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Digital Democracy

Empowering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

Burma/Myanmar Research 2009


Digital Democracy
Empowering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

Finding a Voice
Access to information & communication technology before the 2010 elections

Country Snapshot
! Burma/Myanmar has a population just over 50 million people,
including 135 distinct ethnic groups. A former British colony, it gained
independence in 1948, and has been ruled by a military dictatorship
since 1962. For decades, the military has waged war against ethnic
minority groups around the country's borders. The economy is currently
the poorest in Southeast Asia.
! In September 2007, despite less than 1% Internet access*, new
technology played a key role in monk-led protests which took place
across the country, the largest protests since 1988. Mobile phones,
digital cameras and Internet access were widely credited with helping to
Weekly newspaper coordinate actions and reporting the events around the world. When the
government violently cracked down on protestors, they shut down
Why We Went internet and mobiles to prevent communication with the outside world.
! Dd’s previous research in the region discovered a sophisticated
In August 2009, Digital Democracy network of community based organizations inside the country and
sent two staff members to Burma/ around its borders, working on issues including health, education and
Myanmar to conduct research on
human rights. In the border regions, there is considerable technology
technology use, communication and
civic engagement in the country. "spillover" from neighboring Thailand, Bangladesh, India and China.!
The trip offered the opportunity to ! In 2003 the ruling State Peace and Development Council
look at communication in a proposed a "road map to democracy" to transition from military to
censored society with minimal democratic rule. The fifth step, a
technology penetration, and national election, is planned for 2010.
develop unique mobile & internet In the lead up to this election, there
technology strategies with Burmese are conflicting ideas from Burmese
community groups and technology groups on how to proceed. ! Currently,
firms working to benefit their society. at least 2173 political prisoners are
serving sentences inside Burma,
The tripʼs goals were to conduct
research through data mapping, including at least two bloggers. The
perform trainings, and create media government has grown increasingly
p r o fi l e s o f i n d i v i d u a l s a n d sophisticated in monitoring technology
organizations. Dd visited Mandalay use, and China is a major supporter of
Division, Rakhine/Arakan State and the military junta. Since fall 2009, US
Yangon/Rangoon Division. policy has been shifting under the
Obama administration, but the US
Digital Democracy has previously maintains economic sanctions against
conducted research with Burmese the country.
groups in Thailand, Bangladesh
India and China. * OpenNet Initiative, Internet Filtering in Map of Burma/Myanmar
Burma (2005) http://opennet.net/studies/Burma.

Digital Democracy is a non-profit organization using digital technologies to empower civic engagement. We
work with local partners to develop tools that help community organizations promote human rights and build local
capacity. Emphasizing the need for new media literacy, we prepare youth and communities with the tools they
need to be informed and engaged citizens in the 21st century. 
Digital Democracy
Empowering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

What We Did
Resource Mapping
! A key portion of our research was data mining in internet cafes. These points of internet access
were widely accessible in each city, though mainly laid out as panopticons, where anyone standing in the
middle of the room could monitor the activities of all users. This made it difficult to browse freely and to
review background processes. Nonetheless, we were able to document types of programs, speed, and
information accessed.
! Using GPS mapping devices, we documented our travels to
verify the reliability of maps throughout the country. These maps were
then contributed to Open Street Maps, an increasingly popular tool
since the response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008 proved a need for free
information to aid development and disaster response.
! Our survey of alternative media and censorship information
gave us insights into the extent of technical restrictions as well as
access to training materials. Secure documentation was pivotal to
conduct our research safely. We used digital paper and, for calls and
information storage, beta-tested Guardian, a secure mobile phone
built on an open source operating system.

Young people at the Galaxy Cyber Cafe in


Sittwe, Arakhan/Rakhine State.

Curricula Development New Media Profiles


! In downtown Yangon/Rangoon Dd ! Digital Democracy conducted interviews and
held an informational discussion titled filmed videos documenting the stories of former political
"Open Journalism" for a group of 10 prisoners, activists,
journalists and bloggers. This was musicians, and
modeled after the Dd new media literacy comedians for an
training with a specific focus on security- intimate look into
specific questions posed by participants. the current
situation. Certain
! At this training and around the
interviews have
country, we disseminated new media
been distributed for
literacy materials in English & Burmese.
air inside the
These included e-books, short films,
country to the
public service announcements,
estimated million
documentary films, human rights-oriented
plus viewers of
feature films, security & circumvention
Democratic Voice of
technology programs and manuals for
Burma.
civic engagement.
A page from Internet Weekly with a
profile of cyber attacks
Digital Democracy
Empowering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

What We Learned
Opportunities & Challenges to Access
Expensive at home, available in cafés: Home internet access remains
prohibitively expensive. Some businesses have internet access, many are
denied permits. Cyber cafes are common not only in major cities but in
smaller towns, and are very popular among young people. Cost:
• Home dial up connection: Set up fees about $200, monthly fee about
$30 to local internet service provider. This method prevents incoming
phone calls.
• Home or business ADSL: Set up fees about $2000 for one time fees
and approximately $60 per month. Popular for internet cafés and
shared amongst several families.
• Internet card: No monthly or set up fees. Only purchase of an internet
Illegal satellite receivers in Yangon. card with pin code. 10 hrs for $5 and up.
• Cyber Cafe hourly rates: Average 200 kyat (.25 USD)/hr.

Communication, not Information: Cyber cafes are most commonly used


for communications and entertainment, not information gathering.
• Chat: The vast majority of cyber cafe goers spend their time chatting
with friends using gTalk, pfingo & Skype which allow users to chat in
Burmese and Roman characters with friends and relatives in different
cities and overseas. Gaming is popular, mostly among early
adolescents.
• Websites: Few were accessed, often only for sports scores.
• Social Networking: Facebook is increasingly popular (approx. 21,000
Burmese users in surrounding region) Twitter is much less common,
although popular among members of the blogging community.
Screenshot of national blockpage
preventing access to http://gmail.com
Isolated Information Economy: Western sanctions have affected the IT
industry. There are two internet service providers (semi-private Bagan
Cybertech Teleport and government-run Myanma Post & Telecom). Slow
internet speeds (downloads averaging at .15 mb/s) further hamper access.
There is a lack of Burmese-language content that is digitized and available
online, encouraged by two incompatible forms of typing: Unicode & Zawgyi.
Despite these obstacles, there is a growing tech sector, and interest in
industry career opportunities.

Little new media literacy: An increasing number of users are joining social
networking sites, but there is little awareness of security implications, such
as risking persecution by joining the Aung San Suu Kyi Facebook group.
Information is often cited without verification; even state-run newspaper
New Light of Myanmar references "internet" as a source.

Security risks: At the individual and organizational levels, not enough


users practice adequate safety precautions. While more are using
circumvention tools, there is not an accompanying sense of security. For
“Pentagon” cyber cafe in Yangon. many users this is not a deterrent, but for others, such as journalists and
bloggers, lack of information on what the government is actually tracking
Digital Democracy
Empowering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

prevents them from conducting important research.


• Precarious tools: Cyber cafe goers commonly use circumvention
tools to access websites. Your Freedom, a free commercial proxy
tool, is the most popular. Proxy servers are also accessed directly,
but many go through censored countries such as Russia or Saudi
Arabia.
• Rumors prevail: The authorities effectively use information to obscure
the reality on security measures practiced by the regime. One
popular misconception is that internet cafes have software installed
that takes screen shots every five minutes. We saw no evidence of Typical mobile phone usage in a
such software being installed, and there is minimal capacity to trace downtown tea shop
back to use by individual users.
• Network policing: Individual cafe administrators can see everything
that users do at any given time (and can take screenshots). However,
there is an economic incentive to offer open Internet access to draw
in customers. Many even have ironic names such as "Pentagon" &
"Master Peace."

Proliferation of mobiles
Major reduction in costs: A permanent GSM sim card is 2.5 million kyat,
over $2000 on the black market. However, in early 2009 the government
announced reduced rates for pre-paid sim cards, valid for 30 days, which
costs about $25 US dollars. This drastic reduction in price has put many
more phones in peopleʼs hands. Mobile hardware is widely available at Cyber cafes automatically incorporate
proxy servers for unfiltered internet
minor markup compared to Thailand. With both "normal" and prepaid sims
access
international calling is available, and international SMS restricted.
• Uses: There is no mobile internet through GPRS. Even when sim cards
have expired or credit has run out, mobile phones are status symbols,
and used to play games.
• Availability of sim cards: Although purchasing a sim card requires a name
and id number, many stores do not actually check ids, making it easy for
consumers to purchase phones unobtrusively.
• Street access: Many phone calls are still made at phone “booths” - land
lines set up on tables on streets in major cities.

Regional spillover: Mobile access extends across some borders, allowing


use in parts of the country with Bangladeshi and Chinese mobile phones.
Increased penetration and coverage in neighboring countries allows for more
secure, external outlets for the spread of information.

Shifting Censorship Landscape


Secure email: Email is currently blocked in the country, however SSL Power & phone lines
in downtown Yangon
email is not, meaning that most people access gmail, as one of the only
providers offering this service. All major exile media sources, Twitter,
Wordpress.com and Global Voices are also blocked.

Electronic monitoring: Authorities are slowly adapting censorship to the


digital era. Whereas in the past there would be gaps in newspapers where
something had been removed, proofs are now verified electronically. A page from Internet Weekly with a
profile on cryptography
Digital Democracy
Empowering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

(cont.) Outside information: Foreign content is surprisingly available, such as profiles of Nobel
Peace Prize winners from Iran or details of the Green Dam censorship project in China.

What We Recommend
1. Technology conference - The proliferation of knowledge can be a powerful tool to connect
people beyond the language, geographic, cultural and religious barriers that currently exist. By
supporting the growth of ICT, one can support local solutions built to handle community issues. ICT is
and can have access to freedoms difficult to establish through their sectors.

2. Election monitoring & citizen engagement system - With the spread of technologies and a large
network of CBOs throughout the country, there exists a strong opportunity to leverage the interest in
elections into a formidable force. Safety and security are vital in making this work. An integratabtle
system that is independently run and maintained by exiled groups on the borders along with one
inside is key in making a focused real-time election map.

3. Trainings - Our new media literacy & journalism training showed a desire and need for this type of
support. Moreover there need to be trainings on technology tools for a variety of professions.

4. Localization of tools & educational materials - Given the variety of languages and this very
specific scenario, the need for open source software becomes increasingly apparent. All tools need to
be translatable and interoperable to make an impact on all of society rather than empowering certain
groups over others and raising resentment.

5. Strategic equipment purchasing - Tech equipment can be a powerful supplement to strategies or


a vital piece to a communications structure. Individuals, businesses and groups need technology that
is durable, cost-efficient, and secure to use in country.

6. Support for emerging alternative media in television, radio, online - while censorship still
exists at extreme levels, there are ways to create quality programming that can create a citizen
consciousness without directly threatening the government and there are already examples of this in
place with more opportunities as media the media landscape expands.

Made Possible By
In May 2009 Dd won third place at the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center conference Soul of the New
Machine and a social justice award from the French American Charitable Trust at TechSoup’s Annual
conference, N2Y4. Nokia/WOMworld supported communication and video documentation by providing
mobile phones. The Arca Foundation provided a travel grant to support our human rights and social
justice research. The Guardian Project provided an Android phone as well as secure software to test.
Livescribe provided digital pens for documentation and programming. New Words Media provided
training materials and media. The Open Source Community contributed invaluable support and ideas.
Thank you to all our other supporters, our Advisory Board and our heroic local partners.

Digital Democracy
109 W 27th St, 6 fl | New York, NY 10001 USA
+1-347-688-DDEM [3336] | info@digital-democracy.org | Twitter @DigiDem | www.digital-democracy.org