India and Myanmar report a record number of Internet shutdowns in one year
In 2021, Internet was shut or slowed down at least 182 times around the world, mostly in Asia. While the longest shutdown was reported in Pakistan, most were in India, particularly in Kashmir, followed by Myanmar. Governments sought to silence the opposition, but the economic loss was huge.
Milan (AsiaNews) – Last year, the Asia-Pacific region saw 129 internet shutdowns in seven countries up from 114 in five countries in 2020.
The disturbing data comes from a report released by a coalition of advocacy groups called KeepItOn. The research indicates that India is clearly the leading offender with 106 Internet shutdowns, 85 in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
Myanmar comes in second place with 15 internet shutdowns, followed by Iran and Sudan with five, and a string of countries in Africa and the Middle East.
Asia can also claim another unenviable record, that of the longest shutdowns. At the top of the list, we have 2,026 days (almost four years) in Pakistan’s Federal Administration Tribal Areas (FATA), followed by 593 days in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, and 551 days in India’s controlled Jammu and Kashmir (2019-2021) following its loss of autonomy.
As the report admit, the data for India are incomplete because of the lack of government transparency.
Local authorities have shut or slowed internet access, blocked communication platforms and otherwise interfered with online information sharing during periods of peak tensions in order to suppress dissent and maintain control.
In India, the report looked into the gap between the reasons given by the government and the real causes of the shutdowns. In 60 cases, the Internet was switched off ostensibly on “national security” grounds when in fact political unrest was the actual cause.
A couple of times the Internet was not available on national holidays, at another because officials were visiting. In at least four cases, the official reason was to prevent students from cheating on exams, while in all other cases, the aim was to stifle dissent and/or stop information sharing on social media (see infographic).
Repression in Myanmar followed the military coup of 1 February 2021, which sparked the ongoing civil war. Between 15 February and 28 April 2021, the ruling military junta imposed several curfew-style nightly shutdowns.
During such periods, the military increased its violence against civilians, using rubber bullets as well as live ammunition and tear gas against protesters.
On 3 March, during a nationwide shutdown, at least 38 protesters were killed in what the UN envoy to Myanmar called “the bloodiest day since the coup”.
In the former Burma, connections were deliberately halted to prevent international bodies from investigating war crimes committed by the military – during shutdowns, soldiers torched homes and the air force carried out air strikes, displacing thousands of people.
In order to arrive on time, rescue teams had to rely on human messengers to know when and where to intervene to treat the wounded.
Because of this, groups like Witness Myanmar were unable to document human rights violations and gather evidence for future international legal procedures.
The research not only highlights the repressive practices of many Asian governments, in particular India, traditionally seen as the largest democracy in the world, but underscores the huge economic damage shutdowns cause.
In Kashmir, the shutdown lasted 18 months, before the pandemic struck, forcing many businesses to close.
Some of the people left without work found jobs in the so-called gig economy as riders, while the small independent businesses that survived turned to social media, in particular Instagram, to stay afloat.
Shutdowns bit hard on some; for example, Gatoes, an online food and grocery delivery service, lost US$ 1,000 a day when shutdowns were in place. in Kashmir, the local restaurant industry lost up to US$ 9,000 a day. In 2020, Internet shutdowns cost India US$ 2.8 billion.