LIRNEasia is a regional ICT policy and regulation think tank active across the Asia Pacific

Benefits and costs of mobiles in Myanmar

For many, the only thing new about what journalists write about mobiles in Myanmar would be Myanmar. But I was thinking about the hate speech angle, which is, without question, going to be extremely significant in that country.

Mobiles and social media are not the causes of hate speech; they are the enablers and accelerators of hate speech. Like in the old Yugoslavia, there would have been a lot of enmity toward “the other” in Myanmar. But the whole thing was bottled up and suppressed, not because the military government was against hate speech, but against all speech. Now the lid is off.

More mainstream media outlets are available, but there’s always an editor. If one wants to exert editorial control, there are costs. With SMS and social media, there are no editors and the costs of becoming a publisher are negligible. So hate speech is enabled and accelerated. It’s tricky controlling this, partly because one man’s hate speech is another man’s free expression. More thoughts on this later.

There is also some concern about whether the growth of social media will provide a greater platform for Buddhist-Muslim hate speech that has plagued the country recently. But most feel that the expansion of mobile service to remote corners of Burma will have the same benefits seen in other developing countries. Of the more than 6 billion mobile phone users worldwide, according to a 2012 World Bank study, 5 billion are in developing countries, where they now have greater access to basic health-care information, banking and employment.

“I can already see how it will be better for business,” said Khin San Nwe, 59, a government employee in the Ministry of Cooperatives. She said it is far easier now to reach the small laborers who have microloans from the ministry and work in the Irrawaddy River delta.

Awthahta Nyani, 26, a Buddhist nun, said she bought her first cellphone about a month ago and uses it as an online dictionary and to tape her lectures at college. Now, she said, she can call her nephew in Malaysia with Viber, a mobile application that is wildly popular in Burma. She also likes the fact that her mother, a rice farmer, can reach her easily when she calls from a telephone shop in her village.

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