This post is the first in a three part series about Mycitizen.net by new Ethnos Project contributor, Christoph Amthor. Look for parts two and three over the next few weeks.

Part 1: Mycitizen.net and its Roots in Burma
Part 2: The Concept Behind Mycitizen.net
Part 3: Developing and Testing Mycitizen.net

Mycitizen.net is a free and open-source platform that facilitates social networking of local communities. It has been designed from the outset for the specific needs of civil society, particularly in closed societies and in countries in transition, it can be used with otherwise unsupported languages, where the Internet is very slow, and where the safety of civil society actors requires special privacy protection.

While I could assail you now with an “elevator pitch” about our ICT4D project mycitizen.net and then go to great lengths elaborating on the details, I will go here the opposite way and first introduce you to the challenges to which it seeks to respond and the settings where we hope to establish it as pilot. I will describe the situation in Burma and how the very recent changes have affected our work, and I will also discuss our background as a non-profit organization in post-communist Europe, a fact that informs both our limits and our strengths.

map_of_myanmarThe work of NGOs that seek to help the people of Burma (also known as Myanmar – during our work we use both terms interchangeably, depending on audience and context) has changed considerably in the past five years. For a long time, it has not been possible for most of them to work openly inside the country while guaranteeing the safety of local partners and the quality of their activities such as training, field research, and evaluation. Apart from providing assistance to refugees and migrant workers, Burma-related NGOs had to restrict their activities to cross-border aid or to efforts to improve the political environment through advocacy work and lobbying.

The changes that followed since the general elections in November 2010 resemble in many ways the development in Eastern and Central Europe after the Cold War. The major difference is that the Burmese government has not collapsed but instead has deliberately initiated a controlled transition. The motives of the rulers are to date obscure, but it can be assumed that a mixture of business interests, diplomatic pressure (not least from the ASEAN countries) and strategic considerations (namely countering the growing Chinese influence in the region) may have played a major role. As well, violent suppression of the Saffron Revolution in 2007, Cyclone Nargis with estimated 140 thousand casualties in 2008, and the events known as Arab Spring may have influenced the timing.

Burma is now the scene of transitions on multiple levels, although not all of them reach beyond the surface. Much of the previous power establishment has received a facelift: The acting president Thein Sein is a former general and the largest party USDP was once the junta’s mass organization USDA. The leader of the Burmese democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been released from house arrest, and she has changed since then from an icon to a politician. The country has opened its doors to investors and tourists, and the huge discrepancy in development has moved from the borders deeper into the country. The division between urban and rural life has become more defined: between the Burman (i.e. “ethnic Burmese”) population and smaller ethnic groups, and between a highly skilled upper class and their countrymen whose low education level threatens to entrench their exclusion from any positive development.

Most nonprofit organizations working for Burma have seen a sudden shift of funding into the country. Myanmar has become the place-to-be for tourists and NGOs alike. This sudden change of priorities has caused severe financial problems in neighboring countries like Thailand and India, where activities increasingly have to be suspended while refugees, particularly those stemming from ethnic groups, still hesitate to return to their previous homes where the situation is improving only very slowly, or not at all.

logo-burma-center-pragueOur organization, the Burma Center Prague (www.burma-center.org), seeks in its work to capitalize on the Czech experience of their own transition that was unleashed by the Velvet Revolution in 1989. This transition was characterized by the privatization of the economy, the transformation of the media, the legal framework and the educational system, the separation from the Slovak Republic, and the emergence of public discourses about long-standing issues like former and present ethnic minorities and how to reconcile the narrative of national identity with the fact that countrymen have collaborated with regimes – to name just a few key points.

One of the main concepts that stick out from the Czech transitional experience is the fundamental role of civil society, and with it the rather disillusioning insight that after Communism followed a time of consumerism: Suddenly, political activities were considered futile in an air of cronyism and corruption and the engagement for charitable goals evoked painful memories of past times when “volunteering” was mandatory.

It is therefore no surprise that our organization emphasizes the key role of civil society for a successful transition of Burma toward a genuine democracy while warning against making the same mistakes again (for example, trusting in the power of “air-dropping” foreign NGOs with ready-made master plans that serve as inlets to pump money into the country in order to kick-start lasting changes, until they pull up stakes and move on to their next mission).

Being a Central-European NGO means being endowed with such a small budget that it is often met with disbelief when we seek partners on an international scale. The Czech intention to help other countries in their transition is particularly remarkable since their own transition has yet to be completed. And, contributing to the complexity, the core members and supporters of our organization are migrants who have had their very own angle of a transformation experience in a society that only recently has begun to perceive foreign influences as an asset, and not a threat to their national identity with a very distinct awareness of cultural coherence.

Despite these challenges, we have been exceptionally fortunate to receive the continued support of the Czech Foreign Ministry that programmatically seeks to support democratic transition in several parts of the world, one of them being Burma. During the times of the military junta our activities abroad were focused on Burmese civil society in India. The rationale for choosing that location was that the lion’s share of international aid went to Burmese NGOs in Thailand while those in India were constantly ignored, contributing to a vicious circle of invisibility and a lack of qualification of local grassroots groups to advocate their issues.

Our activities logo-mikrogranty have always included a trans-border aspect: Since the migrants from Burma would one day return to their homes, we could already now start sowing the seeds for their future engagement, thus perceiving the migrants not as a problem but as an opportunity to reach inside Burma before we could actually get there. One example is our “microgrant program” (www.mikrogranty.cz) for grassroots organizations with its focus on the learning effect of handling a small project with its own budget, starting from drafting the activities with a realistic budget and finishing with proper reporting. This program was launched in 2010. We have now managed to implement this program inside the country based on the indispensable assistance of former partners who have meanwhile returned home. Fine-grained investments in civil society certainly make sense.

Since we are predominantly working with members of ethnic minorities – Burma boasts a wealth of roughly 130 officially recognized ethnicities and has repeatedly been in the headlines for human rights violations against its Rohingyas who are systematically being disenfranchised – we have received a very different picture from what you see in the former capital Yangon. While international observers have mostly agreed on a positive assessment of the development, we have received largely cautious or even negative opinions from our clients. This skepticism has culminated in the grotesque case of refugees who, instead of returning home, have preferred to travel from their exile in India across Burma to the opposite border, only because, according to rumors, the chances for resettlement by the UNHCR were said to be better in Malaysia. While the ongoing changes have reached even remote areas like Chin State, these refugees would not return unless they had a seizable chance back home of feeding their families.

During my recent trip to Burma’s Chin State I already experienced a tangible development: No special permission was required for foreigners, I met no checkpoints but welcoming police officers and an overall climate of openness and hope. The streets, however, are still in a desolate state and traveling for hours the endless muddy slopes over the mountains seems little attractive during the rainy season. Only one piece of the overland roads has been visibly modernized (sponsored by a Chinese company, I was told – and as it happens, marking the way to a nickel mine).

The people of Chin State pin much of their hope on the arrival of faster Internet. I found surprising that one of the first mentioned intended uses of the Internet was for self-learning: as a tool to overcome the deficit towards the world and more accessible parts of the country. Another key application is of course for communication, particularly for international connections. The Internet is not so much understood as a searchable database of information – maybe due to the low network speed that makes it impossible to send many queries in a reasonable time and to formulate the next query based on the previous result.

Four other observations deserve a mention:

1. Most of the Internet access in Burma happens through smartphones. The technical development has skipped the stage when landlines are utilized for digital data transfer because landlines are almost unavailable. Being located between India, China and Southeast Asia, however, Burma has good access to modern hardware, which is affordable and can easily be carried into the country. One minute of data connection costs less than a cent (US$), and the main obstacles are only the prices of SIM cards and the transfer speed that makes it an ordeal to open a web page. In the coming months, however, the mobile networks are expected to receive an upgrade by foreign investors who also promised to offer cheaper SIM cards.

2. IT literacy is extremely low, even among people who actually use PCs on a daily basis and who base their entire IT experience on the few things they know. I repeatedly had to explain that “email” is not an extraordinary form of “Gmail” but that, on the contrary, Gmail is one particular case of email. Likewise, I see a considerable number of Burmese users accessing our project website by entering the valid URL first into the Google search and only through the search results they continue to the actual website. Similarly, Facebook has for many become a synonym for the Internet. When I need to build up on the users’ present experiences, I often end up telling them that something is “like Facebook, but different.” That way, I once had to explain that a website is a page similar to a Facebook page.

3. Privacy is a concept entirely unknown. People are using computers in groups, guessing together their way through the menus or helping out with translation. This reminded me of public telephones in Burmese streets where assistants or bystanders curiously listen in and never hesitate to give their advice where deemed helpful. This, however, may radically change with the spreading of smartphones as truly personal devices. Privacy is indispensable particularly for political or social activism. In Burma, where you can still be sent to jail for an unauthorized protest or for your work as a journalist, privacy is crucial not only for conducting your activities but also for your personal safety.

4. Foreign languages are often a major obstacle to using software. Burmese (aka Myanmar) is included only in very few software packages or operating systems. This problem is aggravated by the fact that, for most people of Burma, Burmese is not their native language. Some of them have learned Burmese only during the few years that they have visited a public school. And, to make things even worse, the Burmese language is predominantly used with a font called Zawgyi, which is not Unicode-compliant. Switching from Zawgyi to Unicode is eventually unavoidable since the characters of Zawgyi occupy some places that rightly belong to other languages. So far, however, Burmese people stick to Zawgyi.

Mycitizen.net in the Resources Database