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Can ICTs Improve Democracy and Governance in Myanmar?

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Internet access, in particular via mobile technology, gives citizens a medium through which to exercise their political voice. It can be used to challenge preexisting power systems and is a potential game-changer in countries with undemocratic regimes. As we’ve seen with the Arab Spring, citizens can use Internet tools to place the fates of governments in citizens’ hands.

In Myanmar, the technology landscape is changing fast. New mobile network operators are making massive infrastructure investments, lowering costs for mobile phones and data plans, and with new, innovative forms of Internet access, much of the country is about to be connected for the first time.

Technological innovations allow for better election monitoring, ways of informing citizens of party platforms, and accessing information on how to vote. Efforts in open data are increasing transparency and accountability, and the Internet serves as a launching pad for civil action. Conversations that start online can quickly become movements on the streets.

We all remember how ICT played a powerful role in the Arab Spring, but can we expect to see a similar rise in civic political action, as 60 million Burmese gain Internet access virtually overnight? This challenging question was one of many discussed by development experts and technologists the recent Technology Salon, What is the Future of ICT in Myanmar“.

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Access to knowledge and information may seem difficult in Myanmar, considering that currently only 10% of citizens have mobile phones. Still almost all of that 10% report having Facebook, which is also a source of news, information and a way of connecting like minds, and a service many can access directly from their mobile phones.

Facebook as a game-changer for Myanmar’s governance might be a tad idealistic. Myanmar struggles with poor public infrastructure (which widespread Internet access ultimately rests on) and the nation suffers from deeper, economic and political institutional problems, all of which ICT can’t be expected to ameliorate. In fact, historically, ethnic tensions have been at the source of many of Myanmar’s conflicts and coups.

Sometimes a surge in citizen participation possibilities is enough to unite different ethnic groups on a common front, and the Internet is a facile way of connecting the core and peripheries. In that regard, a recent study from the National Democratic Institute showed that election websites could act as an “umbrella [that] unified disparate groups”. A strong, united citizenry is the first requirement needed to demand better government responsiveness and services, and Internet accessibility could facilitate this goal.

On the other hand, ICT may also present Myanmar with new governance challenges. For example, should hate speech be allowed freely on Facebook? Or is there a role for government to censor ill words exchanged by citizens online? The slope is slippery. In a democratic country, technologists certainly don’t want to give the government an easy way to constrain citizens’ voices. Yet free speech on the Internet could easily provoke an already repressive regime, causing more restrictions to freedoms and knowledge sharing than before.

Where does that leave concerned development actors, eager to help harness and enhance ICTs potential for political progress in Myanmar?

Myanmar doesn’t need fancy technology or more NGOs. It needs a strong democracy. And who knows better what this looks like than the citizens themselves? As several Myanmar experts reminded Tech Salon participants, local people prefer to do things their way.

Myanmar’s government is concerned with broader macro issues: FDI, economic growth and global diplomacy. Keeping these in mind, technologists should choose to support local NGOs in Myanmar. ICT can assist in the process. ICT can also amplify citizens’ demands for better governance. Let’s support, rather than drive, that louder voice, so any governance reform starts and ends with the Myanmar people themselves.

Maria Andersen is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), focusing on international economics & African development

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