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Yangon — A sweeping internet shutdown in Myanmar’s conflict-hit Rakhine state went into its fifth week on Monday as residents called on the government to end an information blackout that rights groups say could provide cover for rights abuses.

Mobile-phone operators suspended internet data on June 21 in eight townships across northern Rakhine and one in neighbouring Chin state, where soldiers are fighting ethnic Rakhine rebels known as the Arakan Army (AA) who want greater autonomy.

Authorities say the internet was being used to co-ordinate operations while rights groups allege the blackout permits troops to act with impunity.

But it has also disrupted daily life and sown fear among residents struggling to receive news on everything from flooding updates to ongoing skirmishes.

“It’s like an information blackout,” said Saw Oo from Mrauk-U township, adding that people were unable to share details on weather conditions during the rainy season.

Maungdaw township resident Hla Hla said it was also considered risky to use SIM cards from neighbouring Bangladesh as it could lead to arrest.

“We are really afraid of getting caught,” she said.

In recent months the military has cut off whole villages as it tries to flush out AA members and sympathisers.

The army confirmed it shot dead six Rakhine detainees in late April, saying its forces acted in self-defence.

Northern Rakhine state is also the site of a brutal 2017 army campaign that drove more than 740,000 Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh. 

UN investigators have called for Myanmar’s top generals overseeing the campaign to be prosecuted for genocide.

Last week Washington banned powerful army chief Min Aung Hlaing from visiting the US over his leadership role in the “ethnic cleansing” push.

Nongovernmental organisation Fortify Rights said the internet shutdown was one of the world’s longest and was affecting an estimated 1-million civilians.

“Even if it were intended to target militants, it’s egregiously disproportionate,” the group said in a statement.

But Myo Swe, director general of Myanmar’s post and telecommunications department, defended the shutdown in the name of “public interest”.

“We still do not know when it [internet access] will be resumed,” he said.

According to state media, the AA fired two rockets at navy boats anchored off northern Rakhine on Saturday. There were no casualties.

AFP