“Magic show” in rural Burma

"It is like performing a magic show," Nay Phone Latt, executive director of Myanmar ICT for Development (MIDO) relates the experience of conducting computer and internet training to people in remote parts of the country."It is like performing a magic show," Nay Phone Latt, executive director of Myanmar ICT for Development (MIDO) relates the experience of conducting computer and internet training to people in remote parts of the country.
"It is like performing a magic show," Nay Phone Latt, executive director of Myanmar ICT for Development (MIDO) relates the experience of conducting computer and internet training to people in remote parts of the country.
 

The thin line between magic and latest science is even thinner in rural Burmese areas.

Nay Phone Latt, the Executive director of Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO), recalls the wide eyes and dropped jaws that greeted his   computer and internet traininngs in remote areas of Burma.

[This is the sidebar story to the main article, Internet, the new political battleground]

“Whatever we said, whatever we shows to them are almost perceived as magic,” Nay laughs.

He was particularly touched by a group of teachers, living in a remote Alal Yay Kyaw village, located at the Irrawaddy region, which requires a night and half a day boat ride from Rangoon along the Irrawaddy River.

The teachers, who have no knowledge about computer before,took the initiative to secure three computers and tried to get internet access to continue their learning after Nay’s team conducted a basic computer training in the village.

“We have to create that kind of knowledge and mindset that they could use the ICT to reach out to the world for personal development and also to support their profession,” he said.

However, this is not without challenge. The villagers can only use electricity at night, Nay said. When the training was conducted on day time, the generators was humming at the background.

Ironically, during the interview at the MIDO office near Botahtaung Township, Rangoon, the power was disrupted a few times.

To Nay, the computer and internet trainings carried out by MIDO around the country, except in Rakhine and Kachin states, have open a window for the people in the rural area to connect with the world.

The trainings included basic computer use; internet surfing and email usage to connect with others; and social media orientation including the use of Facebook, etc.

Internet is very important for democratization and development, Nay says, as in remote areas, people don’t have other ways to communicate with others.

He felt that the ICT should be part of the rural development agenda. In addition, it must be included in the school curriculum.

Khin Lay, founder of Triangle Women Support Group, truly believes that internet is important for the democratization of Burma, because the flow of information is fast and largely unrestricted.

“We don’t even need to wait for the printed media or radio. We can get the news information within seconds. We are not being dupedcheated anymore. We can get updates from other countries’ sites when we can access the internet. This is really nice.

“Also, on national events, we can get the news of Egypt. This is a very big role of media and internet in democratization,” relates Khin.

Her organization provides basic computer and internet training for young women in Rangoon. However, most of them don’t get to use the computer after the class.

“Now the young people in the urban areas just use the internet for chattin. In most of the places, the internet penetration is very low. People don’t know how to use social media usefully, and that’s why in the computer course, we focus on the internet, gmail and facebook,” Khin said.

As most of her students, 80 of them so far, do not have computer at home, she encouraged them to go to use the internet cafe. The charge is 400 Kyats ( US$ 0.40) an hour, while most people only make a meager wage of  $1 a day.

Khin Lay, founder of Triangle Women Support Group has likened the nature of online space to a toilet wall, where people want to write dirty words.Khin Lay, founder of Triangle Women Support Group has likened the nature of online space to a toilet wall, where people want to write dirty words.
Khin Lay, founder of Triangle Women Support Group has likened the nature of online space to a toilet wall, where people want to write dirty words.
 

Even though Rangoon is one of the main cities of the country, the internet service in many areas is still bad. Some restaurants provide free internet access, but it is still limited to those who can afford it.

However, when compared to the tight control before 2010, many political sites,blogging platforms or email services are relatively accessible, though with limitations.

Many have seen the limits as a deliberate way of government control.

According to Aung Bar Lay, an Information Technology engineer who had just resettled back in Rangoon after returning from Singapore, the government is still controlling the bandwidth of the internet through the only internet gateway in the country.

He said that a few months back, when the government’s gateway backbone had problems, the internet slowed down tremendously.

Aung opined that although the government had awarded the telecommunication projects to two foreign companies – Norway’s Telenor and Qatar’s Ooredoo – to provide internet service in the country, the government will not allow these companies to set up their own gateways.

“I don’t think the government will let them (Telco companies) to have their own gateways because the government still want control of the internet here,”said Aung in an interview recently in Rangoon.

He believed the government will opt for selling the bandwidths to the telco companies they awarded.

Currently, the state-owned Myanmar Post and Telecommunication (MPT) and private owned Red Link Communication are the main players in the market.

“As long as the government does not change the policy, no matter how many players there are in the market, the situation will be the same,”Aung said.

It may be all rosy on the surface when one look at the level of freedom the Burmese people are enjoying now since the quasi-civilian government took over in 2010, but many challenges remain _: from lacks of basic infrastructure, capacity and empowerment building to the willingness of the government to opening up.

However, the story of the rural teachers who go extra miles to learn new technology and online skills, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It just goes to show that once people have experienced awakening, it is not easy to put out the flame in them.

[This article was produced for the 2013 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) fellowship program. Chen Shaua Fui, a reporter for the Kuala Lumpur-based WWW.FZ.COM, is one of the 2013 fellows. This year’s theme is Freedom of Expression Challenges to Internet Government in Southeast Asia. The article was originally published on WWW.FZ.COM in September 2013.]