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The Linkages Between Technology And Democracy in Myanmar

By Guest Writer on January 5, 2015

Only about 10 to 15 percent of people in Myanmar own a mobile phone today, but 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.

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.

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.”

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 in an online news site that a woman of one religion has been raped by a 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.

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.

Want to know more about the current state of ICT, democracy and active citizenship in Myanmar? Then download the full report of OneWorld’s recent scoping study.

This post was adapted from Jeffery Allen’s Myanmar Moving Toward Democracy, Smartphones in Hand article on the OneWorld website.

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One Comment to “The Linkages Between Technology And Democracy in Myanmar”

  1. Melody Clark says:

    Thank you for posting this!

    Readers might also be interested in a project run by University of Washington’s Jackson School and the Information School’s Technology & Social Change Group (TASCHA). The project, Information Strategies for Societies in Transition, builds capacity across sectors in Myanmar through a leadership development program, a Myanmar Information Lab in Yangon, information literacy outreach through public libraries, and projects to support the 2015 elections and the peacebuilding process.

    The program has three major components: (1) creating a professional network of mid-career professionals from civil society, political parties, the media, government ministries, and think tanks; (2) establishing the Myanmar Information Laboratory (MIL) in Yangon to facilitate the expansion of the professional network and general informational capacity building; and (3) to serve as a focal point for projects focused on tackling digital and information challenges in Myanmar.

    More information about the project can be found here: http://tascha.uw.edu/projects/information-strategies-for-societies-in-transition/