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Thant Sin

How Information Liberation in Myanmar Led to the People’s Victory

The recently held elections in Myanmar led to a victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) over the military junta. The results are also an outcome of an open Internet and access to information. Myanmar-based blogger Thant Sin has the details.

In the very late hours of November 8, people in Myanmar still gathered in the streets, cheering as the ballots were counted. As more official election results were released over the next two days, it became clear that the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), was going to win a landslide victory against the military-backed ruling party.

The election slogan “it is time for change” resounded in the hearts of people who looked forward to a better future.

Many viewed this as the victory of opposition leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Su Kyi, and welcomed it with enthusiasm and optimism. What seemed to go unnoticed at this moment of celebration, however, is that this was not just the victory of Daw Su and her party; it was also the collective triumph of citizens tired of the oppressive military rule of the past fifty years. For the first time ever, the people of Myanmar successfully – and peacefully – fought against the form of rule they had detested for so long. The election slogan “it is time for change” resounded in the hearts of people who looked forward to a better future with a more effective government.

To add a bit of context, military rule of Myanmar began in 1962 with General Nay Win. Under his authoritarian rule, the country experienced an extremely repressive regime and underwent economic decline, pervasive human rights abuses, and the suppression of the freedom of speech. After a massive, violent riot and crackdown in 1988, Nay Win stepped down and held the general election of 1990, during which Aung San Su Kyi's party won in a landslide. But General Than Shwe had a different plan. He placed the opposition leader under house arrest and started his new regime which would last another two decades until 2010, when he transferred his power to the semi-civilian government led by ex-General Thein Sein. The army still retained most of the control behind the scenes.

The 2015 election saw a new form of power emerge, however. Even Daw Su was very much aware of this and confident. In light of the repercussions of her similar victory in 1990, she was asked whether she was apprehensive that history would repeat itself. But she answered that the people are now politically aware of their positions more than ever. She said:

“There is a communication revolution, which has made a huge difference. Everybody gets on to the net and informs everybody else what is happening. And so it’s much more difficult for those who want to engage with the irregularities and get away with it.”

Indeed, although we could say that NLD’s victory could be attributed to the lady’s aura or her political prowess, people paid less attention to the significance of the massive election awareness campaign that went on during the months leading up to the election.

…civil society, grassroots organizations, political activists and citizens themselves took advantage of the newly available mobile Internet technology and social media to raise political awareness and promote voter’s rights.

In addition to traditional print media, civil society, grassroots organizations, political activists and citizens themselves took advantage of the newly available mobile Internet technology and social media to raise political awareness and promote voter’s rights. People were urged to make sure their names were included on the lists of registered voters and made aware of the steps involved in the voting process. The information revolution had brought people to a greater understanding of how to exercise their power.

At this moment, it is worth looking at what went on in the information and knowledge landscape of Myanmar in the years leading up to the second general election, and reflect on the changes that occurred during the transition period from the previous government. For a moment, let us stop thinking about the political institutions and actors at the macro-level as well and instead focus more on everyday individual agents and how they exercise the power made available to them within this limited space of opportunity.

Many political analysts and international media focused their attention mainly on Aung San Su Kyi and the military government as the centre of the power struggle and primary locus of change. Although they played a very important part and the state was mainly responsible for change, we cannot overlook the role of people’s power in building statehood.

Using their freshly granted media freedom, grassroots social movements and politically active citizens dynamically participated in creating an atmosphere of political empowerment.

The transformation of the media landscape in the past five years and the resultant information revolution have helped build a strong foundation for understanding the role of citizens in creating a democratic nation and citizens' political rights. Using their freshly granted media freedom, grassroots social movements and politically active citizens dynamically participated in creating an atmosphere of political empowerment.

The former military junta was aware of this form of power. Back in the information dark days, Myanmar’s education system was designed to make sure that people did not think critically or analytically and instead thought along the lines of the state. There was nowhere in the country to learn about political science. Books and print media were controlled by censorship and the broadcasting sector was monopolized by the state. In this way, the state ensured that people did not politically challenge authority on an ideological level.

…by nature Myanmar society is characterized by a propensity to talk about or criticize the government in everyday conversation.

However, by nature Myanmar society is characterized by a propensity to talk about or criticize the government in everyday conversation. This mostly took place below the radar during the past five decades. But since 2011, these conversations have moved from confined private spaces to the public sphere.

With the relaxation of censorship and release of political prisoners, speech acts on politics and governance took to the streets of Myanmar's cities. The Board of Censorship was completely dissolved in 2013. It was a game changer for the people because the liberation and explosion of information and knowledge, especially on the topic of political economy, has taken people to a new dimension of political discussion and understanding. And we have to thank the previous government for this enabling environment. Politics, protests, criticism and satire have become part of our everyday language. Political stories and scandals grace the covers of journals and periodicals on the streets.

For the first time ever, people could read anything on the Internet inside the country without having to circumvent state controls.

Back in 2011, the semi-civilian government unblocked all the political websites as well as the pages of international news agencies such as the BBC and VOA. For the first time ever, people could read anything on the Internet inside the country without having to circumvent state controls.

During the junta’s rule, Google’s BlogSpot was seen as a threat and many bloggers were arrested. It was reopened in 2011. However, before BlogSpot became popular again, a more powerful and further-reaching platform for microblogging entered Myanmar: Facebook. Thanks to all its user-friendly features, it was quickly mainstreamed and adopted by political activists and became a new favourite space for activism.

This was augmented by the establishment of the transnational mobile phone network operators, Telenor and Ooredoo, and later joined by the national provider, Myanmar Post and Telecommunication (MPT). Although network coverage and Internet outreach is still relatively low in rural areas, it nevertheless brought about a new level of connectivity in the urban spaces of Myanmar and ushered in a new era of the information society.

This new form of media has not replaced the traditional media. In fact, it was assimilated into the country’s journalism structure also booming at the same time.

Traditional print media proliferated during this period. By 2014, over 200 licensed newspapers and journals were already circulating in the country. They served as the major source of information in places where the Internet had not reached. The most important milestone was the return of exiled media such as the Irrawaddy and Mizzima news agencies, who served as major alternative media during the junta rule. It means that national and international journalists can now report more freely than before.

Traditional print journals set up their own websites and Facebook pages. Facebook news pages of the BBC, Irrawaddy and Eleven Media have become the most popular pages and major sources of information. They are the dynamic centres of political engagement online. Hundreds of journalists set up their own public Facebook accounts and quickly shared any breaking news events without having to wait for the editorial process. And Facebook’s public sharing feature helped further disseminate information.

Bold whistle blower publications like Thuriya Nay Min continue to write about political scandals despite being harassed.

The media landscape, however, has still experienced some problems when it comes to reporting government controversies. Reporters, bloggers and activists have been arrested and harassed. Despite these challenges, activists and journalists are undaunted and continue to cover and keep the public informed about corruption, human rights abuses and government controversies such as the Lapadaung copper mine and Myitsone mega-dam project. Bold whistle blower publications like Thuriya Nay Min continue to write about political scandals despite being harassed. This means that news agencies, both online and print, have come to sate the public’s insatiable hunger for political information and knowledge.

Not just professional news reporting has engaged in the sphere of political dialogue. People have taken up art as a form of everyday expression and a creative way to vent their political anger. Internet memes in Myanmar are a good example of how people are using a sense of humour to creatively pinpoint social and political issues from everyday life. People use images of politicians to explicitly criticize and protest their policies. Moreover, cartoonists have moved from subtle and implicit messages of everyday critique of social and political life to more directed, explicit political satires.

These fragments of social movements and everyday struggles with authority may seem small when viewed as disconnected nodes. Taken together as a whole, though, they accumulatively prepare the public to become empowered and more politically conscious than ever before. It makes it difficult for the government to return to the previous status quo because within a networked society, social mobilization in the offline space using online medium can be a massive challenge for the state.

Even on election day, the collective efforts of the people on social media served as a powerful and effective monitoring mechanism, in which people used hashtags to widely share the government’s attempts to cheat in certain regions.

Even in the months before the 2015 election, when the Election Commission generated a critically erroneous voter list, civil society groups and activists aggressively urged citizens to correct the list by adding their names and removing the ghost voters. New technology, such as mobile apps and social media, was used to educate people about voting procedures and instil a greater sense of responsibility to exercise their right to vote, ushering people into a stronger democratic society. Even on election day, the collective efforts of the people on social media served as a powerful and effective monitoring mechanism, in which people used hashtags to widely share the government’s attempts to cheat in certain regions.

All this does not necessarily mean that we have arrived at an information golden age in these years. We are still far from it. Our fledgling democratic country suffered from the outbreak of a series of communal violence, civil wars and environmental disasters. Corruption, social inequality and marginalization of certain ethnic groups including the Rohingya people remain as challenges that the new government needs to address without delay. The extreme nationalist movement, Ma-Ba-Tha, widely believed to be the main instigator of country's conflicts, took full advantage of this very same space of freedom of expression to create and spread rumours and misinformation. Their messages calling for hatred, supported by many followers, seriously threatened our nascent and fragile democracy throughout the previous government's term.

Information liberation has helped us emerge as a powerful democratic society.

However, a society can emerge from hardship as a stronger and more resilient democracy. For every destructive mechanism that political opportunists may apply, we have our counter social movements out of grassroots entities that call for peace, harmony and the protection of our rights. Yet the potential of this everyday activism is sometimes overlooked. Information liberation has helped us emerge as a powerful democratic society. And we will have to continue fighting this battle, though this can only be guaranteed when the right to speak freely and the right to access unrestricted information and knowledge are protected.

Communities can be strengthened by freer access to knowledge, and it is particularly important to empower ethnic minorities and rural areas to help them continue to develop their thinking through free speech. If Myanmar wants to reconcile the people with its government and strengthen their social contract, the state will need to guarantee and protect the freedom of speech and offer transparency.

Photo: “Free Aung San Suu Kyi” by Jasin
2007 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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