Myanmar’s online and democratic frontiers

I will soon be travelling to Myanmar as part of the project, Information Strategies for Societies in Transition, to encourage better understanding and use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) in the rapidly developing country. Formerly known as Burma, it is undergoing an incredible political, social and economic transition after years of authoritarian rule.

One of Southeast Asia’s most unyielding dictatorships gradually relinquished power in recent years. The movement towards democracy really got going with an announcement in 2011 that the junta in charge since a coup in 1962 would be devolving power and allowing free elections. As a sign of this shift, they also released Aung Sung Su Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and the leader of the opposition, from house arrest, and allowed her National League for Democracy to participate in elections. Historically, the ruling junta prevented the NLD from participating in politics and she had been under guard or surveillance almost constantly ever since the violent protests and aborted election of the “8888 Uprising” in 1988.

In the 2012 by-elections, her party won 44 out of 45 open seats and is now setting the stage for presidential elections next year. In this highly charged political transition, the country is also finding itself besieged by new sources of investment and foreign aid as international sanctions are relaxed and companies, NGOs and governments move in with multiple, often competing interests in new markets, the rapidly evolving political system and now largely open civil society.

New telecommunications systems are going to play a huge role in this transition, economic benefits will come hand in hand with access to global financial and political networks as well as an opening of social networks to discuss myriad topics that were once off limits. Politics is a big one, but cultural domains such as art and music are also transforming through the weakening of censorship laws and imports from abroad that many in Myanmar will have never experienced before.

In 2013 less than 1 of every 50 citizens had access to the Internet, few had ever even seen it before, and if they had, it was likely through a cell phone that at least 10% of people now possess. However, until the relaxation of the military’s grip on power, SIM cards cost around $500 and most of the equipment used to access the Internet, such as smart phones or modems, were similarly expensive, and often only available to government employees.

As with many things in Myanmar, this is rapidly changing. The government has loosened or negated cybersecurity laws that prevented ordinary citizens from accessing the Internet or even importing and registering a modem. This year, two foreign telecom providers, Telenor of Norway and Ooredoo of Qatar, received licenses to develop cell phone networks to span the country and provide around 80% the population with mobile communication access in under five years. Those $500 SIM cards were reduced to $250 in 2012 and are moving towards prices that the rest of the world knows (roughly $1.50 or 1500 Myanmar Kyat), and the cell phones, tablets and computers that can access the Internet are also being allowed into the country in a technology import environment that is far less restricted.

The Internet itself is far less censored than ever before, and many experts in the field, such as Freedom House argue that is now less restricted than its neighbors in the ASEAN region such as the former communist states of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, or its neighbor Thailand, now reverting to dictatorship. In some ways, the government is still getting a handle on the new systems and has not developed the ability, whether through technology, policy or personnel, to censor and surveil in the way the intelligence appartatuses of other authoritarian or transitional regimes around the world have made their bread and butter.

It remains unclear whether there will be a reversion to authoritarianism, either in physical or online space. What is clear is that there will be a strong linkage between the success or failure of democracy in the country and the development of its nascent online space. For the past year, I have been working on a project with a group at the University of Washington supported by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Microsoft and the Gates Foundation to work with actors within the government, opposition, the press, and broader civil society to start the conversation around the formation of a democratic information society.

We have engaged with a group of fellows from across different sectors of society, including journalists, NGO workers, librarians, opposition party members and government officials. This network is engaging in seminars both here in Seattle and in Myanmar on informational topics such as project management and digitial literacy, as well as lectures covering crowdsourcing, Internet enabled election monitoring, encryption technologies and social media, amongst others. The truly challenging aspect of working in this country is that it is almost a blank slate in terms of what people have experienced technologically and what they know about Information Communication Technologies (ICTs).

They have much to learn and assimilate in an increasingly compressed timescale, and very little research has gone into teaching people about ICT concepts and practice in places with low bandwidth, weak infrastructure and poor general IT knowledge. With the help of our partners in the country, the NGOs Minerva Education Center and Myanmar Egress, we are working to develop a curriculum to teach people both competency with new digital tools and knowledge of the role of ICTs. This includes better information literacy to understand the growing flood of data inundating the country as old barriers of censorship fall, infrastructure develops, and fear of surveillance, arrest and imprisonment fade.

Whether we are seeing the beginning of a new democratic society or the development of an increasingly fractured one remains to be seen, as weak truces hold in civil conflicts across the country. An increasingly fractious conflict between the majority Buddhist population and the Muslims of the Rakhine state in the west of the country has even drawn the attention of Anonymous hackers around the world, who brought down several government websites last year in response to attacks on the Muslim minority by mobs, often spurred by calls to action through Facebook and other social media.

These conflicts illustrate the growing tensions these new technologies are stoking, the potential for negative outcomes as well as positive ones as the Internet becomes more prevalent in a place where it, and the information it is presenting, is not well evaluated or understood by a growing number of new users. Part of our project is to play a role in fostering IT skills and pushing both leaders and regular citizens to begin thinking more critically about the information they are receiving and creating to manage and distribute it more effectively using a range of technologies. As countries around the world like Myanmar are finding, rich and poor, authoritarian or democratic, this is an increasingly challenging but important task in any truly independent and dynamic 21st century political system.

This blog post, written by Dan Arnaudo on his blog ipolitico, was reposted here with his permission. Dan is currently working on TASCHA’s Information Strategies for Societies in Transition project.