Getting connected in Myanmar
After years of falling behind the rest of Asia in information and communications technology, Myanmar is quickly catching up
Posted by Niki Wilson on September 21, 2016
Aung San Suu Kyi is a celebrated human rights activist that led opposition to the military junta that took power in Burma (now Myanmar) in 1962. She was one of the founders of the country’s National League for Democracy and a champion for the establishment of a civilian government. In 1989, she became a political prisoner of the military and remained under house arrest for 15 of the next 21 years. She was released in 2010, as Myanmar slowly began to embrace democracy.
While the rest of the world was a Google search away from following Aung San Suu Kyi’s political career, few in Myanmar had the means to access digital information about her. State restrictions on communications and a lack of reform in the telecoms sector meant Myanmar spent years in a digital blackout, its citizens without the educational and entrepreneurial opportunities afforded by the web. The ruling military failed to develop telecommunications capacity even as many of their Asian neighbours forged ahead.
As recently as 2004, while broadband networks were readily available in nearby China for US$9.66 per month and in Sri Lanka for $21.71, in Myanmar the cost for a low-speed connection was a whopping $4,794 per month. In addition, “It cost $2,500 just to get a SIM card!” says Rohan Samarajiva, chair of LirneAsia, an information and communications technology policy and regulation think tank based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
This information and communications technology hurdle, especially as it related to opportunity in the global economy, was one of the many reasons the once prosperous country remains classified by the UN as a “least developed country,” a status it first attained in 1987. But after 2010, things began to change. As part of the transition to democracy, the Myanmar government sought reforms that could begin the rebuilding of a once prosperous economy, says Samarajiva.
“Telecom was a good candidate that could yield quick results for the people,” he says.
LirneAsia, along with India’s Centre for Internet and Society, came on board to help Myanmar make the transition to a socially inclusive, networked economy. While working closely with the Myanmar ICT Development Organization (MIDO) and with the support of funders such as Canada’s International Development Research Centre, LirneAsia is helping support information and communications technology skills in Myanmar “by teaching through the process of doing,” says Samarajiva.
In some cases this means consulting with government on how to manage companies to set up and share telecommunications infrastructure and products. In other cases, LirneAsia conducts large-scale surveys and research projects (one study had 4,000 participants) to evaluate the progress of development of information and communications technology, suggest relevant policy and build government accountability. The research programs are also designed to provide mentoring opportunities so that in time organizations like MIDO will be empowered to do the same.
As a result of these collaborations, Myanmar has rapidly adopted cellular technology. In 2013, about 10 per cent of the population had phones; today, 90 per cent do. Myanmar has also blown past the voice-only cellphone stage common to many developing nations, with 63 per cent of cellphone users owning smartphones. “It is one of the fastest growing telecom sectors I have ever seen, and I have been in this field for over 30 years,” says Samarajiva.
The impacts of a digitally connected society have begun to show themselves. “One of the most significant results has been around the election,” says Samarajiva, referring to the November 2015 election in which Aung San Suu Kyi and the NDL gained a majority government. Apps were developed to allow people across the country to monitor for election fraud, says Samarajiva, making election results difficult to dispute.
Phyu Phyu Thi, MIDO’s research and development manager, works with LirneAsia to collect surveys in the field and has seen the benefits connectivity has brought. For example, during floods that commonly plague the countryside, villagers requiring assistance can easily ask for help from neighbours and emergency services agencies, which has in turn improved the quality of emergency relief work. In another example, she says rural youth are trying to overcome literacy barriers and improve future opportunities by learning English on their smartphones.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been quoted as saying “If you do nothing, you get nothing.” Myanmar is doing a lot to move toward a networked society. Early results suggest it’s paying off.
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This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at idrc.canadiangeographic.ca.
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