Changing how a nation speaks: ICTs for freedom of expression in Myanmar – Phyu Phyu Thi

Posted on November 1, 2017  /  0 Comments

August 2013. Every organization in Myanmar is being besieged by foreigners wanting to work there, and LIRNEasia is among them. Rohan and Helani were in Yangon,  meeting with the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO) for the first time. Two months later, LIRNEasia offered a training course for civil society groups (including academics and the media) in Myanmar. Somewhere in between the tutorials and the karaoke and the dancing, Rohan had a long chat with Phyu Phyu Thi, one of MIDO’s three founders.

Phyu Phyu had a focused interest in research and struck Rohan as someone who gets things done.

“She was like a sponge, willing to learn,” he recalls.

June 2014, the Head of Research at MIDO was in Sri Lanka, on a four-month internship at LIRNEasia. Phyu Phyu had already studied some research methodology for her Masters at Chiang Mai University. But at the training program, she recognized not only the gaps in her personal learning, but also the urgent need for policy intervention in her country.

“I realized I need a lot more learning to improve my research, and my ability to input to government policy issues,” she explains. “I thought, ‘LIRNEasia can give me that’.”

Phyu Phyu Thi met Htaike Htaike Aung and Nay Phone Latt some years before through their common love of blogging. They formalized something of a national Myanmar blogger society. Out of that formalized body came the understanding that “something needed to be done” about ICT policy issues in Myanmar. Nay Phone had been arrested in January 2008 under the Electronic Act in Myanmar, for the political nature of his blog. He was released in January 2012, and the three set up MIDO.

“We felt like we needed to do something for our country and its citizens,” Phyu Phyu says. “We wanted to start this as a tool for the freedom of expression.”

They started off with trainings on ICTs and awareness campaigns across the country, helping people understand how to use social media effectively. They organized Internet freedom forums and conducted small-scale research projects into social media use in Myanmar. When anti-Muslim riots broke out in 2013 and proponents started using Facebook for organized infliction of hate speech, MIDO jumped in to counter with their own campaigns. It was at this time that LIRNEasia reached out to MIDO.

Soon after her time at LIRNEasia, Phyu Phyu Thi won a grant from the University of Oxford towards a Myanmar Media and Society project. The ongoing work aims to understand the ways in which a developing media sector in the country and a growing online community influence people’s perceptions and priorities during Myanmar’s political transition. The methodology Phyu Phyu learnt during her masters hadn’t prepared her well enough for what she would encounter on the field. The internship at LIRNEasia did.

“Theory and practice is different,” Phyu Phyu points out. “At LIRNEasia, it was a lot of experience on the field, engaging with different actors. It taught me the full process from brainstorming to developing research questions, to finding the right partners to work with, step-by-step, from beginning to end. It was learning in real-life situations!”

During her internship, Phyu Phyu Thi attended CPRsouth in South Africa and a number of other research meetings. She also gained field experience and training in Myanmar and India. She honed her interviewing skills, learned the ups and downs of being on field with a team, and then learned how to cater the presentation of her findings to different actors.

Phyu Phyu has since presented her hate speech work at many forums including UNESCO and the Yangon parliament, engaged in meetings with Google and participated in debates on national TV. At the 2016 Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Brazil, Phyu Phyu spoke on a panel on hate speech. She was the first Myanmar researcher to speak on an IGF panel.

“[Hate speech] is now a known issue among international organizations,” Phyu Phyu says. “And whenever the issue comes up, people reach out to us.”

In September 2014, at the end of her four months with LIRNEasia, Phyu Phyu had a one-on-one reflection meeting with Rohan, who was her mentor.

“He told me to always read and learn,” she recalls, “and to keep writing, not just do research.”

In the two years since, Phyu Phyu Thi has produced multiple academic papers, blog posts, and newspaper articles. In July 2015 LIRNEasia and MIDO presented findings from our 2015 baseline survey on ICT use and information needs in Myanmar to members of parliament and media in Yangon. They talked about costs associated with mobile phone use, and the impact at the bottom of the pyramid. They got people thinking and talking. Phyu Phyu started building networks.

“Because of LIRNEasia I have more strength in the government sector and with parliament,” she says.

Phyu Phyu continues to work with LIRNEasia, providing much needed input and quality assurances in our Myanmar work. Her team has grown since we first met her in 2013, and she herself trains local researchers from different parts of the country. MIDO now has its own interns working with Phyu Phyu, joining the cycle of learning and disseminating for positive change that LIRNEasia introduced her to.

“My vision for life has changed,” she says. “Now I believe that research can impact policy changes in our country. And this is our need, in this transition period.”

This story was first published in the LIRNEasia Annual Report 2016-2017.

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