After decades of rule by a brutal regime known for imprisoning cyber-dissidents, Internet freedom in Myanmar expanded dramatically over the past year, according to a recent report by Freedom House. The report warns that the Internet in Myanmar is still “not free,” however, and that major obstacles remain to further improvement. One is a legacy of repression that casts a shadow on the reform process.
Just two years ago, Freedom House ranked Myanmar’s Internet policies as the world’s second most repressive, surpassed only by Iran’s, and in the same league as serial offenders like China and Vietnam. To keep citizens in the dark, Myanmar’s government routinely restricted Internet access and censored large amounts of online content, including most foreign media. Those who defied them faced severe penalties, including torture and lengthy prison sentences.
The restrictions and a poor infrastructure make Myanmar one of the world’s “least connected countries,” according to the International Telecommunications Union. Massive coverage gaps, glacial connection speeds, and exorbitantly high service costs put the Internet beyond the reach of 98 percent of Myanmar’s citizens.
The good news is that the country’s leaders are now enacting dramatic reforms that promise a more open and democratic future for its long-repressed citizens. Those related to Internet freedom are having a particularly strong impact.
The government started relaxing limits on content in 2011, but 2012 was the year that it officially changed its policy on media censorship. It unblocked most previously banned content, including the websites of foreign media outlets that frequently criticized the regime, and stopped requiring journalists to submit content to government censors before publication. In fairly short order, these policy changes gave the people of Myanmar access to a wider range of online sources than ever before.
This year the government took a big step towards deregulating the telecoms industry, which was formerly controlled by a state-owned monopoly that lacked the incentives and expertise to offer widespread mobile access. In June, it awarded operating licenses to two foreign companies, whose entry to the market is expected to help modernize the country’s telecommunications infrastructure. New service offerings will likely include mobile data plans that will help millions get online for the first time.
These reforms represent tremendous progress, but Myanmar’s newfound Internet freedoms are still untested. “It’s an open field right now which way things will go,” says Asia media expert Madeline Earp, who edited the Asia section of the Freedom House report. “The laws that were used to imprison people are still on the books, and there’s a lot of things that people are not going to feel comfortable discussing online or in print until this changes.”
Allegations of continued government interference in online activities create further chilling effects. In the past year, the government has been accused of hacking news websites and the personal email accounts of journalists; throttling the Internet to limit public access; corrupt practices in the telecoms industry; and fomenting ethnic tension with fake social media accounts. Such allegations arise from a long history of government abuse, though some are based on circumstantial evidence and remain unproven.
Concerns about the government’s potential role in fomenting ethnic conflict are particularly serious. In a country rife with long-simmering ethnic tensions, some are using the Internet to spread racist propaganda and harass others. This not only causes problems in the short term, but also gives the government a handy excuse down the road to roll back its reforms. Fortunately, voices of moderation and tolerance have emerged to counteract some of the more inflammatory claims that have appeared on the Internet.
Despite such setbacks, the momentum behind the recent reforms is undeniably strong and the potential for greater access to improve lives is overwhelmingly positive. For the sake of Myanmar’s long-repressed people, let’s hope these changes stick.
Will Greene is a writer and strategy consultant focused on Asia’s emerging R&D ecosystems. You can find him on LinkedIn.
Photo Credit: Reel Media Myanmar, Yangon.