This column was published in The Myanmar Times on Monday, 13 June 2016.
Week by week, month on month, Myanmar society embraces the messy potential of its digital future. As the technological milestones disappear like furlong posts in the rear-view mirror, it is worth taking stock of what the new online realm means for Myanmar society and politics
Soon, access to mobile internet services will be almost universal. Nowadays even relatively remote areas and very impoverished people can get online. Is it any wonder that Myanmar’s top public figures have armies of digital followers?
At the top of the list, Sai Sai Kham Leng, the rapper, has more than 3.6 million Facebook “likes”. Right now his fans are going crazy for snapshots from an ongoing European trip: all Swiss chalets, soccer matches and art galleries.
Sai Sai even has Daw Aung San Suu Kyi bested. She holds just shy of 2 million Facebook “likes”.
Somewhat inexplicably – given how much day-to-day influence her fan base might generate – Daw Aung San Suu Kyi very rarely uses the platform.
Her last post was on April 13. It generated 36,000 “likes” and more than 1000 comments. While Facebook may not be The Lady’s cup of tea, it is clear that many of her fans and detractors take the time to engage with her there.
It is notable that among those 1000-plus comments are plenty taking aim at Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for her apparent lack of compassion toward the Rohingya.
Very few of these critics hold back. She is called a “fraud”, a “disgusting bigot”, an “epic world disgrace” and much worse. The tone of the comments is vitriolic, even abusive. Some of the toughest words come from foreigners.
Such is life on the internet, especially when you don’t proactively moderate your page. I doubt the state counsellor has time even to glance at all the action, and I also doubt that she cares, but surely one of her staff should be tasked with building a more professional Facebook presence.
The fact is that, before long, almost everyone in Myanmar will have their news mediated by Mark Zuckerberg’s global behemoth.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s spin-doctors have already got the message.
They have built up a sizable Facebook following for the commander-in-chief, with more than half a million “likes”. His page is updated regularly, with both English and Myanmar-language posts. I assume somebody is moderating the comments: He certainly does not wear the harsh criticism levelled at Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
I find the management of these online platforms fascinating because, a decade ago, I set up what was then a very modest website on Southeast Asian affairs. From our base at the Australian National University, Andrew Walker and I called it New Mandala.
Our site gets a couple of million readers a year – small by internet standards, but massive for a university website. We publish fresh content every day, and have an increasingly substantial audience from Myanmar itself.
Back at the beginning, such an audience was unfathomable. Restrictions on internet use in Myanmar came in many forms. For a start, there were the economic barriers.
A personal internet connection was implausible for 99.9 percent of the population, so people with a need to use the web would head down to a local shop.
Ordinarily, the connection was slow, and most of the internet shop regulars would spend their time on shoot-’em-up games. The authorities blocked Gmail and a bunch of other basic tools. Of course, the savviest operators would have proxies and other options for side-stepping the restrictions.
Still, using the internet in any serious fashion required effort and money. For most people, the online realm was an abstract and impossibly inconvenient place to spend time.
Back then there was also little Myanmar-language content online. Problems with fonts tended to mean that a fair bit of skill was necessary to render local scripts in a readable form.
What has changed in Myanmar’s online environment is a mix of economic, political, technological and cultural development. Just take a look at Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Facebook page or the comments on the average New Mandala post.
From where I sit, the volume and volatility of discussion online serves to amplify controversy and conflict in the real world. Indeed, the boundaries between the two realms are constantly shifting and blurring.
Under these unprecedented conditions, what concerns me is that too often our online spaces are dominated by narrow-minded and uncharitable point-scoring. We should do better.
For Myanmar’s long-term success, perhaps Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s team could help to set a more constructive tone, with daily updates to her Facebook page that show civilised public discourse is a building block of any effective democracy.
Nicholas Farrelly is the co-founder of New Mandala which celebrates its 10th birthday on 16 June 2016 with a major symposium in Canberra, Australia, on the future of academic discussion online.