The issue of access to communication and information is the subject of Insight Myanmar’s conversation with Toe Zaw Latt, a journalist currently with Mizzima, and who previously worked for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB).
Before the arrival of mobile phones and internet in Myanmar, one of the few options for communication was the telephone. Until only recently, whole apartment complexes in urban areas shared a single phone line, while entire rural villages might have to make do with only one or two. One had to have the right kind of access—and lots of money—to secure a private phone line, and even then, this privilege was usually for just senior military figures or their cronies. But the regime didn’t just limit access to this main form of communication, they also controlled and actively monitored its use: every call had to go through an operator, with military intelligence listening in. Famously, given these circumstances, the Burmese teashop took on an outsized role as a workaround communications hub. This became one of the only places where one could learn the latest rumors—speaking carefully, in hushed tones, with friends and associates.
The internet arrived in Myanmar in the early 2000s. At first, it was in the form of private internet shops, although very sites were accessible. Toe Zaw Latt describes how military intelligence, as with the telephone, also carefully monitored all online activity. Then in 2012, as the transition period was just beginning, SIM cards offering mobile data hit the market—but at the whopping price of $1,500 per card! In Toe Zaw Latt’s thinking, the military wanted to make sure that like the private home line, only the very rich and connected could have this privilege. But then, suddenly, seemingly overnight, Telenor and Ooredoo won contracts; their networks went up everywhere…and the cost of a SIM card dropped to a single dollar! Quickly following this development, the Burmese online space exploded to about 30 million users. Toe Zaw Latt says that internet speeds were even faster than Europe or the US at that time. This online revolution was coupled with the arrival of new, independent banks as well, and so now online banking became very popular. Burmese culture was irrevocably transformed in the process.
Yet despite his appreciation for these new freedoms, Toe Zaw Latt also looked on with concern because “the majority of users had no digital or information literacy.” As an example, he references the infamous anti-Islam propaganda campaign that began to spread virally on Facebook, which he describes as a carefully planned psychological warfare operation launched on an unsuspecting public (mirroring what Igor Blaževi? said on a recent podcast episode). However, at the same time, Toe Zaw Latt saw signs of optimism in how the younger generation became digital natives, a skill that would define Generation Z’s involvement in the resistance movement after the 2021 coup.
Catch up with Toe Zaw Latt in this latest Podcast with Insight Myanmar: