First of a series
RANGOON—Two years ago, Freddy Lynn was spending most of his time at a public access centre in downtown Myitkyina in Kachin State. There he was introduced to a world that he did not learn in his university or heard about in his community that had been slowed down by more than six decades of armed conflict.
It was a discovery often interrupted by frequent power outages and news of violent clashes between ethnic groups and the military across Burma. Yet Freddy Lynn knew he should keep at it, because it kept him connected to a world outside Kachin, a western Burmese state that lies on the boundary of China and India. And unlike his friends who had to have at least 400 kyats ($0.41) per hour to have the same privilege, Freddy Lynn was getting his information about the ‘outside world’ for free as he worked at the public access centre, known elsewhere as an Internet café.
These days, the 24-year-old physics graduate from Myitkyina State University is still going online mostly for free. Now in Rangoon doing volunteer work for the Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation (MIDO), Freddy Lynn is one of the measly 500,000 Burmese, out of an estimated 55 million population, who has access to the Internet — somewhat.
University professor Ajarn Ubonrat Siriyuvasak, co-founder of the Bangkok-based Media Inside Out, has argued that communication, while it is enshrined and guaranteed in the Constitution of almost every nation around the world, is a human-rights issue. Today, especially among citizens in democratic countries, Internet as a communication platform and a new space for freedom is being seen as a basic need.
Burma is a country still struggling to break free from a dark and despotic past. But since opening up two years ago after decades of military rule, many of its citizens, including activists, are now enjoying the space and freedom to express and exchange information with each other—even reaching out to the outside world.
Wary observers, however, say this may just be an illusion. The reality, they say, is that the Burmese government continues to deprive its citizens of the right to information and free speech. In a country that has yet to prove it can carry out reforms, communication—and the Internet—is a commodity trapped under the monopoly and control of the state.
The problem of monopolised and controlled Internet distribution is also being exacerbated by power outages that sometimes last for a day at a time.
State and Crony, Inc.
The state-owned Myanmar Post Telecommunication (MPT) exclusively handles the communications sector, providing telephone lines to households, business establishments and government offices. MPT also operates the street phone booths across Burma.
MPT operates under the Ministry of Communications, Posts, and Telegraphs. The ministry’s tasks include the following: to arrange communication services for smooth and easy usage by the public; to satisfy communication needs of commercial, social and administrative infrastructures; to establish communication centres and routes in accordance with work requirements; and to monitor communication services in accordance with laws, rules and regulations.
In 2010, MPT allowed Red Link Communications to run fiber optic-sourced Internet connection, which is distributed mostly around Rangoon and Mandalay. Red Link is owned by the sons of the former regime’s third topmost military official, Shwe Mann, currently speaker of the Union Parliament.
The other Internet players in Burma are Sky Net MPS and Yatanarpon Teleport. While Yatanarpon Teleport is a state firm, Sky Net is owned by business tycoon Shwe Than, a close ally of President U Thein Sein.
Outside of frequenting Internet cafes or securing a free (if elusive) WiFi signal, connecting to the Net in Burma necessitates having a landline. To secure one, an applicant must only show the government-issued national identification card, pay around $500 and be armed with overflowing amount of patience as the process would usually take around one month to three months. Those who are only renting homes are less likely to be approved.
Not surprisingly, a February 2013 report by Radio Free Asia says only 6.7 percent of the population or just nearly four million Burmese have landline connections.
Next comes applying for an Internet service connection, which with Red Link would mean an installation fee of $1,000 to $1,500 for fiber-optic Internet. There is also a monthly fee that is around $600 to $700. This may help explain the low Net penetration rate of Burma, where the average monthly worker receives only 80,000 kyats or $82.47.
If one decides to have the landline connected ‘Internetly’ through the asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL), one must pay an installation fee of at least $100, plus a monthly payment of between $50 to $70.
A paucity in Internet speed devils
But that is only the start to litany of woes for those who want to go online in Burma. One information technology professional who asked not to be identified explained that because communication is under the MPT’s control, it could well be “playing god all over Burma, implementing capping—where it can impose a specific limit of speed to a certain users”.
Another IT professional, Aung Bar Lay, supported this, saying one only needed to experience the varying speed of Internet connection in downtown Rangoon. The speed, he said, can be improved if one is willing to give grease money.
Part 2 on Tuesday: Communicating in slow motion
This article was produced for the 2013 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) fellowship program. Jefry Tupas, who is one of the founders of NewsDesk (newsdesk.asia), is one of the 2013 fellows. This year’s theme is Freedom of Expression Challenges to Internet Government in Southeast Asia.