A year ago, walk into a club in Yangon and the sight of a mobile phone was a rarity.
Today, it’s not uncommon to see Gen Y men and women flashing the latest iPhones, Galaxies or tablets.
[This is a sidebar article to the main story: Youth power strives for maturity]
Fun, work and politics are all parts of the nascent online life in Burma.
According to the latest official data from the Myanma Posts and Telecommunications Ministry (MPT), there were a total of 5.44 million mobile subscribers as of December 2012, or a 9% penetration.
Penetration rates are much higher in urban areas with 30.2% in Nay Pyi Taw, 25.3% in Yangon and 11.7% in Mandalay.
Data compiled by the Myanmar Information and Communication Technology Directory 2013-14 indicated that five years ago, it was around US$2,000 to buy a postpaid sim card. In 2012, the MPT reduced the price from around $500 to $250. 350,000 cards were then distributed each month throughout the country by MECTel.
This enabled 23-year-old Aung Aung Myat to use the internet on his mobile phone, which he uses to read local news and chat with friends for a cost of 2 kyat per minute.
Since opening up a Facebook account six months ago, the bank employee now has 50 friends.
MPT statistics as of March 2011 indicated there were a total of 380,000 internet subscribers compared to only four in 1998, and every person under the age of 30 that were interviewed on the streets had a Facebook account.
But still, 21-year-old Thu Htet Zaw, a cell phone repairer, spends nearly the whole day on the internet seeking new applications on his iPhone 4 because the data is “so slow to load”.
Some, like two 25-year-old female software engineers who asked not to be named, use the internet on both their Samsung smartphones and on their personal computers (PCs) for sending e-mails, reading local and international news and sharing them on Facebook.
According to the Myanmar Computer Industry Association, there were around one million PCs in the country as of May 2012 compared to 430,000 in 2006.
7Day News is one of the newspapers that publish public comments from Facebook on a daily basis since April this year, when the government allowed private-owned newspapers.
Referencing the original poster, every edition usually has three subjects ranging from issues of demonstrations, the floods in Yangon, celebrities to criticism of the government.
According to Socialbakers, a provider of social media analytic tools, there are currently 1.04 million Facebook users in Burma.
7Day News is the number one Facebook page in the country, with around 320,000 fans.
But 7Day News estimates the figure to be 800,000, with half of them fake or duplicate accounts in order to make “extreme comments”, which the newspaper avoids publishing.
Politics is also a widely discussed issue, with a column on August 22 featuring a caption of a cartoon drawn by Maung Shwe Win on his Facebook account.
The caption explained how a 20-year-old male failed a job interview because he had eight years of work experience at a teashop, reflecting that young people have to work instead of going to school.
One of the editors, 27-year-old Aye Mya Kyaw, has had 10 years of experience working as a journalist despite her young age.
7Day has over 30 reporters, the oldest being 40 years old. Most are under 30, with one having over 30,000 followers on Facebook. There are around 100 staff altogether.
Its weekly version has the highest circulation in the country of 140,000, while its daily version has a circulation of over 20,000. The papers cost 600 kyat and 200 kyat respectively.
Its weeklies have a commodity watch section, which apart from construction material and oil prices, it includes the prices of mobile phones such as Samsung, HTC, iPhone and Huawei; as well as laptops such as MSI, Asus and Acer.
But Aye Mya said although it is good that the young people want to be involved in politics, they are sometimes emotional, have a lack of knowledge and read less books than in the past.
The Journal of Human Rights and Democracy, which is now in its second issue, uses social media to request for articles by young scholars and writers.
Sold at 1,500 kyats per publication, the academic journal has regular scholarly articles on analysis, case studies, culture and politics.
“We are more willing to pave way for the younger generation. If an older contributor’s perspectives can’t go along with us, it will be difficult to use them [their articles],” said 32-year-old editor Wai Yan Phone.
“The advantage for the younger generation is that they have a chance to look at interesting issues online even though they use Facebook for fun. You can’t run away from other people’s posts. Even though they [the youth] are not interested in politics, they read the shared posts and have knowledge about it,” he said, estimating that 90% of posts shared on Facebook today are issues related to the country as opposed to five years ago when the censorship was not yet lifted.
In one way or another it has some effects on general users in terms of political awareness, but Wai Yan noted that internet itself does not bring about democracy – it is merely a medium.
“When you look at the history of some countries changing from an authoritarian to democratic regime, they had no internet at that time. Only power of the people. Now only the will of people can restore [democracy],” he said.
[This article was produced for the 2013 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) fellowship program. Nanchanok Wongsamuth, a business reporter for the Bangkok Post, 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 in the Bangkok Post in September 2013.]