In 2020, I reached out via Facebook Messenger to a Rohingya man living in western Myanmar´s Rakhine state. I asked him about the situation there three years after the military operations against the Rohingya which caused thousands of deaths and the exodus of more than 700,000 people to Bangladesh. He only answered: “Nothing will change here even if I share (with) you our suffering!”
He was clearly frustrated with the dire situation of his community, deprived of citizenship and the most basic rights in Myanmar. I met him in 2018 during a media trip to Rakhine organized by the authorities. Although we were followed most of the time by Myanmar officials, I could talk to my Rohingya contact separately for a few minutes and he wrote his email and Facebook addresses on a piece of paper.
Before the arrival of information and communication technologies (ICTs) like smartphones and the internet, it would be almost impossible to keep in contact with someone living in a Rohingya village in Rakhine. Tufekci (2017) stated, “Technology is helping create new ways of organizing and communicating and is altering how we experience time and space” (p. 116). However, this author, in her book Twitter and Tear Gas, also cautions against “technodeterminism,” which posits Twitter and Facebook as the causes of revolutions (Tufekci, 2017, p. 119).
Social media platforms have changed the dynamics of social movements and helped mobilized protesters in the Arab Spring in the 2010s and more recently in Hong Kong, Thailand and Myanmar, but they alone are not enough to bring social and political change.
In this post, I intend to address how ICTs and social media platforms have shaped Myanmar in recent years during periods of hope and chaos. Facebook contributed to creating a networked social sphere or spheres in Myanmar but also facilitated an environment of hate speech against Rohingya Muslims in the country.
On the one hand, the current military junta uses violence against opposition offline and online and is trying to curtail any space of freedom on the internet, with the long-term goal of emulating the Great Firewall of China. On the other, ICTs are paramount in the revolution of the pro-democracy movement, which combines pacifist protest and armed resistance.
ICT for Development (ICT4D)
Heeks (2018) defined ICT4D as “the application of any entity that processes or communicates digital data in order to deliver some part of the international development agenda in a developing country” (p. 10). According to him, ICTs are “devices or techniques that apply knowledge in order to process or communicate data”. However, in his book, he focused on digital tools (smartphones, laptops, apps, the internet, etc) but not electrical or other kinds of ICTs (radio, TV, typewriters, pens, etc) (p. 9).
I would not limit ICT4D to the “international development agenda in a developing country.” For instance, Heeks stated that an African-American teenager from a low-income family using Twitter to organize a protest against alleged police harassment would not be ICT4D. In my opinion, this case should be included in ICT4D because development and social change also happen in “developed” countries such as the United States, with long-lasting problems of racism and inequality.
ICT4D overlaps in many aspects with communication for development (ComDev), which also revolves around knowledge, communication and action. Most scholars add “social change” to the definition of ComDev. For Servaes (2020), “Communication for development and social change is the nurturing of knowledge aimed at creating a consensus for action that takes into account the interest, needs and capacities of all concerned” (p. vi). According to this author, “Communication media and ICTs are important tools in achieving social change but their use is not an end in itself.”
In relation to social movements in Myanmar, perhaps the most important feature of social media platforms is that allows people to coordinate and express ideas “simultaneously” (Tufekci, 2017, p. 117). At the same time, the networked social sphere is controlled by a few giant gatekeepers, such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, profit-oriented companies that cannot guarantee freedom of speech (Tufekci, 2017, p. 137).
In Myanmar, 35% of the population has access to the internet via fixed or mobile networks, compared to 59% in the world, according to the UN´s International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The numbers skyrocketed since 2013, when the country had only 1.8% of its population on the internet. Data Reportal points out a higher internet penetration rate of 45.9% of the total population.
Except for its first years of independence from 1948 to 1962 and the transition period between 2011 and 2021, Myanmar has been under different military regimes for most part of its history in the 20th and 21st centuries. During the Zaffron Revolution in 2007, demonstrators uploaded videos on the internet and wrote blogs to report the crackdown by the military authorities. This was an example of ICT use to coordinate, share information and garner international support. The military junta reacted with more repression and a “new determination to dominate” ICTs and the internet (Moore & Madden, 2016, p. 12).
2011 was the start of an era of hope. Myanmar initiated a democratic transition and two years later opened up its mobile broadband market, granting licenses to Norway´s Telenor and Qatar´s Ooredoo. SIM cards passed from costing hundreds or thousands of US dollars in 2010 to US1.5 in 2014 (Morre & Madden, 2016, p. 15). In the following years, millions of people started to use mobile communications and Facebook became the hegemonic social network and the main source of news.
Many Burmese people went from not having a TV or fixed telephone to owning a smartphone, getting news through Facebook and watching videos on Youtube. From then on, they not only talked and debated in traditional teahouses but also on social media.
As of January 2021, there were 69.43 million mobile connections in Myanmar; this figure is higher than the 54.61 million population in the country because some people own more than one SIM card. It is estimated that there are 19.25 million Facebook users in Myanmar.
This ICT revolution allowed people to communicate easier and cheaper with family and friends, book taxis via ride-hailing apps or order food online. However, the algorithms and lack of controls on Facebook contributed to a wave of hate speech and disinformation against Muslims, especially the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state.
In 2012, violent riots caused dozens of deaths and the displacement of more than 120,000 people, mostly Rohingya Muslims. Even the Dalai Lama deplored the participation of Buddhist monks and militants in the violence against the Rohingya. Since then, most of those displaced Rohingya live in “apartheid” conditions in IDP camps.
In response to an attack on several police posts by Rohingya militants, the military launched clearance operations in 2017, resulting in thousands of deaths, rape, burning of houses and the exodus of more than 720,000 Rohingya people to Bangladesh. A UN independent fact-mission recommended the investigation and prosecution of army chief Min Aung Hlaing and his top military clique for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
However, Myanmar´s de-facto leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi said back then that the crisis was distorted by a “huge iceberg of misinformation” created by “terrorists,” in reference to Rohingya armed militants, and downplayed the persecution of the Rohingya. These statements damaged her reputation internationally but not in her country.
Facebook acknowledged in 2018 that it was slow to identify and withdraw hate speech and was working to improve its system, including the hiring of 60 Myanmar language experts to review content on the platform. This reckoning happened after years of being alerted by civil society organizations about the problem in Myanmar. Facebook, whose parent company is now called Meta, hired its two first Burmese speakers, based in Manila, in 2015.
Social media companies hire a minimal staff compared to their user base. A few years ago, Facebook had 12,600 employees for a user base of 1.5 billion people. In comparison, General Motors employed at its height hundreds of thousands of workers (Tufekci, 2017, p. 143).
In 2021, a whistleblower accused Facebook of putting profit before people, spending 87.5 of its budget against misinformation on English content when only 9% of users are English speakers and boosting “toxicity and violent content.” As data scientist Cathy O’Neil said, “Algorithms are opinions embedded in code.” The Facebook case also reflects, in the words of Abeba Birhane, that technology is “never either neutral or objective; it is a mirror that reflects societal bias, unfairness, and injustice.”
The military took power again in Myanmar in 2021 when Min Aung Hlaing, the architect of the Rohingya clearance operations in 2016 and 2017, led a coup d’etat. The armed forces have tortured and killed thousands of civilians, including children, in an attempt to curtail the civil disobedience movement, and have exacerbated the armed conflict in the country. They arrested Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently in jail, and most of the members of her government.
#Myanmar: Junta’s brutal response to peaceful protests likely meets the legal threshold for crimes against humanity, #HumanRights expert @RapporteurUn told @UN_HRC on Thursday, urging a united global response in the country’s hour of need.#HRC46https://t.co/fK30p1wEJL
— UN News (@UN_News_Centre) March 12, 2021
After taking power, the military junta imposed internet shutdowns for weeks and blocked permanently social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter (FEM & Freedom House, 2021, p. 10). The military authorities are still shutting down internet services in areas such as Sagaing where it faces resistance. UN human rights experts accused the military of establishing a digital dictatorship.
Heeks (2017) said that authoritarian regimes face the “dictator´s dilemma” when they reject the internet because of its political risks but also lose its economic benefits. In a second phase, they try to control the internet “via filtering, blocking and disconnecting services,” while in a third phase of “proactive e-repression” these regimes use surveillance and ICTs to repress opponents and disseminate propaganda (pp. 271-272).
An activist from Access Now told me that Myanmar is trying to create its own internet ecosystem, similar to the Chinese Great Firewall. The military is drafting a Cybersecurity Law that lacks safeguards against internet shutdowns and increases the criminalization of free speech. The authorities are tightening e-surveillance and creating alternative platforms to replace Youtube and Facebook.
The military coup on February 1, 2021, was responded to with strikes, street protests and a civil disobedience movement (CDM) all over the country. The reaction against the military putsch was overwhelming with wide participation of students, doctors, teachers, monks and factory workers, among others. Many protesters went to the streets with banners asking the military to restore democracy and release their political leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi.
VIDEO: 🇲🇲 Students and teachers at Dagon University in #Yangon rally on their campus while #Myanmar civil servants in #Naypyidaw pose with red ribbon signs in the latest display of civil disobedience against the coup in the country pic.twitter.com/zxee7yHy14
— AFP News Agency (@AFP) February 5, 2021
Anti-junta protests also happened online with pictures and videos uploaded to social media platforms with hashtags like #MyanmarCoup and #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar. The technology-savvy Gen Z had a prominent role in the resistance movement against the military. They used VPNs to circumvent the ban on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Mobile internet and social media helped garner international solidarity through #MilkTeaAlliance, a networked pro-democracy movement in Asia. After the military repression, many protesters joined the armed resistance against the regime.
Some pro-democracy politicians, activists and ethnic leaders formed a parallel government, the National Unity Government (NUG), which has its own armed forces and controls parts of the country. The NUG is using ICT4D through projects like e-learning tools and the adoption of cryptocurrency to fund the revolution against the military junta.
Data journalism is paramount to “hold power to account” and “empower citizens with truthful information” (Mutsvairo, 2019, pp. 39-40). Like in other dangerous countries (Mutsvairo et al, 2020, p. xviii), the best data journalism in Myanmar is produced sometimes by civil organizations such as Justice for Myanmar, Myanmar Witness and the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. For example, Myanmar Witness geolocated footage of a recent air attack by the Myanmar military against civilians that left dozens of deaths.
Myanmar Witness geolocated footage from the recent concert bombing in Kachin to help international media report on it.
Full Video Report (C4):https://t.co/gtCIshLQJ7
— Myanmar Witness (@MyanmarWitness) October 30, 2022
Myanmar´s online activists also criticize the international community and the UN. In recent decades, Myanmar was a perfect country for humanitarian heroes. However, pro-democracy activists think some UN agencies are now “legitimizing” the military junta through the presentation credentials and their work in Myanmar. The majority of the pro-democracy movement wants to cut any link with the military junta in order to isolate the regime.
Recently, I contacted by email the Rohingya man I met in Rakhine. This time he answered my queries, although he depicted a bleak situation of repression and poverty in his community: “After the military coup, the situation in Rakhine for Rohingya and other people as well (is) getting worse and worse day by day.”
ICTs cannot bring social and political change by themselves, but they are seminal tools for the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar. Online and offline activism feed and influence each other. One positive evolution since the coup has been that the NUG recognized the right of the Rohingya to citizenship. The revolution goes on.
Some reflections on blogging
This is my final post for this blog, which is an exercise for the New Media, ICT and Development course within the master in Communication for Development at Malmö University. The exercise during the last weeks has been challenging and exciting.
Teamwork has been important throughout the creation of the blog. I have had the opportunity of working and learning with a team of other three students with different backgrounds from Italy, Indonesia and the United States. There have been challenges, but we have solved them with communication and dialogue. I think the result has been a dynamic blog dealing with LGBT, gender, digital activism and migration, among other issues.
This project has allowed me to explore interesting topics related to Rohingya refugees and the crisis in Myanmar. As a journalist based in Bangkok, I am used to writing about these issues, but the blog gave me more freedom in terms of style and creativity. Being able to have links to other blogs, websites and social media accounts creates a very positive synergy as well.
I found that the use of photography and social media by Rohingya refugees is an excellent example of communication for development and ICT4D. There is a long way to go, but these Rohingya men and women are depicting their lives on their own terms and sharing it with the world.
During these recent weeks, I have also reflected on blogging as a communication tool. blogging is not as fashionable as it used to be a few years ago. Many people would rather write on Facebook, Twitter or even LinkedIn, which anyway are forms of “microblogging.” Nevertheless, I think blogs still form a particular networked social sphere for people who challenge the mainstream discourse. Moreover, the blogosphere offers the much-needed analytical pause to debate the complex problems of our world.
(Photo on the post´s entry and header by Pixabay via pexels.com)
Free Expression Myanmar (FEM) & Freedom House (2021). Freedom of the Net: Myanmar. https://freeexpressionmyanmar.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/FOTN-2021.pdf
Heeks, R. (2018). Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D). Routledge.
Moore, S., & Madden, D. (2016). ICT Development For Innovation and Growth in Myanmar [Electronic version]. The United States Agency for Internacional Development (USAID). https://www.nathaninc.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/MooreMadden-ICT-reducedsize.pdf
Mutsvairo, B. (2019). A new Dawn for the “Developing” World? Probing Data Journalism in Non-Western Societies. In B. Mutsvairo, S. Bebawi & E. Borges-Rey, Data Journalism in the Global South (pp. 1-20). Palgrave Macmillan.
Mutsvairo, B., BEbawi, S., & Borges-Rey, E. (Eds.). (2019). Data Journalism in the Global South. Palgrave Macmillan.
Neuman, M. (2017, February 15). Dying for humanitarian ideas: Using images and statistics to manufacture humanitarian martyrdom. CRASH. https://msf-crash.org/en/publications/humanitarian-actors-and-practices/dying-humanitarian-ideas-using-images-and-statistics
Servaes, J. (2020). Handbook of Communication for Development and Social Change. Springer
Tufekci, Z. (2017). Twitter and Tear Gas. Yale University Press.