This column was published by The Myanmar Times on Monday, 22 June 2015
Technological milestones – like the furlong posts on highways out of Yangon – help us to measure how far we have travelled.
I recall vividly the first time I saw a tablet computer in Myanmar. It was early 2011 in Myitkyina and the Tatmadaw’s Northern Command was flexing its muscles, a prelude to the new Kachin war.
The Kachin nationalists were disheartened that they had failed to get a viable slate of candidates up for the November 2010 election. Everyone was waiting for what would happen next.
My conversations in Myitkyina were heavy with talk of the conflict to come. It was during one of these discussions that something caught my eye on the other side of the room: a flickering animated screen.
Huddled around, a small group of teenagers expressed their amusement with, and their appreciation of, the high-tech marvel in their hands.
Until then the only widely available computing facilities in places like Myitkyina were boisterous and ramshackle internet parlours. Most were full of young men and women. The boys tended to play shoot-’em-up games, while many of the women would spend their hours in chat rooms with friends from near and far.
Some, of course, would use the internet for more serious surfing, for writing job applications and assignments, or for setting plans to make big moves to distant shores. But they were probably the minority.
Back then, the country’s rickety internet infrastructure served as a distraction for kids with a bit of discretionary money and a whole lot of free time. Getting a seat in the most popular internet cafes could be a hassle for newcomers, but often somebody would make way for a dusty field researcher trying to check in on news from home.
In such settings it was common to need layers of digital magic to get past Myanmar’s censors. Somewhere deep inside the Ministry of Information, faceless arbiters of political sentiment laboured to keep online rebellions in check.
Thousands of sites were blocked, and some internet cafes would even list disallowed URLs on their walls. I was never quite certain whether this was supposed to discourage access, or to alert customers to useful, albeit prohibited, content. In any case, most regular internet users had their means to sidestep blocks on websites, Gmail or other basic online tools.
The extent to which the government could ever really manage Myanmar’s modest internet footprint is in doubt. Certainly, all sorts of things would slip through.
Then, all of a sudden in late 2011, the need for the old-style sidestepping techniques ended. The first time I “legally” accessed the websites of the Kachin News Group and The Irrawaddy from inside the country, I remember taking a screen shot for posterity’s sake. Another furlong.
What surprised me then is that Myanmar’s internet was freed up so quickly. We now know that this liberalisation also sent a jolt through the telecommunications market, with the boom in smartphones quick to follow. Before long this rush to Face-book, and to the digital tomorrow, will be seen nationwide, right down to the poorest villages.
It’s exciting to imagine what that might mean. Myanmar’s rapidly expanding internet has the potential to link farmers to their markets, to give students access to the best-quality learning resources, and to change the way we all think about the media and news. It is a potentially intoxicating mix, with ramifications for all other aspects of political and economic reform.
Sometimes, though, we mistakenly imagine that we can ride a smooth road to a distant digitopia, where these technologies will help solve the fundamental problems of our existence. Much will go wrong. Myanmar’s drivers know all about the potholes and pitfalls of long-distance travel.
Yet the best Myanmar drivers can handle any conditions, and I am constantly impressed by their improvisation and skills. We know that the digital highways will be fraught with bumps and dangerous turns, and so awareness of appropriate internet behaviour, just like good driving etiquette, will help to keep everyone safer. The reality, though, is that in a relatively free society there is no easy way to licence internet use or to fully remove its potential for causing calamity.
In Myanmar’s case, it is at the intersection of information, technology and politics that new hazards are emerging. Much has already been said about hate speech and communal antagonism getting impetus from the unregulated spaces of the digital ether.
Learning to handle such conditions in this newly information-saturated environment is going to take time. Yet more technological milestones loom just around the corner and they are approaching at speed.
It’s not clear that there is any single technological or social fix for the internet’s hazards – but like safety on the road, managing the risks is a shared responsibility.
Nicholas Farrelly is Director of the Australian National University’s Myanmar Research Centre and co-founder of New Mandala.