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Debate Over Role of the Internet in Developing Burma

BY Faine Greenwood | Wednesday, June 26 2013

Nay Phone Latt, Executive Director of MIDO, at Burma's first IFF (Faine Greenwood)

"You're going to an Internet freedom forum in Burma?" a friend of mine asked me. "Is that even legal?"

The question didn't surprise me. Many still imagine Burma as a place where activists and writers meet covertly in doughnut shops, trailed by secret police, and where bloggers and monks alike are thrown into prison for dissent.

But Burma is changing at a dizzying rate, as the government tries to slough off its former censorship regime and take tentative, delicate steps to build a more open and inclusive economy. The change is quite apparent, from the crumbling colonial buildings of Yangon to the hinterlands near the Chinese border. Kids in traditional dress now walk Yangon's city streets with smartphones glued to their ears. Shop keepers gather in the evening around the glowing screen of a tablet computer. Hundreds of thousands of people in Burma — around 80 percent of Internet users there, by one estimate — now use Facebook. Even the iconic gold-plated Shwedagon Pagoda offers a WiFi hot spot.

In another signal of Burma's technological and cultural-political changes, a small group of local bloggers, technologists, and general-interest geeks banded together to host the country's first ever forum on Internet freedom at the beginning of June. The event revealed optimism about opportunities for a newly connected society, even as bloggers and observers expressed uncertainty about growing tension between a desire for openness and a need for stability in the face of sectarian conflict.

Burma's Internet Freedom Pioneers

Nay Phone Latt, 33, is best known as the blogger who received a 12-year jail sentence in 2008 for denigrating then military leader Than Swe in a cartoon. His arrest occurred shortly after the 2007 "Saffron Revolution" when the Burmese military and police reacted violently to the peaceful protest, shooting and beating dozens, if not hundreds of participants, according to some estimates. Nay Phone Latt was finally released from prison in 2012 after serving four years. His next move was to help create the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization, or MIDO, an NGO that seeks to teach people how to use Internet technologies to reach development goals.

MIDO faces significant battles, unable to even pinpoint the number of Internet users in the country. Figures on Internet usage in Burma are maddeningly unspecific, with estimates from NGOs, the UN, and other entities ranging from 2 to 7 percent of the population. In fact, no one knows how many people there are in Myanmar, period. Counts of the total population vary by as much as one million souls, and a census hasn't been taken since the colonial era. MIDO, the government, and other technologists remain frustratingly unaware of basic facts about Internet usage.

Nevertheless, part of MIDO's work is to train volunteers who would be deployed across the country to gather information about the state of the Burmese Internet. Also, since its founding, the MIDO team has wanted to hold a forum on Internet freedom. It finally got its chance after winning a grant from Freedom House last November.

Government, Citizens and Shared Goals

The conference, held at an industrial park in Yangon, drew 370 Burmese citizens and officials, presenting an opportunity for both groups to discuss the future of technology and the Internet in their country.

It was startling to see the conference open with a speech from a government official, the Information Technology Deputy Minister Thaung Tin. Even more shocking, for those who remembered the brutal days under Burma's former military regime, were the sympathetic tones Tin struck as he voiced aspirations for Burma's ICT future.

"We are going to get good Internet access all over our country, even in suburban and urban areas, with a fair price," said Thaung Tin, acknowledging that the price of a connection can often be shockingly expensive for both rural and urban users alike.

"In the future, kids will be able to use an iPad or a tablet in school, will be able to use Google to search for whatever he or she needs," said Thaung Tin.

The attendee list signaled a more inclusive future for the Burmese Internet. Rather than the mostly male crowd that usually turns up for Internet-focused events, organizers said, 35 to 40 percent of the participants were women, including many professionals in the IT sector. Some attendees, organizers said, traveled for days from remote home provinces to rub elbows with officials attending from the Japanese Embassy and the European Commission. The U.S. State Department, a common partner in hosting events focused on a free and open Internet, was notably absent.

Retired teacher Khin Nyu attended with his 20-something son.

"I want to know exactly what the ISP is doing," he told me. "I want to know what websites the government controls — I want to know if it's the ISP, or the government."

Urgent Need for Infrastructure

There were a handful of ironies at the conference — like the low-tech use of yellow sticky notes for brainstorming. Entire walls would be papered in them. Some of the workshops and panel discussions also touched on matters of Internet law and copyright, even though almost no one in Burma can afford to pay full price for licensed software — a problem that may become considerable as major multinational software companies contemplate dipping their toe into Burma's market.

The biggest problem in Burma, however, is a lack of infrastructure. Myanmar's next generation of entrepreneurs must struggle with faulty electricity grids, glacially slow connections, and old computers.

"When we do trainings in rural areas, we're asking the rural communities to be self-reliant, and not wait for the government to come before they improve infrastructure," noted Nay Phone Latt at one of the panels.

Nay Phone Latt travels regularly to remote areas of Burma on MIDO's Internet missions. He told me later that he's observed rural communities powering their electricity and Internet connections with resources like hydropower and solar, unaided by the government — all signs that the Burmese people are eager to move into the 21st century, regardless of whether the government helps them or not.

Businesses, already salivating at the prospect of moving into this resource-rich nation, complain about sluggish speeds and poor infrastructure just as much as citizens. Nay Phone Latt and others hope that their government will soon move to open up a competitive telecommunications market, in conjunctions with recent promises to improve online infrastructure prior to the 2014 Southeast Asia Games.

But progress has been frustratingly slow, as the regime keeps dangling the prospects of a true telecommunications law before both business and the public sector alike. Authorities continue to claim that the law will come around in a "few months."

International businesses are currently vying to win one of two telecommunications contracts in Burma, which would finally create the competitive market that many hope will improve infrastructure and speed up Internet connections. However, activists fear that Chinese companies will walk away with one or both of the contracts, potentially adding another layer of surveillance to their phone lines.

These major businesses will require trained Burmese techies if they're to be successful, and training — both for business and in the interest of democracy — are major priorities for the MIDO crew, Nay Phone Latt expressed to me.

"We can use the Internet now, and we have a chance. In remote areas, though, they don't know what kind of chances are opening for them, they cannot get that kind of chance," Nay Phone Latt said, describing MIDO's rural work. "They can make their lives, develop a lot, and help the community develop."

Nay Phone Latt says he recently talked to Google's Eric Schmidt and asked him if he felt that people required training to use the Internet or mobile phones. Schmidt replied, "You don't need any training, you just give them the telephone."

The blogger was incredulous. The sudden introduction of MacBooks and high powered smartphones into Burma's remotest hinterlands and mountain regions, he said, will not be a silver bullet.

"Just giving them the technology, only the technology is very dangerous for the people," he said. "The technology is just a tool and you can use it with good intentions, and you can use it with a bad direction, too."

"Most people are just using it for fun," he continued. "So I think we need to educate the people about the ICT. We should show them what they can use, and by the head of tech — not just for business but for society."

No Safety Net on the Internet

"When you hear a conversation, many elder people think the Internet is a broadcasting network or journal, and think everything is true," said Htaike Htaike Aung, one of MIDO's co-founders, over a bowl of Burmese fish noodles. She noted that many elderly people especially think of Facebook as an infallible source of information.

"People aren't used to the Internet, the trend of the Internet," she said. "And they believe everything."

The danger can be especially true for young people eager to leave their impoverished home regions for a better life in neighboring nations — an ambition that's often exploited by less-than-scrupulous websites hunting for the desperate and naive.

"One of my friends was in Chin State, and she saw this girl looking at a Facebook page — a website that was encouraging girls to work in Thailand as sex workers," recalls Htaike Htaike Aung, who helps lead Internet-safety workshops in rural parts of the country for MIDO.

"When my friend saw her looking at the page, she told her that it was a really bad thing. But the girl said someone had forwarded it to her, who thought that it could help her find a job," she said.

These dangerous exchanges will only occur more often as more and more young Burmese gain access to the Internet, without the educational context needed to safely navigate an unregulated Internet.

Even people who aren't regularly online can be very much affected by what happens on the Internet, Htaike Htaike Aung said.

"We have this trend in Myanmar — although we only have 7 percent Internet penetration, if something becomes popular online, it's burned on CDs and DVDs and goes [viral] throughout the country," she said, noting that viral content recently included the more innocent "Gangnam Style" to a racy sex tape involving a popular actress.

Ambiguous Law

It's unclear how officials will deal with the stormclouds looming over Burma's tech future.

Although bloggers are no longer being imprisoned, the 2004 Electronic Transactions Law, under which Nay Phone Latt was imprisoned, has yet to be repealed or replaced. This makes technology watchers nervous.

"Currently, the law's main purpose is punishment, not protection," Pandora, a blogger, told me. "I just looked through the law recently, and it needs to [be] amended — or better yet, repealed. The interpretation is very ambiguous."

The government is working with the Myanmar Computer Federation, MIDO, and other groups to amend the draft law, says Nay Phone Latt, but it remains unclear when a new communications law will be drafted. Further, many Internet advocates have an unusual concern: a new law could potentially be too liberal.

As the international media has aptly highlighted, tension between Buddhists and Muslims is reaching dangerous levels in Myanmar. This has been especially problematic for the Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim minority.

Now many anti-Muslim activists are turning to the Internet to voice their views and attract new supporters. It's a problem that participants at the forum were concerned about, with many calling for some sort of regulatory framework to address the issue.

"Online anti-Islamic invective is alarming because it is so relatively elite, and the pushback or counter-narrative has not been as effective as one would wish for," said Human Rights Watch researcher David Mathieson, who has been observing Burma both inside and outside the country for years. "It is a lamentable coincidence that at a time when social media use in Burma, especially Facebook, is growing, so too is a virulently ill-informed, bigoted anti-Muslim push."

This causes a backlash, Htaike Htaike Aung says.

"Some people we meet are saying 'If the Internet is free, would this give them a chance to cause more problems?'" she told me. "Some people are even saying 'Block Facebook because it's causing trouble.' That's not a good trend."

Faine Greenwood is an American freelance journalist based in Cambodia.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.