While in Myanmar this summer, I had the opportunity on several occasions to connect with Ko Ye Tun Aung, an engineer in Myanmar who previously worked setting up and running Internet literacy and training centers in Myanmar during the country’s first experiences with public Internet access.
In the mid-2000s, Ko Ye Tun Aung gave a talk at the University of Washington regarding his work with Internet cafes and training centers. Now, a decade later, Ko Ye reflected on his experiences with public Internet usage in the past and on his perceptions of Myanmar’s current information and communication technology (ICT) environment.
Although he left behind this line of work when he departed to Singapore in 2007 to begin an engineering career, Ko Ye remained personally invested in ensuring improvements in access, literacy, and safety in Myanmar’s rapidly expanding ICT networks.
The following article is a summary of the information and experiences Ko Ye shared with me during an interview.
The Early Stages of Public Internet Access in Myanmar
Internet in Myanmar began to open up to the public in 1998-1999 when the government controlled Myanmar Post and Telecommunication (MPT) signed an agreement with the American Company Eagle that allowed Eagle to introduce an email service to the general public.
Prior to the arrival of Eagle, email service was restricted to government officials. As Ko Ye Tun Aung explains, this was the result of the transition to a market-oriented economy in 1992 and the promotion of the “Visit Myanmar Year” in 1996 by the government. The success of both Eagle’s email service and the Visit Myanmar Year initiatives required enhanced communication capabilities among and between the private sector and the government.
Eagle, the only company providing Internet services to the general public from 1998-2001, was also largely successful, and, as Ko Ye explains, this resulted in increasing tensions between Eagle and MPT as Eagle’s service grew to parallel MPT’s service. Ko Ye explains that the government began to realize that, “providing Internet [to the general public] can make a lot of money and show [the] development of the country.”
As a result of tension, Eagle stopped its services in late 2000/early 2001 and Bagan Cybertech, founded in 2002, was the next company to provide Internet services to the general public. Although MPT and Bagan Cybertech were two companies providing services, all infrastructure and bandwidth continued to be owned by the military-run MPT.
The Dawn of the Myanmar Internet
Ko Ye’s story began with the introduction and rise of public Internet services in Myanmar. Ko Ye graduated with an Engineering degree in 1998, the same year that Eagle introduced email services to the general public. The new market developments provided well-educated tech-savvy individuals such as Ko Ye with unique job opportunities in the late 1990s. Upon graduating, Ko Ye and two friends started and ran an IT business, Discovery Digital Mart, from 1998-2001.
However, in 2001 Ko Ye left the business and started Service+, a company providing computer hardware and networking services for the government and public. Following nation-wide economic hardships in 2002, Ko Ye’s Service+ company faced financial difficulties and he decided it was time for a change. Ko Ye decided to transform the company into an Internet training center in order to fill the gap between accessibility to growing Internet cafes in city centers and the public’s ability to use these services to their full potential.
Ko Ye’s Internet training centers were able to grow with the increasing opportunities for public Internet use and mediums between 2001 and 2005. For the first few years of the 2000s, there were only two options for general public Internet use in Myanmar: email and the Bagan Cybertech Internet forum. Given that all infrastructure and broadband was owned and regulated by the military-run MPT and that many of Bagan Cybertech’s shareholders were sons of the military government officials the government still heavily monitored and restricted these services.
The government denied the general public access to political websites run from other countries and non-government news sources, and they controlled topics discussed on the Bagan Cybertech forum. Despite these restrictions, the number of people using email services and the forum grew. These early initiatives became the first insight into how people could use the Internet to share information, opinions, and communicate with others across various physical and social boundaries. In describing his early work on Internet training, Ko Ye says his service centers focused primarily on teaching people how to effectively use Google and how to appropriately and professionally write and send emails.
Blogs first came to the Myanmar public in 2004. As Ko Ye describes, “the blog was the next natural development for people in Myanmar” as it followed email, forum, and chat consecutively. When asked about the political impact that blogging had on the general public, the military, and the country, Ko Ye said that blogging became instrumental in the anti-government process from people and groups both inside and outside the country.
The rise of blogging opportunities in the mid-2000s coincided with a rising number of journalists entering the country and drops in the prices of digital cameras. Thus, Ko Ye describes blogs as the first non-government political news source for the public. This, however, also led to a government anti-blogging team, which attacked public bloggers and led to increased tensions between the government and public Internet users.
According to Ko Ye, the Internet became increasingly scrutinized by the government between the introduction of blogs in 2004 and Khin Nyunt’s arrest later that year. Khin Nyunt was Prime Minister and was accused of corruption after introducing a plan for democratization. Following his arrest, Bagan Cybertech became fully nationalized under the military, activities declined, costs increased, and the public’s trust in the government and ICTs plummeted.
It was after the arrest of Khin Nyunt and the subsequent difficulties that Ko Ye said he made the decision to leave the business and move to Singapore to develop an engineering career. As Ko Ye said, he “had less and less trust in the government, couldn’t see a future [for this work in the country], and thought he was wasting his time.” Ko Ye stayed in Singapore until 2013 when he said that the government’s acceptance of Aung San Suu Kyi’s election to parliament in the 2012 bi-election convinced him that the change he assumed impossible was coming to his country. He returned in order to use his expertise to contribute to the transition.
Infrastructural and Political Challenges in the 2000s
Given the authoritative nature of the regime and isolation of the country, one can only imagine the difficulties an individual like Ko Ye would have faced in this line of work. As I was eager to hear about his experiences navigating challenges, Ko Ye gladly shared with me the difficulties, frustrations, and safety concerns he faced during work at all stages of his career in the early 2000s.
Structurally, Ko Ye said that he faced difficulties with language, font, and bandwidth. The absence of a standardized digital Myanmar font is a well-discussed issue and remains a constant struggle today. Ko Ye explained that because of font issues as well as external providers, most Google services required English-language searches. Thus, individuals needed proficiency in English to be able to effectively use Google. For this reason, Ko Ye said he needed to simultaneously teach English and computer literacy.
Bandwidth and Internet speed was another concern. Given that MPT owned all bandwidth infrastructure, increased services did not equate to increased bandwidth providers. As users increased, bandwidth became more expensive and Internet speed slower. Ko Ye recalls it taking about 4-5 minutes to complete one refresh. For these reasons, Ko Ye conducted most trainings in the late evening when fewer users were online. Even then he was not able to accomplish as much as possible given the slow speed of service.
The development of public experience with and knowledge of the Internet also threatened the superiority and authority of the government, in turn, threatening the security of those in the business, such as Ko Ye. In order to market his trainings and services, Ko Ye said that he had to make himself known to the public and, thus, also to the military. He advertised his services using the paper news, seminars, and panel discussions. This meant that not only was he in the spotlight of the military’s watchful eye, but his training centers were also constantly under surveillance. It became tricky to navigate; he had to provide the public with the forms of virtual expression they desired while also keeping the military at a safe and comfortable distance.
The rise of intellectuals and experts such as Ko Ye and the overall expansion of public cyber expression also increasingly threatened the authority of the military. As these individuals gained more control over providing public services, the military felt a need to further its expertise in the ICT field and take back, or nationalize, aspects of public Internet use and access. As a result, restrictions and surveillance increased throughout the 2000s and a time when more individuals were increasingly using cyber mediums to express political opinions and ideas.
Reflections After Returning to Myanmar in 2013
Although Ko Ye says he became disconnected from ICT development and affairs in Myanmar following his move to Singapore, he was still able to reflect on and answer some questions regarding the current mobile information environment in Myanmar. I asked Ko Ye what the biggest changes were when he returned to Myanmar in 2013. He said he realized instantly that it was easier to get a cellphone but email users still largely relied on Internet cafes for emailing.
In 2014-2015, 3G became readily available, suddenly connecting a large percentage of the country to the Internet and normalizing cyber correspondence from a phone as opposed to a computer. Ko Ye says that the rise of smartphones at a time when a number of global services for Internet chat were already available (e.g., Viber, Facebook) developed a young population that rarely uses email and lacks the appropriate knowledge for email etiquette.
I asked Ko Ye if a new Internet curriculum and training center could address these issues among youth appropriately. Ko Ye said that he did not believe young people would attend the training centers. He said that such knowledge today could most effectively be communicated through using services and channels that appear most attractive to today’s youth; that is, using the Internet itself to promote and communicate etiquette and appropriate behavior. Ko Ye suggested that, as long as 3G services become stronger, YouTube would be the most effective channel through which to communicate such ideas. YouTube is an appealing site to youth, videos are short, and interactive learning on almost any topic can be searched and found.
In wrapping up the interview, I asked Ko Ye what he thought the first step the government needed to do or address to improve ICT infrastructure and security politics. Ko Ye said that “the government should focus on regulation and policies and let the technological engineering go to the private sector.” He says that the government should try to “create the right policy to deliver information and data with the lowest cost and fastest time possible while protecting against hate speech and hackers.” However, he believes that the development of networkers and services should be handed over to the private sector and local and international expert consultants. Ko Ye believes this is most effective given that the government lacks technicians with expertise for efficient and high-quality ICT development.