Myanmar’s e-revolution aids transparency, media control

Updated - November 16, 2021 05:24 pm IST

Published - September 19, 2015 12:06 am IST - YANGON:

San Dar Min, National League for Democracycandidate, and her campaigners gear up for theNovember 8 general elections. Photo: Suhasini Haidar

San Dar Min, National League for Democracycandidate, and her campaigners gear up for theNovember 8 general elections. Photo: Suhasini Haidar

In the new age of election campaigns, it wouldn’t seem surprising that the two most prominent leaders in the country, Aung San Suu Kyi, and former speaker Thura Shwe Mann, include Facebook and social media in campaign strategies for general elections on November 8. But in Myanmar, it is one more symbol of the dramatic changes that have marked the country in the past few years.

Not just the candidates, the country’s Union Election Commissioner (UEC), who has come under criticism for the lack of transparency in the preparation of electoral rolls, has decided to put voter lists online, offering mobile apps so that all election workers at roughly 47,000 polling stations can access UEC rulings, the code of conduct and other details.

India’s High Commissioner to Myanmar Gautam Mukhopadhyaya says the spurt in electoral online usage brings openness to a country where elections had been a more closed affair. “The difference is that this time elections are taking place in the glare of public opinion because of internet and communication technology (ICT) and social media that has recently entered Myanmar, and a freer conventional media than before. The election’s credibility will influence Myanmar’s economic integration with the international community as well.”

Myanmar’s mobile revolution is a part of a slew of economic reforms passed since 2011 by the government, which include opening up for foreign investment and making the dollar convertible. Until last year, SIM cards cost anything between $250 and $500, and that was when they were available at all. In 2014, the government opened up the mobile market to two companies, and today a SIM card costs just over a dollar.

As a result, people in Myanmar have flocked to smartphones, leapfrogging over the technology of older telephones. Given the challenges of erratic electricity, and expensive computers, most are using smartphones to access the internet.

According to the Myanmar Post and Telegraph Authority (MPT), since 2010, when the government started to reduce SIM card rates (from the existing $2,000), mobile users have shot up ten-fold to 13.4 million—approximately 25 per cent of Myanmar’s total population of 52 million. By next April, MPT estimates, the penetration will be a whopping 80 per cent.

It is this bulge that Ms. Suu Kyi and Mr. Shwe Mann, and their parties the NLD and USDP, are trying to reach out to ahead of their campaign. Myanmarese are increasingly speaking to each other on apps like Viber, and social networking site Facebook, which now has 5 million users from the country, and many of them are engaging with each other over the web.

But equally, worry journalists, the Internet could become a tool to enforce media controls. At a recent Editor’s forum held in Yangon by the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), the two most contentious issues were the curbs on hate speech on Facebook proposed by the government, as well as the likelihood of the government blocking news reports on election day by simply “slowing the internet down.”

Editor of the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) Ko Toe Zaw, who attended the conference said: “If the government doesn’t like something they call it hate speech. In order for us to be able to cover both sides of any story, we need to be free of the fear of being prosecuted.”

A DVB journalist was among 15 others arrested earlier this year on various charges of “incitement” and “public disorder”. Earlier this week, President Thein Sein’s officials met with Facebook representatives in Myanmar, and extracted a promise that all Facebook accounts that showed hate speech would be purged.

Amongst the banned activities on Facebook are “threats, intimidation, hateful or disturbing speech, releasing personal information, infringing copyrights, and inciting violence”. But journalists say those terms are too easily misused, and internet access is becoming a double-edge sword for them. In response to the concerns the government says the checks on journalists are necessary part of the transition to a full-fledged democracy. “When Myanmar moved to a democracy, it came with many challenges. One of those is the misuse of freedoms and if there is a threat to security, we must take action,” said general secretary of the ruling USDP U Win Thar in Yangon. The next few weeks will test the government, political parties and the media on just where the balance between the two will lie.

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