Myanmar’s internet revolution is a success story littered with contradictions. How did the population of a close-guarded regime with a penchant for tyrannical military rule come to claim one of the fastest growing number of Internet-savvy users in the developing world? And it all happened in a span of just four years. PRIOR TO 2014, the country was the third-least and one of the few located outside the low-income markets in East Africa.

Ironically, it was the military junta that sparked this unprecedented technological upheaval. In no time, enthusiastic companies were lining up for a place in ‘Asia’s last untapped mobile opportunity’, as it was called by GSM Association, the representative body of telecommunication operators. ‘Ooredoo’, a Qatar-based telecommunication company that was one of the two winning bidders, said, “It’s not a mobile phone business we are building, it’s a broadband network.”

As a cork shoots off a champagne bottle, the repressed generations of Myanmar who were deprived of any connection with the outside world overwhelmingly embraced mobile phones. By this time, the rest of the world had passed several epochs in the evolution of mobile technology beyond voice and short messaging. To keep up with the tide, in 2016, the government-owned telecommunications provider introduced Facebook Flex – a service that allows people to access an image- and video-free version of Facebook without any charge on data.

a few months, Facebook became the Internet in Myanmar. Helani Galpaya was at the center of this, observing the whirlwind of transformations occurring in Myanmar. As a director at LIRNEasia, a think tank working on telecommunication policy, Galpaya established herself as one of the few experts who could grasp the shifting dynamics in the East Asian country. For three years, her team has been meticulously conducting surveys in every nook and cranny in Myanmar and analysing the data back in Colombo to understand questions like how people access the Internet, use it and how it helps them.

The Facebook Flex programme was a contentious issue while she was in Myanamar, which was just a few months before the Indian telecom regulator banned the deployment of a similar Facebook service. Many condemned Facebook as providing a bottle-eyed view of the Internet, as the platform shaped the user’s Internet experience. For some, it was a hallmark of benevolent corporate authoritarianism with undue influence. And for a country like Myanmar, the eerie parallels were all too familiar.

Few like Galpaya championed the initiative as a mass democratization effort of the Internet. Services like Facebook Flex, one of the key applications in the free basics movement, was an idea that promulgated the view of connectivity as a human right. Hence, affordable access for backward communities with rudimentary Internet access was considered an imperative.

“It’s such an elitist argument,” she says, referring to the criticism that free basics will drive people ultimately to live in a Facebook bubble. In her view, free basics allow especially the poor to save money, while getting a taste of the benefits of being a part of a social network that the rest of the world enjoys. She points out that, regardless of whether Facebook is free or not, an overwhelming portion of Internet consumption will still consist of Facebook. For example, in the United States, almost 80% of Internet usage among teenagers is on Facebook.

Instead, she frames the debate on free basics differently. “There is a Facebook problem in the world. Not a free Facebook problem,” says Galpaya. In recent years, tech companies have become mammoth organisations, spreading their tentacles to every corner of the world. More than the spread and the financial muscle, it is the influence of these tech companies that some have come to fear. This is especially true of social networks. She acknowledges that, even with Good Samaritan intentions, when one company dominates a platform, like in the case of Facebook, fake news and unintended consequences are inevitable. “The real enemy is the lack of competition for the world’s dominant social media platform.”

In Helani’s view, the role of the government is to provide a level playing field for companies and investors, and to ensure the rights of consumers

The competitive market ideology is a preceding theme in Helani Galpaya’s work at LIRNEasia, which extends from the think tank’s motto ‘pro market, pro poor’. “The market always does better than the government,” she says without a blemish. To back her claim, she points out that the liberalisation of the telecommunication industry has led to even broadband and voice prices to under 5% of income for even the poorest decile of Sri Lanka’s population.

In her view, the role of the government is to provide a level playing field for companies and investors, and to ensure the rights of consumers. But, it may seem a bit superfluous especially for smaller countries to take on large tech companies. Just last year, Hans Wijesuriya, the former chief executive of Dialog, said that the era of rich contribution of revenue from the telecom sector may be ending. Services known as over-the-top, like WhatsApp and Viber, have substituted telecommunication companies’ stronghold product categories like voice and text messaging. “Telecom companies are struggling, and they are no longer touching their customers,” says Galpaya.

The government is also on the receiving end, losing billions in tax revenue without jurisdiction authority over these services. In lieu of these situations, some countries have issued ultimatums for companies to register with national telecom regulators. “If you are in India or China, you can say that, because everyone will register,” says Galpaya. “China has the great firewall, and everyone goes and plays by their rules. They will even create a different version of the app. Who is going to do that for a small state with just 16 million users?”

WHEN DISCUSSING SRI LANKA’S evolution as a digital state, Galpaya reacts with a sense of disappointment. “Today, you can pay your revenue license of motor vehicles or book a train ticket online. But what are the big things we have done?” she questions with a tone of exasperation. “Given that we started as early as 2003 and invested $83 million for an e-government, and considering the concentrated effort that went into it, I think it’s in a poor state.”

One would expect a highly literate population to be early adopters, championing technological innovation from bureaucracy to all walks of life. The problem lies in how we perceive the magnitude of benefits from digitisation. The basic premise of why digitisation matters is that it makes us more efficient. For example, when searching for a book, a computerised library catalogue always trumps the effort of going to a neighborhood library and asking the librarian. Digitisation simply cuts down a series of inefficient checkpoints. But the merits of digitisation are not clear cut and dry as that.

Galpaya illustrates this perplexity by comparing two digitisation projects in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh where computer kiosks were established in rural areas so mothers could register the births of their children. When she tracked how well it was received by the people, the results were contrasting. “Nobody in Sri Lanka went to the computer kiosk to register births. But in Bangladesh, there was a large number of people who did.” The reason she attributed was that, unlike Bangladesh, in Sri Lanka, children are rarely born at home, and as a result, birth registration occurs at hospitals. Do strong brick-and-mortar alternatives and offline substitutes hamper the drive to adopt digitised avenues? “The substitution effect is a factor,” she says. Another case that exemplifies this conundrum is mobile money. In Kenya and Bangladesh, mobile money systems like M-Pesa and B-cash had a tremendous impact on its vastly unbanked population. In Sri Lanka, more than 80% of the population has access to formal banking for savings and loans, and the need for mobile money was much lower.

Such parallels can also be drawn with the lackluster e-commerce industry in Sri Lanka. For a compact country where groceries and supermarkets are just not too out of reach, the marginal benefit of either price discount or convenience of an e-commerce platform is not significant enough to shift to consumer purchasing behaviour. Galpaya suggests a shift in thinking to raise the bar to get the best out of digitisation. “We should try to do more innovative things,” she says. LIRNEasia has recently been working on the effect of online freelance platforms in India. The findings were startling. The study showed that 70-80% of jobs in India could be potentially outsourced to freelancers. For a country like Sri Lanka, this would be a major strain on underemployment, especially among women freelancing who offer a significant contribution to the national economy.

But a major barrier for all initiatives recurring in the discussion with Galpaya was the lack of an electronic payment system like Paypal. “We have people working on platforms who need a friend’s account in Singapore and Malaysia, or they have to fake an IP address. Even then, they can’t get paid for it. That’s a problem.” The issue is not only limited to freelancers, but developers who sell their applications to the Google App Store or iTunes. “We have to unleash these people. Big companies are okay. They need help in different ways. But, there is so much technological entrepreneurship we can do at a smaller level that we currently aren’t doing.”

In Helani Galpaya’s mind, the Internet and all its accoutrements is an organism on its own. Nations, communities and individuals are at the behest of its whims and fancies, and cannot escape it. It has its ills, as well as gifts. The only way is to ride the tide. She believes people are overwhelminglyw unprepared for the challenges that arise from using the Internet, from social media to privacy rights. “There is a whole other side which people are shy about addressing,” she says. “We teach people civic duties, but why don’t we teach children interpersonal and social interaction in social media? How do we teach boys to respectfully address women and not harass them online? It’s no longer harassing someone on a bus. The reaction to that cannot be, ‘I will not let my daughter have a phone and get online.’ This requires a wider conversation and implementation.”

Some communities have adopted radical measures, essentially turning back the clock. Recently, a village council in India enforced a rule for all women to give up the use of mobile phones for the sake of safety. “This is a ridiculous argument. This is the world. We need to teach our people to deal with it.”



Chief Executive of LIRNEasia
Advisor to the UN Broadband Commission’s Working Group on Bridging the Gender Divide

BA in Computer Science, Mount Holyoke College
MS in Technology and Policy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Signature Quote
“Facebooks dominance is the real problem. The real enemy is the lack of competition for the world’s most dominant social media platform.”