The internet shutdown in Myanmar's conflict-ridden northwest, described by rights groups as the world's longest, entered a second year Sunday with locals and campaigners appealing for an end to the blackout as coronavirus fears grip the region.
The Myanmar military has been embroiled in a bloody civil war since January 2019 against the Arakan Army (AA), an insurgent 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 21 June last year, causing panic among residents desperate for information about the unrest.
Human Rights Watch had called on Friday 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.
A government official said earlier this month the internet shutdown would continue until at least 1 August in eight townships.
Telecom companies said the government ordered the blackout to prevent "illegal activities".
The conflict has displaced tens of thousands of civilians and seen hundreds injured and scores killed, with both the military and the AA trading allegations of abuses.
Few in Myanmar have personal computers, with 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.
Rakhine state is also home to the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group that faced a brutal crackdown by the military in 2017.
Some 750,000 fled to neighbouring Bangladesh in violence that has led to charges of genocide against Myanmar at the UN's top court.
The 600,000 Rohingya remaining in Rakhine live in what Amnesty International has branded "apartheid conditions", with little freedom of movement.
"We want to know more information regarding COVID-19, what's happening to the displaced people in Sittwe (Rakhine's capital) and what's happening in Bangladesh," Abdullah, a Rohingya resident from Mrauk U township, told reporters by phone.
They now struggle to contact relatives, send them money or even check the weather forecast, he added.
School teacher Aung Win in Buthidaung township said he was unable to access lessons from the education department before the new academic year begins in July.
"We just want the internet back as soon as possible," he said. - AFP