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Myanmar’s Leap Year: Examining an Information Society in Transition

April 13, 2016


Dan Arnaudo

Photo: The Myanmar Post and Telecom’s HQ in Yangon.

After over forty years of dictatorship, 2016 is truly Myanmar’s leap year. Last month, the first parliament controlled by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) took their seats. March 15th the parliament will vote to decide who will be the first democratically selected President since the military ended its total control. It will not be the world famous former political prisoner, Aung Sung Su Kyi, who is the head of the NLD–the party that swept to victory in November. “The Lady” as she is called, is not eligible to be president because of a special clause in the constitution that states that anyone with a foreign born husband cannot be president. Since she had a British husband (now deceased) she cannot run, but has just nominated one of her closest advisors and head of her Foundation, Mr. Htin Kyaw. At the same time, she has said that she will maintain control of the party, and, therefore, the government, moving forward.

Her country is making a leap of faith, partly in her. This is a country facing a legacy of surveillance, censorship, political imprisonment, torture, and civil war since its independence in 1948. Her father, Aung San, led the country to independence during and after World War II as a head of the resistance, but was assassinated in 1947, shortly before the British left. The fragile Union of Burma that took its place lasted until only 1962, when a military coup instated a socialist dictatorship that lasted for the next half century.

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The Legacy of Dictatorship

Think about what fifty years of dictatorship does to a country’s education system, its political institutions, infrastructure, and the overall basic capacity to solve problems. To transform Myanmar into a full-fledged democracy, its people will have to make a conceptual leap in their understanding of the political process of negotiation, democracy, and a broader ability to understand and act upon their newfound freedom to access and spread information.

Already we have seen Buddhist monks and their allies spreading false rumors on Facebook and organizing protests that descend into riots about the native Muslim population, the Rohingya. In a country where most of the population uses the big blue network–Facebook–as their sole information resource, and many perceive Facebook as the Internet itself, the world’s social network is the central conduit of information, more so than almost anywhere in the world. Outside of it, recently published research shows that the military has used cyber-attacks to take down anti government websites during the elections of 2012. The elections in December were hotly contested, but there is no evidence that they repeated this effort in the face of an overwhelming NLD victory as Suu Kyi’s party clinched 85 percent of the seats.

Myanmar post 3Mobile Phone Use Has Exploded

The only way people usually access this new informational world is not only through Facebook, but through their mobile. In 2012 less than one percent of people had a mobile phone and Myanmar Post and Telecom (the government provider in the first photo) controlled the market and charged over $200 for a SIM card. Now, SIMs go for around 2000 Myanmar Kyat (or around $2) after the entry of foreign operators Ooredoo and Telenor in 2014. People are coming online, through smart or feature phones, in rapid numbers, the latest figures suggest exponentially. Telenor’s CEO said in July 2015 that over fifty percent of its 10 million subscribers used data, and that doesn’t include rival MPT or Ooredoo users. However, the creation of an information society is not only confined to Information Communication Technologies or ICTs; the most powerful and complex information processing unit is still biological.

Dealing with New, Complex Information Problems

People, either individually or jointly, need to form strategies to deal with complex information problems in any society, whether it is gathering candidate platforms for an election, researching conflicts, writing a news article or a creating a blog. All of these take skills that include traditional literacy, conceptual knowledge of citation, bias, search, filtering and organization.The University of Washington’s project, Information Strategies for Societies in Transition, which I work on, offers modest solutions with these kind of goals in mind. On one level, we partnered with a network of fellows from all parts of society to develop organizational solutions to information problems. We did this largely by teaching a form of project management for ICT problems: Develop a solution to an information problem, identify stakeholders, develop models for users, draw up wire frames for apps or websites, and create a project plan.

On another level, we tried to access more foundational and beginner level users who are just entering the online world, individual solutions. First, how do these people, generally only accessing the web through a mobile phone, with little to no experience with uncensored information or technology, gain the skills, as well as the conceptual knowledge to look at these objects, physical like a keypad, virtual like a social network, with the understanding and correct attitude to take societal problems on?

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An Information Symposium

In this political atmosphere, and with the experience of almost three years of project development, in January we organized an “Information Symposium” in Myanmar’s capital Yangon together with local partner NGOs. Representatives from our two principle sponsors, USAID and Microsoft, participated, alongside the Asia Foundation, a regional group that helped organize the event. The symposium brought together people from all parts of the country’s rapidly evolving information universe, including journalists, politicians, librarians and teachers. While it is popular to talk about information in terms of ICTs, it was equally important for us to talk about it in myriad other forms, how readers there are just seeing independent newspapers on the streets, how people are accessing libraries that were limited for years by a lack of new books, money or education, and even how people can now speak freely in teahouses about an election.

We talked about different aspects of Myanmar’s information society, from elections, to the peace process, Facebook’s massive role in society, and citizen empowerment through new apps. We had members of the military controlled Ministry of Information engaging with newly elected members of parliament from the opposition about the power of big data, election monitoring, and e-government. I spoke on “What You Don’t Know about Facebook”, which includes the data they gather from your account, what they share with the government and how they want to control the online ecosystem globally, as they already do in Myanmar.

It is a country that faces bigger knowledge gaps than most, which the panelists were quick to acknowledge. Myat Thet Thitsar, Executive Director of Enlightened Myanmar Research, our partner NGO specializing in research and  analysis on elections and political parties, commented that there is a huge scarcity in trust in the government. This hinders any project, from the national census (a huge information project) to the elections, to data synchronization across ministries.

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The Politics of Language

Language, human code, is itself a complicated concept here. Burmese, the dominant language, takes the front seat, but there are other local languages such as Shan, Karen, Kachin and Chin, that are scarcely represented online, in the media, or in the educational system. This is a sensitive subject, because these are also spoken by the groups that have been fighting local civil conflicts for political rights, representation, and in some cases complete independence from the Burmese dominated military government. These conflicts exist today, and while a recent truce and peace negotiation with many of the groups continue, the settlement of these roles and integration of these regions and people into a federal, democratic system will be crucial for the country’s future. These conflicts, and the nascent democratic processes that offer the path to their resolution, came up repeatedly in the conversations. New democratic systems require civil society groups such as the Myanmar Electoral Resource and Information Network (MERIN) to keep agencies honest. As the attacks on Rohingya Muslims demonstrate how social media offers opportunities and challenges, and the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO) showed ways of countering hate speech online through Panzagar, a tool for tracking and reporting threats and responding with peaceful Buddhist messages.

Even Burmese has a complicated techno-linguistic relationship with the Internet. During the junta, with little to no Internet access or ICT experience domestically, programmers and language experts outside of the country developed a font so that they could communicate in their language. However, what they developed, the zawgyi standard, is not Unicode compliant, and as a result there has been staggered integration into the systems of multinational companies and the broader global Internet. Only Facebook has truly embraced zawgyi, part of the reason for its ubiquity. It remains a challenge to use search engines because of the dual languages (if you type zawgyi text into a search bar you may miss unicode text) or teach typing because users have to choose one or the other when they start, and usually they start by using the earlier format that everyone else knows and apps, including Facebook, generally use. Companies such as Microsoft or Google have not released much of their software or tutorials in Burmese and have not even proposed plans to do so in future. This issue underlies a number of the challenges groups like MIDO and MERIN face, alongside a lack of infrastructure development, education, trust, as well as barriers digital, information or media literacy.

Technology is playing a huge role, primarily through increasingly ubiquitous feature or simple smart phones. However, still older and fundamental democratic concepts such as freedom of the press, strong education systems and transparency in government will be just as integral to the creation of a strong democratic civil society in the country.

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Moving Forward

On one of my last days in Yangon, I passed the old offices of the Bombay Burma Press, a relic of a past informational age when Myanmar was still part of the British Empire. Today, a crumbling building with tenants clinging precariously to their apartments is all that remains. Just as the Burmese people once made a leap from the colonial era of this building into a socialist dictatorship, Myanmar’s people are now moving rapidly into a capitalistic, hyperconnected, global 21st century world. This will come through cell phones, Internet, Facebook or beamed by the satellite dishes already sprouting like mushrooms throughout the country, including on the side of this relic. This leap, economic, socio-political and informational, will succeed today, or fail as in the past because of the country’s ability to navigate these challenges, and 2016 is the year it truly begins.

This post first appeared on Dan Arnaudo’s website on February 29, 2016 under the title, “Myanmar’s Leap Year.”


This event and publication were made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.