 2019 against the Arakan Army (AA), a rebel group fighting for more autonomy for ethnic Rakhine Buddhists. The government shut down mobile data in several townships across Rakhine state and neighbouring Chin state on June 21 last year, causing panic among residents desperate for information about the unrest.

The conflict has seen hundreds injured and tens killed as well as tens of thousands of civilians displaced, with both the military and the AA trading allegations of abuses. Few in Myanmar have personal computers, the majority relying on mobile phones to access the internet for communications and information – making those under the blackout especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Rights groups have also condemned the blocking of several local media websites and are urging telecom firms to push back against the government’s orders.

Source: Al Jazeera