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Harvard Law School Clinics Publish White Paper on Digital and Human Rights in Myanmar and Bangladesh

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Researchers at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic and International Human Rights Clinic collaborated with three human rights organizations based in Myanmar to produce a study on internet restrictions in Myanmar and Bangladesh, according to a white paper the groups published last month.

The report highlights similarities in the impacts of internet shutdowns in both countries — including limited access to education and Covid-19 guidance. It also determined differences in how a lack of internet access influences work, access to healthcare, and physical security in both nations.

“What is unique about this report is that it looks at both sides of the border — it looks at Myanmar and Bangladesh,” said Cyberlaw Clinic assistant director Jessica Fjeld, who led the drafting of the report along with International Human Rights Clinic lecturer Yee Htun.

“We were able to report on the impacts of internet shutdowns in the voices of the people who were impacted by them,” Fjeld added.

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The paper is structured around 16 interviews with refugees in Bangladesh and internally displaced persons throughout Myanmar, and was conducted by the partner organizations Athan, Kintha Peace and Development Initiative, and the Rohingya Youth Association.

The report was published just before a military coup and declaration of a state of emergency in Myanmar — events touched off by the National League for Democracy's general election victory in November 2020. The opposition in the election claimed fraud and demanded a rerun of the vote.

Aung San Suu Kyi — the National League for Democracy's founder and Nobel Peace Prize laureate — and various members of the Myanmar parliament are believed to be under house arrest, a controversial move that has sparked international outcry.

The ongoing shutdowns in townships across Myanmar have lasted over a year, while shutdowns in refugee camps in Bangladesh lasted for 11 months. While 2G cellular connectivity was temporarily restored following international pressure, 2G generally does not permit online access to video calls, emails, photos, videos, or social media.

The lack of internet connectivity impedes populations across Myanmar and Bangladesh from accessing the “basic needs of life,” such as education, work, healthcare, free expression, and access to reliable information, according to the paper.

“For displaced people and those in conflict situations, the internet can function as a literal lifeline, and for this vulnerable population, it is a lifeline that has all too often been cut off,” the paper reads.

The paper studies how internet shutdowns dovetailed with the coronavirus pandemic to undermine people's access to vital healthcare information.

The internet also importantly provides people in Myanmar and Bangladesh access to education more broadly, per Fjeld.

“The Rohingya were prohibited from secondary education — they were only educated up to primary school in Myanmar, and then denied access to public schools after that — so many of them are studying English or other subjects through courses online, and they lost access to those courses when they lost access to the internet,” Fjeld said.

“The Internet is our university," one of the interviewees cited in the report said.

Fjeld said she thinks the report will be “more relevant than ever” in light of the military coup in Myanmar.

“I think internet shutdowns are going to be a piece of the authoritarian strategy that they are employing,” Fjeld said. “And so the report and the impacts that the report identifies will be more relevant than ever.”

Though temporary internet usage could allow for greater access to news, jobs, and communication with friends and family, Fjeld said it may not be enough to guarantee freedom of expression given the aggressive acts imposed by the govenment to silence its critics.

The researchers concluded the paper by calling on the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh to reinstate internet connectivity for their respective populations.

“It is within the power of the Myanmar government to ease the devastating impacts on the affected population, restoring protections for their rights, by lifting the shutdown order, and the Bangladesh government must continue to guarantee network access,” the paper reads. “If the internet is not available, these vulnerable communities’ lives and suffering will persist in a perpetual state of lockdown and shutdown.”

—Staff writer Emmy M. Cho can be reached at emmy.cho@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Dohyun Kim can be reached at dohyun.kim@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @dohyunkim__.

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