Internet and Democracy: The Cautionary Tale of Myanmar/Burma

By Jayne Seminare Docherty, PhD | April 6th, 20112 comments

Jayne Seminare Docherty, Professor of Leadership and Public Policy

Take long-term repressive governments; mix in a populace frustrated by economic stagnation, a youth bulge, knowledge of nonviolent strategies, and access to the internet. Voila! You’ve got yourself a nonviolent democratic revolution.

This oversimplified analysis of Tunisia and Egypt has been tempered by the events in Libya and Bahrain. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of popular hype about the leveling power of the internet and the potential use of social networking sites to promote nonviolent revolutions.

Because I have been traveling to Myanmar (called Burma by many who do not live there) since 2008, I have been asked, “Is Burma next? Can what happened in Egypt be accomplished in Burma?” For many reasons, I think Myanmar is not next. Furthermore, I believe that a similar uprising in that country would be disastrous. But that is another issue for another posting. Right now I want to focus on Myanmar/Burma as an illustration of the way the internet can actually work against developing more participatory governing systems.

Map of the internet, circa 2003; Source: The Opte Project

In the past few decades the planet has been enveloped in increasingly dense networks of communication technology we call the internet. A map of the internet is quite beautiful, and the power of the internet to connect individuals at great distances and to assist in the formation of like-minded groups of individuals for the purpose of advocacy is well documented. Tech savvy members of the Burma exile community were pioneers in using the internet – starting with e-mail and listserv – to organize advocacy campaigns. They now run one of the most sophisticated networks of internet-based advocacy organizations in the world.

While there are elements of dissent and disagreement in that network, by and large they uphold a simple narrative: Aung San Suu Kyi (who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991) and the National League for Democracy (NLD) have heroically resisted the domination of a military government that they describe as one of the most brutal and repressive in the world. It is a classic good versus evil narrative.

And it has worked. Using this narrative and their access to the internet the Burma exile community has managed to capture the policy apparatus in the United States, the United Kingdom, most of Europe and Australia. The resulting imposition of a very tight sanctions on the regime has further isolated the 55 million people living inside the country, which was renamed Myanmar. The people with the greatest knowledge of what is happening inside the country they call Myanmar occupy one of the identified “black holes” of the internet. Consequently, their stories are largely unknown, and outsiders typically see the story of Burma/Myanmar through the frame narrative promoted by the Burma exile community.

Source: Reporters Without Borders/www.rsf.org

At this point the two largest threats to the internet in Myanmar are those elements in the government (note: not the whole government) that fear the outside world and hackers associated with the exile community. When you live in the country it feels as though the fearful elements of the government and the exile community take turns bringing down the internet. In their shared fear of change, these “enemies” are actually cooperating to silence 55 million people so that the world cannot hear their stories directly.

But things are changing. The country is now loosely tethered to the internet. Current estimates are that 400,000 residents of Myanmar have regular access to the internet and demand for access is outstripping capacity. Furthermore, the growing business community interested in connecting to the global economy is pressing for more reliable and robust connection to the internet. When the internet is brought down either by elements of the government or the exile community, both exploiting lack of redundancy in the system, the business community and the activists trying to bring greater citizen involvement to the governance process are equally frustrated.

Many people inside the country do see change. Many of them are working hard to develop a home-grown form of government capable of handling the very complex issues that face their country. Change is coming. The news of that change may or may not reach the outside world thanks to the domination of the internet story of Burma/Myanmar by exiles and their allies.

Read more: New Tactics Needed in Burma – by Jim Della-Giacoma, GlobalPost

[Jayne Seminare Docherty, PhD, is Professor of Leadership and Public Policy at Eastern Mennonite University's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. In the spring 2011 semester, she is teaching Conflict Coaching for Peacebuilding and Theory: Frameworks for Peacebuilding. At the upcoming 2011 Summer Peacebuilding Institute, she will be teaching Analysis: Understanding Conflict.]

2 Responses to "Internet and Democracy: The Cautionary Tale of Myanmar/Burma"

  1. Psuedo democracy in Burma. The old guards(MJs) are still on the throne and needs to bring true democratic governance in Burma/Myanmar. We need to raise more youths for Democracy, through neighbouring country’s involvement. We plan to set up an Englist Medium School Moreh Free Trade Centre where these young generation can be empower with Knowledge on Social Justice and Democracy. We called it “Indirect Democracy Approach” Can you help us. Tribal Citizen Concern Committee, North Eastern Region(TRICONNEI) c/o zicord.manipur@gmail.com (TRICONNEI is a network and networking body of VOs,CBOs and Churches for Democracy and Development in Indo-Sino-Burma Border) Peter ZM Convenor.

    • Jayne Docherty says:

      Thanks for commenting. I am wondering if you could: a) share a bit more information about WHERE you are located and when was the last time you were in Myanmar? b) help us understand how this approach is anything new and not a repeat of the past 20+ years of trying to bring change to the central government and the country by working from the outside of the country?

      I see no evidence that genuine democracy has ever been created in a country by working only from the outside and condemning all those who are working from the inside. In South Africa the boycotts from outside were combined with pragmatic leadership from a cross section of the people and leaders inside — including people from the “old” regime, business leaders, etc.

      Two more interesting reports can be found at:

      http://www.eurasiareview.com/burma-has-it-changed-analysis-22042011/

      http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/publication-type/commentary/della-giacoma-new-tactics-needed-in-burma.aspx