‘Some Things, Like This Project, the Government Cannot Do’

By Andrew D. Kaspar, Political Prisoners 2 July 2013

During the 2007 Saffron Revolution, which saw massive Buddhist monk-led protests in the streets of Rangoon, blogger Nay Phone Latt was among a cohort of Burmese netizens keeping the world informed as the military junta violently cracked down on the peaceful demonstrations.

Less than a year later, he found himself imprisoned for his online activities, behind bars for a cartoon he had circulated that mocked then ruling Gen Than Shwe. Initially sentenced to 20 years under the Electronic Transactions Law, the blogger’s prison term was later reduced to 12 years, but not before he became an international cause célèbre among free speech advocates.

Released as part of a mass amnesty in January 2012, the winner of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award has since undertaken an effort to bring the Internet to the country’s rural populations, where electricity is in short supply or nonexistent, to say nothing of access to the World Wide Web.

As Burma emerges from decades of isolation, its underfunded education system is one of the biggest obstacles to development. In a 21st century economy that increasingly requires information and communications technology (ICT) skills from its workforce, Nay Phone Latt’s Myanmar ICT Development Organization (MIDO) is trying to make up for lost time by holding basic computer and Internet training workshops in villages across the nation.

The 33-year-old executive director of MIDO spoke to The Irrawaddy about the challenges of connecting Burma’s most remote communities, the importance of online “netiquette,” and the role—both for good and for ill—that social media is playing in the country today.

Question: What has been the extent of MIDO’s reach so far?

Answer: Out of the 14 states and regions, there are two states that we haven’t gone to yet.

Q: What is the nature of your trainings for these rural communities?

A: It depends on the participants. In some places they don’t have the Internet, so we give only basic computer training. If they can get Internet, we give basic Internet training. There are some participants who are very interested in journalism, so we give training about citizen journalism.

Q: What are some of the challenges that MIDO faces?

A: Infrastructure. [A lack of] electricity and Internet access. Another one is that whenever we go to rural areas to give training, when we return to Yangon they don’t have a place or the ability to practice or to further their education.

Q: You bring laptops with you, and when you leave, the computers go too?

A: Yes, we have limited resources.

Q: MIDO has also worked with the Free Funeral Service Society [FFSS], which pays funeral costs for those who cannot afford them, among other charitable works. What was that training about?

A: The very first training we did was for some NGOs. We raised awareness on how they can use social media to promote their NGO and their activities.

Q: Many Burmese are new to the Internet, but the modern Web has been around and matured, for better or worse, for more than two decades. Can you talk about some of the dangers that this presents to Burma’s newly initiated online communities?

A: Now there are not many Internet users [in Burma]—it’s around 2 percent of the population—but maybe in one or two years, this number will increase. Right now we have so many Facebook accounts and websites where people defame others or try to incite unrest; they spread hate speech around the Internet. In some remote places they cannot access the Internet, but some people who want to incite unrest, they print out fake photos and writings from Facebook and they spread them to the local people.

That is one of the dangers, and they don’t know about social media and they cannot decide what is right and what is wrong. So in our training we are teaching skills, but we are also teaching ethics and ‘netiquette.’ We also explain the nature of social media—that the Facebooker or the blogger or the people who are writing on social media are not well-trained journalists, and the reliability of the online media is not like print media. That you need to double or triple-check [the information provided].

Q: How do you strike a balance between protecting free speech and curbing some of the incitement and hate speech that you talked about?

A: Now the government is trying to lay out the telecommunications law, and maybe next year they also will try to amend the Electronic Transactions Act, but I don’t like that kind of solution. If the government is trying to stop these kinds of problems, they only think about safety, nothing about freedom of expression. If we want to review the laws, we have to think about two things: one is freedom of expression, the other is how to protect the people. …When Parliament members try to make laws related to ICT, they should think about these two things.

Another thing is, we have to share knowledge and awareness about ICT with society, because if society has good awareness of ICT, they will also know about netiquette; they can regulate themselves in online society. We can do it by way of education, awareness seminars.

Q: The government last week awarded licenses to two foreign telecommunications firms that are expected to dramatically expand mobile phone access in Burma. Do you feel you should orient your trainings more toward mobile Internet?

A: We are thinking about that. Maybe in one or two years mobile penetration will definitely increase, but most of the people cannot use mobile phones effectively. Some people can answer calls and they can make calls to others, but that’s it. You can do so many things on your phone, so we should give that kind of training to remote areas.

Q: Are you still blogging regularly?

A: Not regularly. Now Facebook is more popular, so I shifted to Facebook. I also write for some local magazines and journals. Under the military government we did not have a chance to write in the local print media, but now we have some kind of freedom, so I write many articles.

Q: Do you still follow the blogging community?

A: Yes, we have good communication with some bloggers, but compared with 2007 and now, in 2007 there were so many bloggers and we were very united and focused on blogging. But now, there are so many platforms.

Q: Ye Htut, the president’s spokesman, is a bit of a Facebooker himself, posting official government statements to his Facebook account even before those statements are communicated through more official channels. What are your thoughts on that?

A: He should use Facebook. Compared with other officials, Ye Htut is a very well-known person because of Facebook. If you want to spread the news nationwide, you have to use so many media. You should use Facebook and you also should use print media, radio and multimedia, because in some places they cannot see Facebook and they cannot read the newspaper but they have a radio. In some places they cannot use Facebook but they can read the newspaper.

Q: Why did you choose MIDO as your contribution to today’s changing Burma?

A: In a democratic society, the government and political parties are not the only ones to serve the country’s development. We have to think about the role of civil society because the government cannot do everything. Some things, like this project, the government cannot do. Civil society can do so many things.