Myanmar’s Internet Disrupted Society—and Fueled Extremists


During the half century that they ruled the country, Myanmar’s military dictators occasionally turned to astrology for policy decisions. In the late ’80s, for example, the government switched the currency from units of 10 to nine, a more auspicious number. Economic turmoil followed. More recently, after an astrologer reportedly warned of an imminent American air strike, the capital was relocated from Yangon to a half-finished outpost in the middle of a jungle. Mass confusion ensued. Because of the dictatorship’s rigid controls on everything from media to education, hardly anyone had a mobile phone, and internet access was severely limited. People had little idea what was happening in the next town—let alone at the capital (wherever it was).

Myanmar’s citizens have, over the years, expressed their frustrations through a number of attempts at peaceful revolution, which the military leaders generally quashed with tanks and bayonets. But six years ago the government realized that modernity was allowing once-poorer neighboring countries to surge ahead, so it began to democratize. Aung San Suu Kyi, a founder of the National League for Democracy, was freed from house arrest in 2010. And in 2014, officials granted licenses to two foreign cell phone companies. Within a year, the price of a SIM card dropped from $250 to $1.50, leading to the fastest rise in mobile phone usage of any country in the last 10 years. Today more than three-quarters of the population have a cell phone, most of them smartphones.

As I was traveling through Myanmar’s remote northern mountains early this year, I saw a boy sitting on an elephant’s head, steering with his feet while his hands swiped his phone. According to a man who was loading rice onto the elephant, the boy was heading to a rebel battalion in the jungle to help defend an illegal mine. Would he be able to call his parents back home? Sure, the guy told me. They even had coverage out there.

Farmers in oxcarts, Buddhist monks, businesspeople launching startups—they all now have the world at their thumbs. But what is it like to endure, in just a few short years, the transition Western countries have had a quarter century to work through? Tech is powerful anywhere, but it’s particularly powerful when it’s brand-new and easy to exploit. In the stories that follow, six people share their experiences from the forefront of Myanmar’s mobile revolution. Each account offers a glimpse of the boon of sudden connectivity—along with the wide-ranging, and sometimes violent, consequences of disruption.

Thaung Tin (opening image)
Age: 57
An early PC user who led Myanmar’s telecommunications reform

I was born in 1960 and grew up under socialism, which meant that all people were equal together at the bottom. We had nothing: no TV, no exposure to the outside world. I learned from a government school, but there was a library, and I taught myself with books. Even when I went to engineering university in 1980, a telephone was a luxury item. You had to dress up to use it at the post office, and connections were very poor. That was the same year the government brought in TV. At the university hostel, everyone watched the few hours of government programming each day. I saw the development in other nations. I loved the Six Million Dollar Man and James Bond for all their technology. I eventually became the maintenance engineer for the only computer in the country. Then, when an IBM personal computer was given to the university, I was chosen to help assemble it. That made me one of the first people to use a personal computer in Myanmar. It was like a James Bond movie.

Around 2000, because of my expertise, I started representing Myanmar at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on technological matters. As I traveled, I saw that neighboring countries were surpassing us. Once, in Cambodia, when I spotted a taxi driver with a cell phone, I thought, “A taxi driver isn’t supposed to have that!” I was also one of the first people in Myanmar to get the internet, and I realized that with just a few clicks, a kid from here could have the same access as one in Silicon Valley. In 2012 I joined the president’s advisory council. He had just begun accepting reforms, so in one meeting I nervously suggested: “Mr. President, we should consider telecom reform, because that could have a high impact on society.” I was shocked when he appointed me deputy communications minister.

Because Myanmar had been a military regime for many decades, there was a lot of resistance to bringing in foreign telecom companies. It was a big deal for the government to be unable to track conversations. There was also pushback from the private…

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