RANGOON — Burma's government is hoping to take a technological leap forward soon, by putting ministries online and in touch with the country's increasingly Internet-savvy public. Some government ministries are going online for the first time this week.
Burma's government still processes its business the same way it has for decades: with massive bound ledgers that record marriages, business taxes and even internal official documents. But this paper-based system is on its way out, as ministries try to switch to computers.
It’s a daunting undertaking in a country where even in the capital Naypyitaw, most government buildings still suffer from power outages.
Myint Kyaw, the director of the information department in the Information Ministry, is in charge of the program that aims to bring all 36 ministries online, with their own web-portals and administrative software, by the 2015 election.
He admitted that short deadline was made even more challenging because most government employees did not know how to use computers. He said of those who were computer savvy, many prefer to spend time on Facebook, making it a great way to connect to the public.
“Because so many people from our country use Facebook, very easy way to get information to put the more information so they can distribute. They can contribute personal information and organizational information.” he said.
Facebook is the most widely used tool for communicating online in Burma. Only about one percent of Burma’s population have access to the internet, but the vast majority of those users are believed to have Facebook accounts. Political parties, journalists and even presidential spokesperson Ye Htut communicates with the public through Facebook.
Freedom House categorized the Internet in Burma as “not free” in 2013, with obstacles to access and poor infrastructure identified as major problems. Although previously blocked websites have been unblocked, and the maximum sentence for a violation of the electronic transactions act has been reduced from 15 to 7 years, analysts say authorities still have along way to go to create a free Internet environment.
Nay Phone Latt is a blogger and former political prisoner, who was charged with crimes under the electronic transactions act. Now that he has been released, he is advising the government on its communication policies, and said he’s optimistic about how much willingness the government has shown to change. He said the ministry was now using its website to ask the public for input, a stark change from even a few years ago.
“Actually in earlier days the government think they are in the higher ranks and they can decide everything; they don’t need [the] people's advice...actually in a democratic society the key player is not only the government,” he said.
Security concerns are paramount for those ministries trying to implement computerized systems for their administrative tasks.
Information Matrix is a Burmese IT company that is creating software for the government, and managing director Thaung Su Nyein said many were concerned the transition could leave them vulnerable to potential security breaches.
“Security is really key here especially because we are still unsure about where this technology will lead us so it’s kind of like we’re testing the water now. None of us in the technology field want to see a security related incident that’s blown out of proportion and scares all the government ministers and they all start running away from implementing IT,” he said.
The Korean government is assisting the Burmese government in their long-term action plan for updating the country’s Internet network, which will have been completely executed by 2030.
The Internet first came to Burma in the year 2000, and was at first only for the military. Service expanded slowly and remained much too expensive for ordinary users. But now people are using smartphones to go online, rapidly increasing the numbers of users.
The government anticipates having 30 million Internet users, roughly half the population, by 2015.