On this week’s episode of DVB Debate, the panel discusses the impact that mobile technology has had on Burmese society since the sudden and widespread introduction of cheap SIM cards and smartphones.
For many years, mobile phones in Burma have been a rare luxury item, only available to a privileged few. Until 2009, SIM cards were issued by a lottery system conducted by Myanmar Post Telecommunications (MPT), a monopolistic state-owned telecommunications company. The cards used to cost as much as US$2,000.
The Burmese telecoms market showed signs of being an early mover amid economic changes that were to truly to take hold after Thein Sein’s reform minded government came to power in 2010.
Yet it was not until 2014 that the phone market really began to boom. Last year, two foreign firms entered the Burmese market, the Norwegian state-owned firm Telenor, and Qatari company Ooredoo. The price of a SIM card plummeted to an affordable US$1.50, and ordinary Burmese people got connected. But what impact has the sudden introduction of national mobile coverage had on Burmese people, and are pocket internet connections becoming an obsession?
“For many years we have been living without technology,” Yadanar Win of the Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation explained. “So sometimes, we have a phone but we don’t know how to use it.”
However young panellist Hlaing Kyi, of ISchool, an initiative that teaches democratisation practises with the help of technology, believes that as in many other countries, Burmese people will be quick to become tech-savvy.
“I’m not worried about [lack of technological nous]. We will gain it in the future. We did not have the information in the past.”
However older audience members, such as Min Chan Htike, are worried that: “instead of using phones effectively, people are playing games.”
The sudden access to information that has come with internet connectivity has linked Burma’s youth to their global contemporaries, an e-pathway desperately desired for a generation. Yet Zeyar, who serves as a librarian, worries over the potential damage that internet access may have on the traditional family unit.
“Most young people, when they get home, don’t even greet their parents. They just go straight to their rooms and spend time with their phones.”
Warning against a society saturated by technology, audience member Tin Naing Soe said that mobile phone users are in danger of becoming gadgets themselves.
“Even if two friends are sitting face-to-face, they don’t talk to each other, they just use their phones. Family relationships break down, and also the humanitarian spirit is getting low.”
MPT estimates that there are over nine million mobile phone users in Burma.