Just a few years ago, online access in Myanmar was limited to the very few. But plummeting prices for SIM cards and smartphones have brought mobile Internet to almost everyone — with some unforeseen consequences.
Just a few years ago, buying a SIM card would have required a citizen of Myanmar to save every penny for months – or even years. A few years before that, owning one would have been unthinkable. In 2000, a SIM card in Myanmar cost $5,000 (€ 4,400). Prices fell, but as recently as 2013, a potential mobile subscriber in Myanmar would need to come up with $150 for a chip, if they could even afford a phone to put it in. But in 2013, the telecommunications market was liberalized and competitors appeared on the scene, leading to a dramatic drop in prices that has continued unabated. Today, a potential subscriber might pay $1.50 or less for a SIM card, or about 1% of the 2013 cost.
Today, Myanmar’s SIM card penetration rate is over 105%. The arrival of cheap Chinese-made smartphones and a steady, if sometimes bumpy, infrastructure build-out, has made mobile Internet available in most of the country. While people in remote areas might have to make do with 2G service, 3G and 4G connections are the norm in many regions.
Running, and stumbling, before learning to walk
But this rapid opening of the digital floodgates has a negative side—not unique to Myanmar but perhaps with more serious consequences. Government officials like to talk about Myanmar “leapfrogging” technologies like dial-up modems and desktop computers. Indeed, the country jumped from the equivalent of the digital Stone Age to Facebook Live, with very little in between. But this warp-speed opening up to the digital world and its torrent of information – and disinformation – has had a not always positive impact on a population affected by decades of dictatorship, isolation from the outside world and media content produced under the strict control of the government.
"We have been overwhelmed by this new access to information; it happened so suddenly," said Soe Lin Htoot, founder of Civic Tech a communications for development and democracy start-up. While he and other tech innovators in the country are enthusiastic advocates of digital participation, they also worry that the country – a nascent democracy with a patchwork of ethnicities that do not always get along – is feeling the downside of digital acutely, as old forms of discrimination are communicated in more efficient and sometimes deadlier forms.
Hate speech in the newsfeed
The bloody expulsion of the ethnic Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2017 and Facebook’s role in it is a case in point. Researchers and human rights activists had cautioned Facebook for years that its platform was being used to promote racism and hatred of Muslims in Myanmar, in particular the Rohingya. In 2018, a United Nations report argued that social media played a significant role in the build-up of hate that erupted in violence against the Rohingya. A Reuters investigation that same year found more than 1,000 examples of hate speech on Facebook attacking the Rohingya and other Muslims. The UN says the tech giant is still not doing as much as it should to prevent the ongoing promotion of violence and hate in Myanmar on its network.
Facebook’s role in Myanmar – for good or ill – cannot be underplayed, since for most Myanmar citizens, Facebook IS the Internet. When people buy their phones, certain apps are usually pre-installed, Facebook always being one of them. So when people go online, they’re going on Facebook and usually staying there. Furthermore, because there is no digital education in schools in Myanmar and little to no experience with computers or even how the media works, people are not equipped with the necessary tools to distinguish between good and bad information – accurate news from reputable sources or disinformation from bad actors.
Myanmar’s very low level of media literacy have proven irresistible to bad actors, who have taken advantage by using increasingly sophisticated methods. Fake Facebook accounts proliferate, fake pages mimic legitimate media outlets and publish false stories that look authentic to the untrained eye. "It is very organized and takes a lot of time and effort," said Phyu Phyu Thi, who studies social media and information spread for the digital literacy organization MIDO. She and others are particularly concerned about the national elections in 2020 and the effect that expected disinformation campaigns might have on them.
This low level of media literacy has had other consequences as well. While digital participation is high, it has been, up to now, generally of a passive nature. While people know how to scroll through their Facebook feeds and share pictures, only a few use the Internet to promote causes or raise awareness of civic issues. That has begun to change, slowly, and Facebook groups around certain topics or focused on certain townships or regions have gained in popularity – another village square, if you will. But civic activism online is still in its early stages, hampered by frequent online attacks, often by fake accounts, on government officials, activists and journalists – especially when it addresses any kind of controversial topic.
Digital media lag
Digital media is still in its early days in Myanmar, and there is a good amount of room for improvement. While many print publications that blossomed when the government ended pre-production censorship in 2012 are now struggling to keep the presses running, online media largely still looks to the print press for its content and formats. Many media company owners are older and do not understand digital content and marketing. While digital literacy levels in Myanmar are generally low, they are not much higher among journalists, some 80% of whom have had no formal journalistic training, not to mention any kind of focus on digital media. Some older journalists still write stories by hand.
As with many digital matters in Myanmar, the situation is slowly improving. There are a handful of journalism schools and institutes that have added digital journalism to their curricula. But a significant uptick in quality won’t happen overnight. And for many, a career in journalism is simply not that appealing. Journalists are poorly paid—average salaries run between $300-400 per month. And with the financing of media outlets a continuous problem, few are in the economic position to invest in the development of digital skills for their staff or invest in new ways of storytelling online.
Expression under pressure
Journalists, among others, are also put under pressure by the government and powerful elites through a number of laws – some from the colonial era – that stifle free expression. It was hoped that the 2015 election of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) would herald a new era of press freedom, but the opposite has happened. There has in fact been an increase in arrests and prosecutions under existing laws and new measures, such as a social media monitoring team put in place in 2018, which points to the government’s continued willingness to police digital communications and infringe on human rights.
Digital rights, in particular, have come under attack through controversial clauses in the 2013 Telecommunications Act, which includes the vaguely worded Article 66(d) which criminalizes online defamation and Article 68 criminalizes “communication, reception, sending, distribution or sharing of incorrect information with dishonest intention.” Despite pressure from activists to repeal the articles as well as a 2017 amendment, the legislation still is largely seen as having a chilling effect on free speech.
Innovation slowly gathering speed
Despite these issues, there is a vibrant, if small, innovative scene in the country, centered mostly in the commercial capital Yangon. At the forefront are ICT hubs and innovation labs like Phandeeyar, where developers come together to work on innovative projects in a range of tech disciplines. The center also runs training programs on topics like data journalism and holds conferences, like the Myanmar Digital Rights Forum, which attracts international experts.
Despite a growing number of digitally oriented, active youth interested in tech for change, innovation is hampered in Myanmar by a lack of funding, especially in the media sector. Crowdfunding has yet to take hold. Other stumbling blocks include traditional ways of doing business and a lack of knowledge of digital developments on the part of decision-makers both in government and the private sector. “A lot of people are afraid of change,” said Hsan Winn Hlaing of Phandeeyar. "Innovation is coming, but it is very slow because we don’t have a lot of experience in that area."
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer