Digital Democracy

Empowering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

Burma/Myanmar Research 2009

Digital Democracy
Finding a Voice

Empowering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

Access to information & communication technology before the 2010 elections

Country Snapshot
Burma/Myanmar has a population just over 50 million people, including 135 distinct ethnic groups. A former British colony, it gained independence in 1948, and has been ruled by a military dictatorship since 1962. For decades, the military has waged war against ethnic minority groups around the country's borders. The economy is currently the poorest in Southeast Asia. ! In September 2007, despite less than 1% Internet access*, new technology played a key role in monk-led protests which took place across the country, the largest protests since 1988. Mobile phones, digital cameras and Internet access were widely credited with helping to coordinate actions and reporting the events around the world. When the government violently cracked down on protestors, they shut down internet and mobiles to prevent communication with the outside world. ! Dd’s previous research in the region discovered a sophisticated network of community based organizations inside the country and around its borders, working on issues including health, education and human rights. In the border regions, there is considerable technology "spillover" from neighboring Thailand, Bangladesh, India and China.! ! In 2003 the ruling State Peace and Development Council proposed a "road map to democracy" to transition from military to democratic rule. The fifth step, a national election, is planned for 2010. In the lead up to this election, there are conflicting ideas from Burmese groups on how to proceed. ! Currently, at least 2173 political prisoners are serving sentences inside Burma, including at least two bloggers. The government has grown increasingly sophisticated in monitoring technology use, and China is a major supporter of the military junta. Since fall 2009, US policy has been shifting under the Obama administration, but the US maintains economic sanctions against the country.
* OpenNet Initiative, Internet Filtering in Burma (2005)
Map of Burma/Myanmar

Weekly newspaper

Why We Went
In August 2009, Digital Democracy sent two staff members to Burma/ Myanmar to conduct research on technology use, communication and civic engagement in the country. The trip offered the opportunity to look at communication in a censored society with minimal technology penetration, and develop unique mobile & internet technology strategies with Burmese community groups and technology firms working to benefit their society. The tripʼs goals were to conduct research through data mapping, perform trainings, and create media profiles of individuals and organizations. Dd visited Mandalay Division, Rakhine/Arakan State and Yangon/Rangoon Division. Digital Democracy has previously conducted research with Burmese groups in Thailand, Bangladesh India and China.

Digital Democracy is a non-profit organization using digital technologies to empower civic engagement. We work with local partners to develop tools that help community organizations promote human rights and build local capacity. Emphasizing the need for new media literacy, we prepare youth and communities with the tools they need to be informed and engaged citizens in the 21st century. 

Digital Democracy
What We Did
Resource Mapping

Empowering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

! A key portion of our research was data mining in internet cafes. These points of internet access were widely accessible in each city, though mainly laid out as panopticons, where anyone standing in the middle of the room could monitor the activities of all users. This made it difficult to browse freely and to review background processes. Nonetheless, we were able to document types of programs, speed, and information accessed. ! Using GPS mapping devices, we documented our travels to verify the reliability of maps throughout the country. These maps were then contributed to Open Street Maps, an increasingly popular tool since the response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008 proved a need for free information to aid development and disaster response. ! Our survey of alternative media and censorship information gave us insights into the extent of technical restrictions as well as access to training materials. Secure documentation was pivotal to conduct our research safely. We used digital paper and, for calls and information storage, beta-tested Guardian, a secure mobile phone built on an open source operating system.
Young people at the Galaxy Cyber Cafe in Sittwe, Arakhan/Rakhine State.

Curricula Development
In downtown Yangon/Rangoon Dd held an informational discussion titled "Open Journalism" for a group of 10 journalists and bloggers. This was modeled after the Dd new media literacy training with a specific focus on securityspecific questions posed by participants. ! At this training and around the country, we disseminated new media literacy materials in English & Burmese. These included e-books, short films, public service announcements, documentary films, human rights-oriented feature films, security & circumvention technology programs and manuals for civic engagement.

New Media Profiles
Digital Democracy conducted interviews and filmed videos documenting the stories of former political prisoners, activists, musicians, and comedians for an intimate look into the current situation. Certain interviews have been distributed for air inside the country to the estimated million plus viewers of Democratic Voice of Burma.
A page from Internet Weekly with a profile of cyber attacks

Digital Democracy
Empowering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

What We Learned
Opportunities & Challenges to Access
Expensive at home, available in cafés: Home internet access remains prohibitively expensive. Some businesses have internet access, many are denied permits. Cyber cafes are common not only in major cities but in smaller towns, and are very popular among young people. Cost: • Home dial up connection: Set up fees about $200, monthly fee about $30 to local internet service provider. This method prevents incoming phone calls. • Home or business ADSL: Set up fees about $2000 for one time fees and approximately $60 per month. Popular for internet cafés and shared amongst several families. • Internet card: No monthly or set up fees. Only purchase of an internet card with pin code. 10 hrs for $5 and up. • Cyber Cafe hourly rates: Average 200 kyat (.25 USD)/hr. Communication, not Information: Cyber cafes are most commonly used for communications and entertainment, not information gathering. • Chat: The vast majority of cyber cafe goers spend their time chatting with friends using gTalk, pfingo & Skype which allow users to chat in Burmese and Roman characters with friends and relatives in different cities and overseas. Gaming is popular, mostly among early adolescents. • Websites: Few were accessed, often only for sports scores. • Social Networking: Facebook is increasingly popular (approx. 21,000 Burmese users in surrounding region) Twitter is much less common, although popular among members of the blogging community. Isolated Information Economy: Western sanctions have affected the IT industry. There are two internet service providers (semi-private Bagan Cybertech Teleport and government-run Myanma Post & Telecom). Slow internet speeds (downloads averaging at .15 mb/s) further hamper access. There is a lack of Burmese-language content that is digitized and available online, encouraged by two incompatible forms of typing: Unicode & Zawgyi. Despite these obstacles, there is a growing tech sector, and interest in industry career opportunities. Little new media literacy: An increasing number of users are joining social networking sites, but there is little awareness of security implications, such as risking persecution by joining the Aung San Suu Kyi Facebook group. Information is often cited without verification; even state-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar references "internet" as a source. Security risks: At the individual and organizational levels, not enough users practice adequate safety precautions. While more are using circumvention tools, there is not an accompanying sense of security. For many users this is not a deterrent, but for others, such as journalists and bloggers, lack of information on what the government is actually tracking

Illegal satellite receivers in Yangon.

Screenshot of national blockpage preventing access to

“Pentagon” cyber cafe in Yangon.

Digital Democracy
Empowering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

prevents them from conducting important research. • Precarious tools: Cyber cafe goers commonly use circumvention tools to access websites. Your Freedom, a free commercial proxy tool, is the most popular. Proxy servers are also accessed directly, but many go through censored countries such as Russia or Saudi Arabia. • Rumors prevail: The authorities effectively use information to obscure the reality on security measures practiced by the regime. One popular misconception is that internet cafes have software installed that takes screen shots every five minutes. We saw no evidence of such software being installed, and there is minimal capacity to trace back to use by individual users. • Network policing: Individual cafe administrators can see everything that users do at any given time (and can take screenshots). However, there is an economic incentive to offer open Internet access to draw in customers. Many even have ironic names such as "Pentagon" & "Master Peace."

Typical mobile phone usage in a downtown tea shop

Proliferation of mobiles
Major reduction in costs: A permanent GSM sim card is 2.5 million kyat, over $2000 on the black market. However, in early 2009 the government announced reduced rates for pre-paid sim cards, valid for 30 days, which costs about $25 US dollars. This drastic reduction in price has put many more phones in peopleʼs hands. Mobile hardware is widely available at minor markup compared to Thailand. With both "normal" and prepaid sims international calling is available, and international SMS restricted. • Uses: There is no mobile internet through GPRS. Even when sim cards have expired or credit has run out, mobile phones are status symbols, and used to play games. • Availability of sim cards: Although purchasing a sim card requires a name and id number, many stores do not actually check ids, making it easy for consumers to purchase phones unobtrusively. • Street access: Many phone calls are still made at phone “booths” - land lines set up on tables on streets in major cities. Regional spillover: Mobile access extends across some borders, allowing use in parts of the country with Bangladeshi and Chinese mobile phones. Increased penetration and coverage in neighboring countries allows for more secure, external outlets for the spread of information.

Cyber cafes automatically incorporate proxy servers for unfiltered internet access

Shifting Censorship Landscape
Secure email: Email is currently blocked in the country, however SSL email is not, meaning that most people access gmail, as one of the only providers offering this service. All major exile media sources, Twitter, and Global Voices are also blocked. Electronic monitoring: Authorities are slowly adapting censorship to the digital era. Whereas in the past there would be gaps in newspapers where something had been removed, proofs are now verified electronically.
Power & phone lines in downtown Yangon

A page from Internet Weekly with a profile on cryptography

Digital Democracy
Empowering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

(cont.) Outside information: Foreign content is surprisingly available, such as profiles of Nobel Peace Prize winners from Iran or details of the Green Dam censorship project in China.

What We Recommend
1. Technology conference - The proliferation of knowledge can be a powerful tool to connect people beyond the language, geographic, cultural and religious barriers that currently exist. By supporting the growth of ICT, one can support local solutions built to handle community issues. ICT is and can have access to freedoms difficult to establish through their sectors. 2. Election monitoring & citizen engagement system - With the spread of technologies and a large network of CBOs throughout the country, there exists a strong opportunity to leverage the interest in elections into a formidable force. Safety and security are vital in making this work. An integratabtle system that is independently run and maintained by exiled groups on the borders along with one inside is key in making a focused real-time election map. 3. Trainings - Our new media literacy & journalism training showed a desire and need for this type of support. Moreover there need to be trainings on technology tools for a variety of professions. 4. Localization of tools & educational materials - Given the variety of languages and this very specific scenario, the need for open source software becomes increasingly apparent. All tools need to be translatable and interoperable to make an impact on all of society rather than empowering certain groups over others and raising resentment. 5. Strategic equipment purchasing - Tech equipment can be a powerful supplement to strategies or a vital piece to a communications structure. Individuals, businesses and groups need technology that is durable, cost-efficient, and secure to use in country. 6. Support for emerging alternative media in television, radio, online - while censorship still exists at extreme levels, there are ways to create quality programming that can create a citizen consciousness without directly threatening the government and there are already examples of this in place with more opportunities as media the media landscape expands.

Made Possible By
In May 2009 Dd won third place at the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center conference Soul of the New Machine and a social justice award from the French American Charitable Trust at TechSoup’s Annual conference, N2Y4. Nokia/WOMworld supported communication and video documentation by providing mobile phones. The Arca Foundation provided a travel grant to support our human rights and social justice research. The Guardian Project provided an Android phone as well as secure software to test. Livescribe provided digital pens for documentation and programming. New Words Media provided training materials and media. The Open Source Community contributed invaluable support and ideas. Thank you to all our other supporters, our Advisory Board and our heroic local partners.

Digital Democracy 109 W 27th St, 6 fl | New York, NY 10001 USA +1-347-688-DDEM [3336] | | Twitter @DigiDem |

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