Tradition and modernity mix effortlessly in Myanmar today

Tradition and modernity mix effortlessly in Myanmar today

Image by OneWorld

OneWorld has just concluded a scoping study on ICT, Democracy and Active Citizenship in Myanmar. The full report of that study can be downloaded from the OneWorld website here.

By Jeffrey Allen, OneWorld

YANGON, Oct 19 - Myanmar is at a historic crossroads. The beginnings of an unprecedented democratic transition have come just as the spread of mobile phones and the internet is opening up massive new opportunities for communication and learning for the more than 50 million people who live here.

The country, whose official name was changed from Burma in 1989, has been largely isolated from the rest of the world by its military rulers who seized power in 1962 and have held it ever since.

But over the past four years, a series of reforms has nominally moved Myanmar into the realm of democratic nations: multi-party elections have been held, political prisoners freed, restrictions on the media and public gatherings lifted, and ceasefires signed with most rebel groups fighting for ethnic autonomy in many parts of the country.

The international community has responded by lifting sanctions and re-establishing ties with Myanmar's leaders. And recognising the incredible opportunity to access new markets and affect positive change, international companies, NGOs, and funders are now pouring time and resources into Myanmar as never before, and domestic companies and civil society are emerging and expanding just as fast.

But it is no simple task to transition a diverse country of more than 50 million from five decades of one-party military rule to a fully functioning democracy that represents and responds to the will of its citizens, especially as tensions simmer and armed groups affiliated with minority ethnic groups continue to operate throughout much of the country.

A diverse country dealing with entrenched poverty, fast growth, and civil strife

It's one of the 25 most populous countries in the world, but in 2012, less than 10% of Myanmar's population were considered "established" or "affluent," according to research from the Boston Consulting Group, a firm that advises companies on business strategy worldwide. Another 20% were classified as "emerging," but that still left nearly seven out of ten Myanmar citizens down below in the "aspirant" and "poor" categories.

Millions of people still have to collect drinking water from local streams or rivers, and one out of three children are stunted or short for their age. This, in contrast with affluent pockets of society where SUVs ply the roads, young people read fashion magazines and follow Taylor Swift on Facebook, and monks use iPads to take photos of each other visiting national shrines. In the capital, Yangon, open sewers run alongside massive building sites advertising gleaming high-rise complexes for "21st century luxury living and business suites."

On top of the country's economic woes and inequality, ethnic and civil warfare have periodically rocked many regions since independence in 1948, and no less than 16 armed groups have been active in recent years in the regions where the Burman ethnic group, which represents about 60% of the population nationwide, is not the majority.

Ceasefires have periodically been agreed and ignored dozens of times, but now 14 of the 16 major armed groups have signed deals to stop fighting against the government, and a nationwide ceasefire agreement finally seems close. Many observers believe this time a peace deal might hold, paving the way for political negotiations to address the concerns of the ethnic minority groups that make up 40% of the country. 

So while the country's economic and social situation is expected to improve in the coming years, there is still a long way to go. And the scale of those improvements, the distribution of wealth, and the durability of the peace process will all depend largely on the outcome of the political transition, which is still very much in the air. 

Elections in 2015

The next major test of the country's commitment to democratic institutions and way of life will come at the end of 2015 as national elections aim to usher in a new period of political stability. The international community will be watching -- and to some extent, participating, supporting the national election commission as it sets the rules and prepares the country for the vote, and educates citizens nationwide about the process.

Democracy is a complicated concept and difficult to build in the real world. It requires a set of institutions that work properly and an informed electorate who understand their role and are willing to play it. All of this takes time to establish. In Myanmar, the people charged with running those institutions are new to the job, and the electorate are new to the process. But the process has begun now, so both will need to learn on the fly -- and in a short period of time.

There is clearly a hunger for democracy in Myanmar, even if the finer details of the process are still a mystery to many. As one civil society leader told me, "Our people have the goodwill to live in a democracy, but our capacity is very limited."

And on the eve of his visit to Myanmar two years ago, U.S. President Barack Obama talked about how he hoped his trip would encourage democratic ideals at the grassroots level. "Change can happen very fast," he said, "if a spotlight is shone on a country and the people there start believing that their voices can be heard."

The coming technology boom

Myanmar's citizens may soon have more opportunity than ever to make their voices heard. In the coming months and years, millions are expected to get access to affordable voice, SMS and internet services for the first time.

Only about 10 to 15 percent of people own a mobile phone today, but that's largely a historical relic of the one-party military rule. Until this year, the national telecommunications company was the only phone company, and its infrastructure was so poor that it had to ration sim cards to minimize usage. Just a few months ago, a sim card cost $100 on the black market. Not long before that, it cost $1,000.

Significantly, even though most could never dream of affording a sim card, many still began to purchase smartphones -- which can be had for as little as 40 or 50 U.S. dollars -- not for the communications potential, but for their ability to provide access to entertainment. The country's unstable electricity grid makes smartphones a more useful media player than power-hungry televisions and VCRs. And they're portable.

Myanmar may become the first country ever to leapfrog over the simple stick phone and the slightly more advanced "feature phone" directly to the smartphone. From the fruit seller in a rural market to the taxi driver in Yangon, cheap Chinese-made, Android-enabled smartphones are already the device of choice, even for those who have never heard of the internet.

But if they haven't heard of the internet yet, they will soon. International telecom giants from Norway and Qatar have launched services in the past month, and a Japanese firm is now working with the long-established national phone carrier to upgrade and extend its offerings, so voice and data connections will soon be spreading clear across the country. And competition will drive the prices down even farther than they have already.

Everyone who bought a phone to watch videos and share photos will soon be able to do so much more with it. 

The international non-governmental organisation FHI360 held a national consultation in Yangon in August with local and international technology experts, considering these changing dynamics and what they would mean for the people of Myanmar. Their tentative vision for the future of this fast-changing country: "By 2018, almost every household will have a smartphone, which means that almost every person will have access to a mobile device, and most people will own a mobile phone and have some level of both digital and information literacy to use the internet effectively."

There are already impressive examples of how mobile phones and the internet are making real improvements in people's lives. An app has been developed to notify farmers about nearby pests and diseases. Mobile money is allowing people to transfer parts of their salaries to family members far away. You can even look up your Member of Parliament on your smartphone and send him or her a Facebook message (if they have an account, which a few do). And the most basic use of mobile phones -- to stay in touch with friends far away, or to call from the fields back to the village to check on a sick child during the day -- may be the most life-changing of all.

All this is just the beginning. The implications for accessing information, knowledge, and ideas -- in this country that was until very recently politically, culturally and economically isolated -- are astounding.

Technology and politics are linked, for better or worse

But every coin has two sides. There are factions within this complicated country that are not so excited about the democratic transition or the peace process. Social media has already been used on occasion to foment rumours and instability, with the Mandalay riots earlier this year a prime example. Rumours were printed on an online news site that a woman of one religion had been raped by two men of another, and those rumours spread much faster on Facebook than the truth, which appears to be that the woman was paid to lodge a false complaint against her two employers.

In fact, much of the communal violence that has erupted in the past few years has stemmed from rumours of alleged rapes of women of one religion by men of another, whether the allegations were true or not.

Nobody knows if the Mandalay riots were a case of social media giving legs to a false story through its own natural mechanisms, or if there were darker forces plotting behind the scenes. Many in Myanmar believe the situation was orchestrated by those wanting to undermine the democratic transition or the peace process.

Whatever the truth, there's no doubt that these emerging technologies can be used for education and to promote tolerance, understanding, and equitable economic growth -- or they can be used to divide society and consolidate wealth and power for the privileged few.

So far, however, the examples of mobile and social media being used unscrupulously in Myanmar pale in comparison with the ways in which they're being used to enrich people's lives.

The coming years will tell if and how the people of Myanmar embrace both democracy and new technologies. One thing is for certain, their fates will surely be entwined.


+ For more on the current state of ICT, democracy and active citizenship in Myanmar, download the full report of OneWorld's recent scoping study here.


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