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Social media drives debate ahead of Burma’s historic election

A Buddhist nun and a woman use mobile phones while waiting at a bus -stop in Yangon, Burma. Pic: AP.

By Duncan Riley
September 28, 2015

BURMA is heading to the polls in November to elect members to the Burmese Parliament in what is arguably the freest election in years, but one with an unprecedented level of internal discussion within the Southeast Asian nation due to the exceptional local growth in social media.

Unprecedented isn’t a hard term to use with Burma (also known as Myanmar), a country that was ruled with an iron first by a military junta for some 20 years and still maintains many of the same restrictions on freedom of expression from that era today. In 2009 mobile phone ownership sat at 1 percent, a figure said to be only beaten by North Korea, and a sim card cost US$2,000 due to the regressive control of the Government. But as the country has opened its borders to the rest of the world, so to has accessibility improved; although as recently as 2013 a sim card cost US$250, by comparison today a sim card can be purchased for as little as US$1.50 and the price drop has naturally resulted in a surge in demand, with estimates that 22 million mobile phones are now active in the country, the vast majority being cheap Android smartphones from China.

Approximately 21 million people, or more if they share a phone among family members, now have internet access on their phones than did during the last election in 2012, and it is changing the way politics is played in the country, while at the same time partially bypassing the still very existent censorship laws.

Political tool

The massive increase of Burmese on social media has not been missed by either the current Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) Government nor the main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, let alone the 91 other parties running at the election, with all taking to social media, and in particular Facebook, with gusto.

Suu Kyi, best known in the West as the face of democracy in Burma due to winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, has been using Facebook to encourage people to vote, including a recent video message where she said that the elections were a crucial turning point for the country and that it was important that the election was free and fair.

“For the first time in decades, our people will have a real chance of bringing about real change,” Suu Kyi said. “We hope that the whole world understands how important it is for us to have free and fair elections.”

Facebook pages such as Let’s Check Voter List encourage Burmese to (as the name may imply) check to make sure they are on the electoral roll, and also provide information about the voting process as well.

Journalists however don’t have nearly as much freedom as politicians do, although social media is giving them the opportunity to communicate directly with voters without the need to obtain Government approval as is still currently the case for traditional forms of media, but still with the ongoing risk of arrest and imprisonment.

Some restrictions on the reporting of the election are often ignored with publications such as 7Day News using Facebook and Twitter to publish stories before they hit their print edition (post Government censorship approval) and to a willing audience; 7Day has 4.1 million Facebook likes.

Partial self-censorship in utilizing social media platforms to go directly to readers is the overall theme with the Burmese media, not that it always keeps reporters out of harm’s way, with multiple arrests in 2014 under all sorts of spurious charges, such as breaching the Official Secrets Act through to in one case a journalist at the Democratic Voice of Burma being sentenced to 1 year in prison for trespassing and disturbing the peace for daring ask a Government official an awkward question.

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, right, receives gifts from ethnic Naga women during an election campaign for her National League for Democracy party in Thamanthi township in Sagaing division, Saturday. Pic: AP.

Voice of the people

The most interesting aspect of the rise of the mobile internet and social media in Burma is that it has given a voice to an electorate in a country that is still extremely poor, with an average income of under US$200 per year.

If Burmese politicians have taken to social media with gusto, the Burmese people have taken their embrace of social media several multitudes more; even a poor rice farmer has an opinion on how the country should be run, and like people anywhere in the world they want to see their country move forward.

There have been some negatives from this embrace, not least the use of social media to spread anti-Muslim hate, but conversely there are far more positives as a result of this use.

Fortunately the Government has not cracked down broadly against individual views expressed online despite having the power to do so; after decades of speech repression it’s the average Burmese citizen that is proving the Charles Bradlaugh adage “without free speech progress is checked”.

Burma votes November 8 and you’ll likely hear the results of the election on Facebook first.

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