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Sophie Schmidt

Consultant, Richardson Center for Global Engagement

'Who Uses Email?' No Hands. 'Gmail?' Every Hand Up: Talking Tech and Politics in Myanmar
Posted: 07/24/2013 10:27 am

This June, I joined the Richardson Center for Global Engagement's (RCGE) team in Yangon, Myanmar to conduct a series of workshops on information technology and how to make the most of the country's nascent connectivity. We set up trainings with politicians, NGO staffers, students and other assorted young upstarts -- all looking to capitalize, in their own ways, on the promises that Myanmar's recent political and economic reforms hold. For a graduate student with a summer to fill and an interest in transitional emerging markets -- preferably those with a bit of a bite -there's no finer place to be in 2013 than Myanmar. The country's muchlauded transition from isolated junta-led backwater to the rapidly-

My favorite square on the Transitional Myanmar bingo card remains the taxi window touts trying to sell me a photocopy of the latest version of the Foreign Investment Law. the Myanmar government banned an issue of TIME magazine for its story about extremist monks ("The Face of Buddhist Terror"). Two weeks ago. (Got one. Unsurprisingly. despite the fact that Myanmar has the benefit of being connected to the SEAME-WE fiber-optic cable. the effects are profound. for reasons that are economic (no credit . Not one of my workshop participants had ever purchased a TIME magazine -. Myanmar is a country full of people who will tell you they don't use the Internet but reply "Of course" when you ask if they're on Facebook. from the stacks of uncensored daily newspapers and traffic on the streets (thanks to drastic cuts in car import tariffs) to the new mobile phones tucked into the waistbands of men's traditional longyi skirts. everyone had seen the cover and developed an opinion about it.and their underlying motives -. the limited access I see in Yangon is virtually nonexistent outside city centers. The change is visible everywhere. Internet technology and mobile phones. the challenges of connecting a poor and overwhelmingly rural population come down to decidedly unsexy issues like price and infrastructure. thanks guys.are prohibitively slow and expensive.) Debates remain about the permanence of many reforms -. Even the smallest bit of connectivity can transform the way a person sees the world and his place in it.typically through their mobile phones or Internet cafes -.but thanks to Facebook.most had never even heard of it -. Many popular products and platforms are not supported in Myanmar.liberalizing bright light of Southeast Asia is palpable in person. available in English and Myanmar. As elsewhere in developing countries. and the connections most people can get -.but over in my little patch of grass.

The recent awarding of telecom licenses to Qatar's Ooredoo and Norway's Telenor should help accelerate mobile adoption across the country. allocated to citizens through a public lottery and only in locations chosen by the government. financial transactions.even those who have purchased phones.literally. distributed by the state-run telecom Myanmar Post and Telecommunications (MPT).must wait for their number to be called.over 100 percent. Within the last year. . small business growth. many in Myanmar -. unique in some interesting ways once you look closer. Many poor countries have incredibly high rates of mobile penetration -. now used as entertainment devices -. delayed batches: 350. This scarcity.) To describe these limitations as "frustrating" would be like calling Yangon's daily monsoon rains "wet. The tech situation in Myanmar is. dropping from over US$3000 to about US$1. education.000 each month (with a share already reserved for civil servants). were it not for the fact that MPT chose to release these affordable chips in small. however. just cellphones--are doing for health." The briefest of glimpses at what basic communications technologies -. since people buy multiple SIM cards and swap them in and out to expertly price discriminate. prices for SIM cards.50. legal (the Internet policy laws remain in draft form) or technical (such as the localization of Myanmar script). civil engagement and so much else in places like India. (In the meantime. Exhibit A: the SIM card lottery. Bluetooth sharing platforms like Zapya and the side-loading of pirated Android applications help keep content churning. were cut by 99 percent. creates an instant black market for resold SIM cards at prices reaching towards pre-reform levels. of course. but for now. This would be an extraordinarily exciting change.cards). Myanmar's rate is under 10 percent.

for information about populations. the country suffers from a profound lack of reliable data on anything and everything. when it comes to matters like these. is both a critical step and a true opportunity. language barriers. markets. "Who uses email?" No hands." Building the knowledge base now. among others -. no banking yet.g. so to speak: "You may not use these/need those/care about this now. patchy telephone coverage.e.head-on. Instead researchers must combat all manner of obstacles -. My Richardson Center trainings were designed to put the cart before the horse. on practices and platforms that will serve them well in years to come. Nevertheless.Kenya and the Philippines can tell you that Myanmar's long journey to prosperity is clearly being held back by policies like the SIM card lottery. For one example. As one grinning network security analyst told me when I asked about hacking. like a popular social networking platform or a clever offline sharing . Myanmar locals can usually find a silver lining. "We have no credit cards.already used extensively in both developing and conflict countries -. We have nothing worth stealing!" The Workshops But if the pace of change in Myanmar is any indication. behaviors and opinions. "Who uses Gmail?" Every hand up -. these limitations on access will shift sooner than we expect.but as elsewhere in emerging market environments." I told participants.could collect and analyze that data instantly.poor roads. limited education and heavily land-mined terrain. and very simple SMS survey platforms -. More phones means more data points. when something works. Most Burmese may be at an early stage of familiarity with technology -. "but you will before you know it.

and sometimes spurred on by. and how to use connectivity to engage with local and international media. the question of how a political actor should behave online is especially relevant -.and will become even more so as the stakes rise. my training dovetailed with a presentation on political messaging from the Richardson Center's Mindy Walker. various offline strategies for dealing with constituents without Internet or network access. people teach each other faster than any visiting trainer could. These participants came largely from the opposition party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi. and we also had trainees representing several of the ethnic parties from Chin. the National League for Democracy (NLD).nothing you post can ever be deleted -. when I took them through hypothetical scenarios. I reminded them that Myanmar's newly-unleashed press corps is full of journalists who had been put in prison for reporting under the former government.strategy. Shan and Rakhine states that ring Myanmar.means they will need to be careful and to think long-term about how they present themselves. what they share and how they engage with the public online. The most interesting part of the workshop came at the end. It became clear that they didn't need to be tech-savvy to understand the calculation that data permanence -. I discussed things like different social media platforms they can use now. and they will be relentless for years to come. I raised the question of how to think about being online as an accountable public figure. So what did I talk about? For politicians. social networking sites. More importantly. With national elections two years away and turbulent domestic news (particularly around Buddhist-Muslim violence) regularly appearing on. like "A journalist has found embarrassing photos of you on your friend's private Facebook page and .

finally arrives. At local NGOs. my workshops covered more broadly focused topics: how to be safe online. without fail. delightful to interact with and eager to learn. reliable. and I count myself very lucky to witness some small slice of one this summer. I've yet to meet anyone working in Myanmar who is not similarly excited about the potential of this country and these people. how to build social media influence. not so much. even when unfamiliarity with technology and language barriers threatened to derail the endeavor. It's thrilling to think of what can happen in Myanmar when connectivity -.fast. There are very few "Year Zero" countries left in the world when it comes to the Internet. It's true that I might wince at the ubiquity of the imperfect phrase "capacity building" in . I am still digesting this experience. economic and cultural challenges aside. when it comes to politicians and the Internet knowing and should know better are rather distinct categories. affordable and inclusive access -. as we know from myriad American examples. Some concepts were more successful than others -. Do you delete the photos?" (The answer is no. tweeting and sharing was highly encouraging--though. but even prior experience in other emerging markets doesn't compare to the sense of possibility in Myanmar. all political. how to identify phishing attempts and so on. yes. if only because it is both so behind and so determined to catch up.spam email and search strings.) Seeing how quickly they grasped these ideas. how to make the most of low bandwidth. But participants were.is threatening to publish them. even arguing with each other about just how cautious to be about posting. how to search smarter. keyword optimization and the perils of cookies. I find the technology adoption process fascinating. and suspect I will for some time.

management and other skills that she was excitedly picking through. "They've never been used before.Myanmar." she said. she sighed. "they're precious -.everyone wants them. with a smile. "Our minds. and the flood of newly available classes in English. the various obstacles that must be overcome to introduce ideas like critical thinking." . but then I'm reminded of something a young journalist told me." Then. After describing the woeful state of education in the country.