07/24/2013 10:27 am ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

'Who Uses Email?' No Hands. 'Gmail?' Every Hand Up: Talking Tech and Politics in Myanmar

This June, I joined the Richardson Center for Global Engagement's (RCGE) team in Yangon, Myanmar to conduct a series of workshops on information technology and how to make the most of the country's nascent connectivity. We set up trainings with politicians, NGO staffers, students and other assorted young upstarts -- all looking to capitalize, in their own ways, on the promises that Myanmar's recent political and economic reforms hold.

For a graduate student with a summer to fill and an interest in transitional emerging markets -- preferably those with a bit of a bite -- there's no finer place to be in 2013 than Myanmar. The country's much-lauded transition from isolated junta-led backwater to the rapidly-liberalizing bright light of Southeast Asia is palpable in person. The change is visible everywhere, from the stacks of uncensored daily newspapers and traffic on the streets (thanks to drastic cuts in car import tariffs) to the new mobile phones tucked into the waistbands of men's traditional longyi skirts. My favorite square on the Transitional Myanmar bingo card remains the taxi window touts trying to sell me a photocopy of the latest version of the Foreign Investment Law, available in English and Myanmar. (Got one, thanks guys.)

Debates remain about the permanence of many reforms -- and their underlying motives -- but over in my little patch of grass, Internet technology and mobile phones, the effects are profound. Even the smallest bit of connectivity can transform the way a person sees the world and his place in it. Myanmar is a country full of people who will tell you they don't use the Internet but reply "Of course" when you ask if they're on Facebook. Two weeks ago, the Myanmar government banned an issue of TIME magazine for its story about extremist monks ("The Face of Buddhist Terror"). Not one of my workshop participants had ever purchased a TIME magazine -- most had never even heard of it -- but thanks to Facebook, everyone had seen the cover and developed an opinion about it.

As elsewhere in developing countries, the challenges of connecting a poor and overwhelmingly rural population come down to decidedly unsexy issues like price and infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, the limited access I see in Yangon is virtually nonexistent outside city centers, and the connections most people can get -- typically through their mobile phones or Internet cafes -- are prohibitively slow and expensive, despite the fact that Myanmar has the benefit of being connected to the SEA-ME-WE fiber-optic cable. Many popular products and platforms are not supported in Myanmar, for reasons that are economic (no credit cards), legal (the Internet policy laws remain in draft form) or technical (such as the localization of Myanmar script).

The tech situation in Myanmar is, however, unique in some interesting ways once you look closer. Exhibit A: the SIM card lottery. Many poor countries have incredibly high rates of mobile penetration -- over 100 percent, since people buy multiple SIM cards and swap them in and out to expertly price discriminate. Myanmar's rate is under 10 percent. Within the last year, prices for SIM cards, distributed by the state-run telecom Myanmar Post and Telecommunications (MPT), were cut by 99 percent, dropping from over US$3000 to about US$1.50.

This would be an extraordinarily exciting change, were it not for the fact that MPT chose to release these affordable chips in small, delayed batches: 350,000 each month (with a share already reserved for civil servants), allocated to citizens through a public lottery and only in locations chosen by the government. This scarcity, of course, creates an instant black market for resold SIM cards at prices reaching towards pre-reform levels. The recent awarding of telecom licenses to Qatar's Ooredoo and Norway's Telenor should help accelerate mobile adoption across the country, but for now, many in Myanmar -- even those who have purchased phones, now used as entertainment devices -- must wait for their number to be called. (In the meantime, Bluetooth sharing platforms like Zapya and the side-loading of pirated Android applications help keep content churning.)

To describe these limitations as "frustrating" would be like calling Yangon's daily monsoon rains "wet." The briefest of glimpses at what basic communications technologies -- literally, just cellphones--are doing for health, education, small business growth, financial transactions, civil engagement and so much else in places like India, Kenya and the Philippines can tell you that Myanmar's long journey to prosperity is clearly being held back by policies like the SIM card lottery. For one example, the country suffers from a profound lack of reliable data on anything and everything. More phones means more data points, for information about populations, markets, behaviors and opinions, and very simple SMS survey platforms -- already used extensively in both developing and conflict countries -- could collect and analyze that data instantly. Instead researchers must combat all manner of obstacles -- poor roads, patchy telephone coverage, language barriers, limited education and heavily land-mined terrain, among others -- head-on.

Nevertheless, when it comes to matters like these, Myanmar locals can usually find a silver lining. As one grinning network security analyst told me when I asked about hacking, "We have no credit cards, no banking yet. We have nothing worth stealing!"

The Workshops

But if the pace of change in Myanmar is any indication, these limitations on access will shift sooner than we expect. My Richardson Center trainings were designed to put the cart before the horse, so to speak: "You may not use these/need those/care about this now," I told participants, "but you will before you know it." Building the knowledge base now, on practices and platforms that will serve them well in years to come, is both a critical step and a true opportunity. Most Burmese may be at an early stage of familiarity with technology -- e.g. "Who uses email?" No hands. "Who uses Gmail?" Every hand up -- but as elsewhere in emerging market environments, when something works, like a popular social networking platform or a clever offline sharing strategy, people teach each other faster than any visiting trainer could.

So what did I talk about?

For politicians, my training dovetailed with a presentation on political messaging from the Richardson Center's Mindy Walker. I discussed things like different social media platforms they can use now, various offline strategies for dealing with constituents without Internet or network access, and how to use connectivity to engage with local and international media. More importantly, I raised the question of how to think about being online as an accountable public figure. With national elections two years away and turbulent domestic news (particularly around Buddhist-Muslim violence) regularly appearing on, and sometimes spurred on by, social networking sites, the question of how a political actor should behave online is especially relevant -- and will become even more so as the stakes rise.

These participants came largely from the opposition party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and we also had trainees representing several of the ethnic parties from Chin, Shan and Rakhine states that ring Myanmar. It became clear that they didn't need to be tech-savvy to understand the calculation that data permanence -- nothing you post can ever be deleted -- means they will need to be careful and to think long-term about how they present themselves, what they share and how they engage with the public online. I reminded them that Myanmar's newly-unleashed press corps is full of journalists who had been put in prison for reporting under the former government, and they will be relentless for years to come.

The most interesting part of the workshop came at the end, when I took them through hypothetical scenarios, like "A journalist has found embarrassing photos of you on your friend's private Facebook page and is threatening to publish them. Do you delete the photos?" (The answer is no.) Seeing how quickly they grasped these ideas, even arguing with each other about just how cautious to be about posting, tweeting and sharing was highly encouraging--though, as we know from myriad American examples, when it comes to politicians and the Internet knowing and should know better are rather distinct categories.

At local NGOs, my workshops covered more broadly focused topics: how to be safe online, how to make the most of low bandwidth, how to search smarter, how to build social media influence, how to identify phishing attempts and so on. Some concepts were more successful than others -- spam email and search strings, yes, keyword optimization and the perils of cookies, not so much. But participants were, without fail, delightful to interact with and eager to learn, even when unfamiliarity with technology and language barriers threatened to derail the endeavor.

I am still digesting this experience, and suspect I will for some time. I find the technology adoption process fascinating, but even prior experience in other emerging markets doesn't compare to the sense of possibility in Myanmar, if only because it is both so behind and so determined to catch up. It's thrilling to think of what can happen in Myanmar when connectivity -- fast, reliable, affordable and inclusive access -- finally arrives. There are very few "Year Zero" countries left in the world when it comes to the Internet, and I count myself very lucky to witness some small slice of one this summer.

I've yet to meet anyone working in Myanmar who is not similarly excited about the potential of this country and these people, all political, economic and cultural challenges aside. It's true that I might wince at the ubiquity of the imperfect phrase "capacity building" in Myanmar, but then I'm reminded of something a young journalist told me. After describing the woeful state of education in the country, the various obstacles that must be overcome to introduce ideas like critical thinking, and the flood of newly available classes in English, management and other skills that she was excitedly picking through, she sighed. "Our minds," she said, "they're precious -- everyone wants them." Then, with a smile, "They've never been used before."