RANGOON — Two years ago, Freddy Lynn was spending most of his time at a public access center in downtown Myitkyina in Kachin State. There he was introduced to a world that he did not learn in his university or hear about in his community that had been slowed down by more than six decades of armed conflict.
It was a discovery often interrupted by frequent power outages and news of violent clashes between ethnic groups and the military across Burma. Yet Freddy Lynn knew he should keep at it, because it kept him connected to a world outside Kachin, a northern Burmese state that lies on the boundary of China and India. And unlike his friends who had to have at least 400 kyats (41 cents) per hour to have the same privilege, Freddy Lynn was getting his information about the “outside world” for free, as he worked at the public access center, known elsewhere as an Internet café.
These days, the 24-year-old physics graduate from Myitkyina State University is still going online mostly for free. Now in Rangoon doing volunteer work for the Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation (MIDO), Freddy Lynn is one of the measly 500,000 Burmese, out of an estimated 55 million population, who has access to the Internet— somewhat.
University professor Ajarn Ubonrat Siriyuvasak, co-founder of the Bangkok-based Media Inside Out, has argued that communication, while it is enshrined and guaranteed in the Constitution of almost every nation around the world, is a human-rights issue. Today, especially among citizens in democratic countries, Internet as a communication platform and a new space for freedom is being seen as a basic need.
Burma is a country still struggling to break free from a dark and despotic past. But since opening up two years ago after decades of military rule, many of its citizens, including activists, are now enjoying the space and freedom to express and exchange information with each other—even reaching out to the outside world.
Wary observers, however, say this may just be an illusion. The reality, they say, is that the Burmese government continues to deprive its citizens of the right to information and free speech. In a country that has yet to prove it can carry out reforms, communication—and the Internet—is a commodity trapped under the monopoly and control of the state.
The problem of monopolized and controlled Internet distribution is also being exacerbated by power outages that sometimes last for a day at a time.
State and Crony, Inc.
The state-owned Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) exclusively handles the communications sector, providing telephone lines to households, business establishments and government offices. MPT also operates the street phone booths across Burma.
MPT operates under the Ministry of Communications, Posts, and Telegraphs. The ministry’s tasks include the following: to arrange communication services for smooth and easy usage by the public; to satisfy communication needs of commercial, social and administrative infrastructures; to establish communication centers and routes in accordance with work requirements; and to monitor communication services in accordance with laws, rules and regulations.
In 2010, MPT allowed Red Link Communications to run fiber optic-sourced Internet connection, which is distributed mostly around Rangoon and Mandalay. Red Link is owned by the sons of the former regime’s third topmost military official, Shwe Mann, currently speaker of the Union Parliament.
The other Internet players in Burma are Sky Net MPS and Yatanarpon Teleport. While Yatanarpon Teleport is a state firm, Sky Net is owned by business tycoon Shwe Than, a close ally of President Thein Sein.
Outside of frequenting Internet cafes or securing a free (if elusive) WiFi signal, connecting to the Net in Burma necessitates having a landline. To secure one, an applicant must only show the government-issued national identification card, pay around $500 and be armed with overflowing amount of patience as the process would usually take around one month to three months. Those who are only renting homes are less likely to be approved.
Not surprisingly, a February 2013 report by Radio Free Asia says only 6.7 percent of the population or just nearly four million Burmese have landline connections.
Next comes applying for an Internet service connection, which with Red Link would mean an installation fee of $1,000 to $1,500 for fiber-optic Internet. There is also a monthly fee that is around $600 to $700. This may help explain the low Net penetration rate of Burma, where the average monthly worker receives only 80,000 kyats, or $82.47.
If one decides to have the landline connected ‘Internetly’ through the asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL), one must pay an installation fee of at least $100, plus a monthly payment of between $50 to $70.
A Paucity in Internet Speed Devils
But that is only the start to litany of woes for those who want to go online in Burma. One information technology professional who asked not to be identified explained that because communication is under the MPT’s control, it could well be “playing god all over Burma, implementing capping—where it can impose a specific limit of speed to a certain users.”
Another IT professional, Aung Bar Lay, supported this, saying one only needed to experience the varying speed of Internet connection in downtown Rangoon. The speed, he said, can be improved if one is willing to give grease money.
In a budget inn along Botataung Pagoda Road downtown Rangoon, for example, the Internet download speed is only 0.13 megabits per second and the upload speed is 0.15 megabits per second. In a restaurant just a hop and skip away, the download speed is 0.55 megabits per seconds while the upload speed is 0.87 megabits per second. The restaurant is owned by a known crony of the military regime.
The Internet speed in Burma is way behind that in nearby Thailand and Vietnam, as well as in the Philippines. In mainland Southeast Asia, Burmese Internet speeds even fails to beat that of Vientiane, the capital of Laos, a socialist state that is one of economic laggards in Asia.
In a hotel in Bangkok, a speed test shows that the Internet download speed is 0.98 megabits while the upload speed is 1.02 megabits. In Manila, a phone line-based Internet has 0.91 megabits per second upload speed and 5.54 megabits per second download speed.
In Vientiane, the download speed is 1.69 megabits per second and the upload speed is 0.60 megabits per second. But in Vietnam, a Communist state that initiates Internet connectivity even in the countryside, the download speed is 31.24 megabits per second while the upload speed is 27.21.
While it only takes a split-second to load the “Applause” video of US pop phenomenon Lady Gaga, in Manila and Bangkok (without the video stopping mid-play as the computer downloads data to buffer), one needs at least 30 seconds to get it playing in Rangoon. Factor in the buffer time of about more than a minute, and a Rangoon-based Lady Gaga fan would have to wait almost five minutes for the 3:35-minute video to finish downloading and finally play.
In Vietnam, where a citizen only pays 4,000 dong per hour, or about 20 cents, the same video takes just three seconds to load.
Communicating in Slow Motion
“The speed can be fixed,” Aung Bar Lay said. “You only need to have good connections with the government. I have heard people talking about giving extra amount of money under the table just for them to have better Internet connections.”
Aung Bar Lay believes that the Internet “disconnectivity” all over Burma is deliberate, as the speed is being controlled by the state.
“If the government really wants to improve the speed of the Internet, it can,” said the IT professional. “It is using fiber optics so it must be reliable and fast.”
A professor in one of the universities in Rangoon said that while the Burmese government has provided them with Internet connection, the snail-paced speed renders the facility almost useless. The professor, who asked to be identified only as Zey, suspects that the slow connection, which usually turns off students, is yet another form of censorship.
“What else can you call that?” she asked. “That definitely is still censorship. We are still being deprived of the right enjoyed by citizens of other countries. We are being censored here.”
International aid agencies and nongovernment organizations in Burma have commented that that the current communication facilities in the country will affect its growth and image as a free nation.
Saying that the Burmese government is only “putting up a show,” Canadian Jessica Steven, who works for the grassroots nongovernment organization Burma Partnership, noted that the pace of the Internet and the state of the communication in Burma show exactly what the direction of the country is. And this direction is something worrisome, Steven said.
“On the surface it looks open, and in many ways it is more open compared to years ago,” she said in an interview in a hotel in Rangoon. “But all the factors are there that would indicate what the real Burma is now and what it intends to be in the future. In reality, nothing is really changed.”
She said the government is now “wearing this mask of a democratic country, but under the surface it is still the same.”
Some Burmese journalists agree with this view. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a couple of journalists had few good things to say about the current government, just as they had trouble being positive about the previous one.
“Communication is something that remains to be fully given to us,” said one of the journalists. “Many might have not seen it or have felt it, but the fact that communication is moving in slow-motion here is something that speaks to the level of freedom of the Burmese people.”
“How willing and ready the government really is in freeing the country can be gleaned from how it is giving us access to information,” commented his colleague. “The facilities are there, the infrastructure are there, but why do we feel like we are still disconnected from each other?”
ICT in Shambles
Nay Phone Latt, executive director of the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO), said the present condition of the information and communication technology in Burma puts the country and its people on the margins.
“The world looks like a global village,” said Nay Phone Latt, a political blogger who was jailed for four years by the military regime. “But because of the lack of ICT knowledge and infrastructure, some of our villages do not know of the other world. The gap between Burma and the developing countries is so huge.”
He lamented over what he said was the government’s lack of regard for the importance of ICT, which is not even taught in public schools. For Nay Phone Latt, apparently, it is not enough that several private schools are offering courses in computer science.
To fill in the gap, Nay Phone Latt’s group has been going around Burma conducting workshops on ICT. Most of the participants are from nongovernment and community-based organizations, as well as women’s and youth groups. One of MIDO’s clients is the opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Nay Phone Latt admitted that their efforts have so far not reached the states of Kachin and Arakan because of the pervading condition of unrest in those areas. The farthest area reached by MIDO was Chin State. The larger the distance between a place and Rangoon, the worse conditions become.
Interviewed at his office—with the Internet connection discontinued by the server over a subscription problem—Nay Phone Latt said most of their trainees are first-time computer users. This showed the level of ICT literacy of most Burmese, he said.
The training given by MIDO includes basic computer literacy, basic introduction of Internet and the use of search engines, social media, blogging, and social networking.
“They do not know anything about computers at all,” said Nay Phone Latt. “Another big problem is Internet connection in these areas.” Then again, even in areas that are relatively peaceful, government-provided Internet connection can be spotty, especially outside of Rangoon and Mandalay.
Making Do in the Regions
It’s a situation that has led Kachin-born Freddy Lynn to constantly think of the disparity between his hometown and Rangoon. “There are opportunities here as communities is better compared to my city,” he said. “Transportation is also better here.”
He said he could only “wish for everybody, particularly the people of Kachin, to be able to touch the world.”
For sure, those in Kachin State are trying to do this, with or without help from the Burmese central government. While many Burmese do not have access to mobile-based communication, many residents of Kachin easily get it, and cheaply—from China. A Chinese SIM (subscriber identity module) pack can only cost 20,000 kyats, or $20.60, in 2008, while an MPT-distributed SIM cost around 2,913,000 kyats or $3,000.
With the Chinese SIM, Kachin residents can make calls within Kachin State and even overseas. But they cannot make calls or send text to Rangoon. And while Chinese-SIM users can access the Internet, they cannot log onto Facebook, as it is banned in China.
If they want to access Facebook, they need to go to an Internet café and pay 400 kyats for an hour, a rate that has been steady through the years in Burma’s far-flung areas.
“We can see and we will be in touch with other people, we will be able to see what is happening around the world, through the Internet,” Freddy Lynn said, stressing how vital getting online is, even to his people. “ICT is very, very important.”
That conviction most probably helps drive him in his volunteer work at MIDO. Yet for all the idealism of the likes of Freddy Lynn and Nay Phone Latt, another challenge lies in how the communities they have taught would be able to use what they have learned given the lack of equipment and infrastructure.
The absence of computers, for instance, was the main problem of teachers in the Irrawaddy village of Alal Yay Kyaw, which can be reached after a half-day boat ride from the town of Maw Kyung. Luckily, the leader of the teachers found a donor who gave them three sets of computers. These, however, are run only at night—when the community generator set is turned on.
In Chin State in western Burma, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has shelled out $831,630 for the Chin Consultation Process and IT for Chin Schools. The fund will be used to provide computer centres and Internet connections to 30 Chin High Schools in different villages in Chin.
At a meeting with donor agencies in Rangoon on 20 August, Dr. Sui Khar, assistant secretary general of the Chin National Front (CNF), said the assistance, as with the other kinds of aid given to Chin by the Norwegian government, will “not only be political but will also promote the livelihood of the people.”
Peace and the Net
Dr. Sui Khar’s group is a political and armed group in Chin State and a key ethnic armed group in Burma. The group has entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese national government and is now a recipient of two “small” projects from international donors.
At the meeting, Dr. Sui Khar also noted that “communication is very important” and underscored that “these projects are all linked to the establishment of sustainable peace in the future.”
Internet connection, in fact, is crucial to one of the projects of the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI), which initiates projects in areas where ceasefire between armed groups and the Burmese government is being observed.
MPSI has set up what it calls the “Ethnic Peace Resource Project,” an online database resource center. The project aims to provide information on the peace situation around Burma, giving details of the peace process, ceasefire agreements and projects related to MPSI engagements with ethnic armed groups. But MPSI consultant Allan Smith said the database’s function is hampered by the fact that Internet connection all around Burma is slow, if nonexistent. (And just like MIDO, Smith’s group has conducted computer and Internet workshops in “disconnected” areas, such as villages of Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State.)
Charles Petrie, chair of MPSI, said Internet in Burma is something that “needs to be developed.”
“It is an untapped potential,” he said. “And that is one of the things that needs to be developed and we want to explore.”
Petrie is a former United Nations official who was kicked out of Burma in 2007 after writing a searing report on the human rights abuses perpetrated by the military junta. He said the Internet, if given much attention, could be a “significant platform, a driver, and we have not used it yet.”
In the context of what they are doing in Burma, Petrie said an efficient communication services would be useful “in order to create transparency.”
“In terms of peacebuilding, I don’t think we have done enough,” he said. “We are yet to explore how it can be used enough.”
Plans and Predictions
Officially, of course, the Burmese government is all ready for that kind of exploration.
In December 2011, Thein Sein told the ministers of telecommunications and information technology from the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (Asean)-member countries that the “government is expanding basic infrastructure, including ICT for national development.”
“The government is also establishing more transparent and visible democratic system as well as implementing market economic system for our country,” Thein Sein said at the gathering of Asean ministers in Burma’s remote capital, Naypyidaw.
The Asean Economic Blueprint underscores the importance of a “secure and connected information infrastructure” that is needed “for sustaining the region’s economic growth and competitiveness.” In addition, the regional plan gives “equal emphasis” to “improving trust and confidence in the use of the Internet and security of electronic transactions, payments and settlements.”
In 2015, Burma will be the chair of Asean.
Last June, the government awarded licenses to two foreign companies to provide telecommunication services in Burma. The two companies—Norway’s Telenor and Qatar’s Ooredoo—edged out 11 other telecom companies, including Singapore Telecommunications, KDDI Corporation, Digicel, Axiata, Bharti Airtel, MTN, Viettel, Orange, and Millicom International Cellular.
But IT professional Aung Bar Lay said the entry of the two telecommunications companies is not yet a reason to celebrate.
“As long as the government will not change the policy here, it will be the same,” he said. “No matter how many players are in the market, it will be the same. It would appear that there are many choices, but it will always be the same.”
Will the government give up control over the telecommunications sector?
“No,” he said. “The government will not let go.”
MIDO’s Nay Phone Latt meanwhile challenges the government to allow telecommunications services to be run by independent companies. He also said that an independent commission must be created to oversee the business of telecommunications in Burma.
“Some of the military people, they are afraid of freedom of expression,” said Nay Phone Latt. “I say there is no need to be afraid. Freedom of expression is very important in a democracy. They can also take advantage of it. They can be a player in a free society.”
Facebook Equals the Net
For the moment, though, such concerns are way above the heads of many urban Burmese. At the Maha Bandoola Garden in downtown Rangoon one drizzling Saturday afternoon, lovers claim the freedom to be together—away from the crowd.
Ar Kar, an 18-year-old physics student at the Dagon University, and his girlfriend, were among them. Asked what he thought about Internet freedom in his city, the young man appeared surprised. But speaking through an interpreter, he said, “I think things are normal here. I think there is nothing wrong here.” His girlfriend just smiled and refused to comment.
Ar Kar said he has never used the Internet to surf for information or read news. But he said he is free to use the Internet however he wants.
“I only need to have 250 kyats [26 cents] and I can do whatever I want,” he said. Asked to elaborate, Ar Kar explained that he used the Internet only because of social networks and to communicate with other people. He said most of his friends use the Internet this way as well.
Because he does not have phone, Ar Kar said, he goes to the Internet cafe to check on his girlfriend, or to set a date with her, just as he had done earlier that rainy day.
BizNet, an Internet café in Rangoon, indeed usually teems with young Burmese around the age of Ar Kar. The default browser for all 15 computers displays Facebook.
Several years ago, people had to register to be able to use the Internet in Burma. Internet cafe operators also had to take photos of the users as part of the regulation imposed by the MPT. A check with BizNet showed that this policy is no longer being followed.
“Set lote par, register lote yan ma lo par (Go ahead. There is no need to register),” said the woman at the counter.
On one wall of the Internet cafe, though, is a prominently placed poster that reads: “Dear all customary, We are prohibit and restricted for all political website and adults site. Thanks, BizNet.”
This article was produced for the 2013 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) fellowship program. Jefry Tupas, who is one of the founders of NewsDesk (newsdesk.asia), is one of the 2013 fellows. This year’s theme is Freedom of Expression Challenges to Internet Government in Southeast Asia.