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Burma Liberalizes Internet Access, But Connectivity Remains out of Reach for the Vast Majority

BY Lisa Goldman | Tuesday, September 11 2012

Burma (Myanmar) is cautiously liberalizing although Human Rights Watch reports that the situation there is still "dire," despite the release of some political prisoners and the abolishment of state censorship of the local media. Access to the Internet and mobile phones is extremely limited in Burma, but there have been some recent changes in government policy, according to a Freedom House report written by a Sam duPont, a researcher who recently spent 10 days in Rangoon, working with human rights activists.

Digital literacy is low, he reports: Only about 0.2 percent of Burmese have Internet access, while only one in 100 owns a mobile phone. The low penetration of what is viewed in most of the world as essential technology stems from the twin factors of government policy and poverty.

The major obstacles to broader, speedier connectivity in Burma have been—and continue to be—poverty and government policy. The handful of internet service providers operating in Burma are controlled by a cabal of political cronies, and the government has set high prices to prevent its citizens from accessing the global information network. Until recently, installing a home or office broadband connection cost a ludicrous $1,500—this in a country where the gross domestic product per capita is about $1,300, and a third of the population lives below the poverty line. In the past year, connection fees have dropped to a still outlandish $700. For those who can afford a connection, prices for ongoing access remain high: unlimited web access costs about $155 per month. These connections are agonizingly slow, reminiscent of the days of the 56k modem. Outside Rangoon and Mandalay, Burma’s second-largest city, high-speed internet access is rare, if not altogether unavailable.

The government has even tighter control of the mobile phone market. Myanmar Post and Telecommunication (MPT), a state-owned entity, is the sole mobile network operator. As with the internet, prices are set to prevent access for all but the most affluent. While a SIM card in neighboring Thailand costs less than $1.50, acquiring a GSM SIM in Burma costs at least $250—a very high bar for most Burmese, though a dramatic drop from the $500 it cost until recently.

DuPont writes that the government's tentative liberalization of media and mobile phone access could be an indicator of reform, but then ends with this:

A cynical—though probably realistic—interpretation of the new moves toward broader, lower-cost access might posit that the Burmese government foresees such a bounty of online and mobile surveillance (as already practiced in countries like China and Iran) that the expected political cost of expanding access has dropped to nil. But for those activists with the skills to ensure a degree of digital security, the falling cost and rising speed of internet access will be a boon to their efforts at protest, organizing, and advocacy. In a country so long cut off from the world, the greater opportunity to access information and express opinions is an immense and positive change.

In other words, the government might aspire to mimic the Syrian regime, which stopped filtering social media platforms and Skype in order to facilitate spying via malware and eavesdropping on conversations.

Activists will have to learn quickly about digital security.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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