Internet access as basic human right and Burma’s undersea cable

Posted on October 8, 2007  /  6 Comments

Looks like international law is being made as we speak. According to the UN, basic human rights are violated when countries cut off Internet access. Burma is not the first. King Gyanendra of Nepal cut off everything in his palace coup. If cutting off Internet is a violation of human rights, what is cutting off phone service to entire regions like Jaffna? More people use the phone than the Internet.

The story about the undersea cable is quite intriguing. To the best of my knowledge, SEA-ME-WE 3 is the cable the government official is referring to (they were not part of the SEA-ME-WE 4 consortium). I have not checked this fact, but my recollection is that Burma had been disconnected from SEA-ME-WE 3 for non-payment some time ago. The cable was not ripped out and physically disconnected, but it was not operational.

It is of course possible that the debts were paid and the country reconnected in the past few months. However, given the Myanmar government’s bald-faced lies about the occupants of the cyber city, I would not rule out another violation of the fourth precept of Buddhism.

:: Daily Mirror – FINANCIAL TIMES ::

UN telecommunications agency chief Hamadoun Toure said Friday in Geneva that no government had the right to cut their citizens off from the Internet, following recent incidents in Myanmar.Toure, who heads the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), underlined that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had recently described safe access to the Internet as a basic human right.

The Internet blockage has severely reduced the flow of video, photos and first-hand reports of the violence there that had helped galvanise an outcry against the ruling generals.

The cut was widely blamed on security forces there. A telecom official in Myanmar had confirmed that the nation’s main link to the Internet was down, but blamed the problem on a damaged undersea cable.

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  1. Rohan,

    The same logic applies in Sri Lanka. Cutting off all mobile and internet connectivity in the North and East during military offensives, with no warning, no explanation and for protracted periods of time is now the accepted norm. contested this. What is disturbing, say for example with the continuing block of Tamilnet, is that companies such as Dialog seem to be supinely willing to give their acquiescence to the incumbent government’s every whim and fancy.

    I was aware of a meeting between Dialog and group led by a leading human rights activist that politely informed them that they would be taken to court if mobile services were not restored, with the intent of course of providing Dialog an opportunity to produce, as evidence, any written official communication to the company by the MOD or sections of the government instructing it to cut off mobile / internet services. Mobile services to the East were restored by Dialog soon after the meeting.

    Clearly, what’s happening in Myanmar is damning. But how come we can speak more openly about Myanmar than what’s going on in Sri Lanka? Is it because the MCNS will also brand everyone who calls for communications as a basic human rights also a “traitor”?

  2. We have spoken with the same openness about both. Put Jaffna in the search box to see.

    What I see as a striking difference is the recognition of Internet access as a human right by Ban Ki Moon and Hamadoun Toure. Knowing Hamadoun, I consider this a major step.

    How does one build on the heightened awareness caused by the Myanmar military to establish settled international law? This is what interests us, rather than the specifics of shut downs in one place or another.

    LIRNEasia is a not a human rights advocacy organization; we do things our way. We welcome others doing things their way. The space is big enough for all.

  3. Rohan,

    To divorce policy from the context of its application and use, and couched within an essential framework of rights, would save us from the great folly of approaching and understanding policy research, advocacy and reform as one that occurs in an academic vacuum divorced from the realities of government, business and civil society.

    That the incumbent UN SG recognises that the internet is a basic human right is no big deal surely? As noted in the Groundviews post referred to earlier – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression and opinion; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” This basic freedom is also recognized in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19), in other UN treaties, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 13), and in all three main regional human rights instruments (Africa, the Americas and Europe).

    The SG cannot but agree! The other person’s opinion, clearly known to you, may be more significant in this regard.

    Lirenasia is surely not a human rights advocacy organisation. However to divorce policy research and advocacy from real world markers such as interest of big telcos such as Dialog who by virtue of ownership (Malaysia’s governance structures, ethnic relations and approach to free media are very suspect) match the parochialism of repressive governments disinterested in human rights, would be detrimental to your mission, would it not?

    Put another way, your reaction seems to suggest that I want Lirneasia to become an FMM, CPA or Groundviews. Surely not,if only to spare you the abuse of many others far worse than Sittingnut who has recently taken exception to your opinions online. But in wishing to transcend specifics, let us also not forget that Thomas O’Neill’s submission that all politics is local.

    Best regards,


  4. Rohan,

    I posted a detailed response to your post above that hasn’t appeared. Rather than re-type it all in laboriously, wanted to check whether it registered on WordPress or was tagged as spam?


  5. The right to communicate through telecom networks is not, and has not been, part of established international law.

    When Solidarnosc was striking in Poland the phone lines were shut down regularly. No one made statements like Ban Ki Moon did re Burma. Neither when King Gyanendra cut off his country from the world.

    Let’s talk about this is if you wish. I find the rest of your comment beside the point.

  6. I asked the SEA-ME-WE4 proponents to include Burma while Bangladesh was joining the consortium. But I found them quite upset as Burma has not been making the payments of SEA-ME-WE3 in the first place!