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Soon after polls closed in Burma’s 8 November elections, photos of the ink-stained fingers of proud voters were plastered across the country’s Facebook pages. Overnight, the “purple pinky”, used as a means to determine who had voted, became a badge of democratic honour.
The trend was symbolic of Burma’s position at the convergence of rapidly expanding internet connectivity and growing political freedoms following dramatic top-down democratic reforms by the military elite.
The new political and online space is quickly being claimed by activists and politicians, who are using the growing popularity of social media to expand their influence. Political campaigning has evolved from door-knocking and stump speeches to the savvy use of social networks and messaging apps to reach voters.
Facebook has been an obvious choice for most, and the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won a landslide victory over the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), has been particularly successful at leveraging social media as a tool.
“That was how I communicated with my people and my constituency, mostly through these accounts. People would send me questions, responses and opinions via my Facebook page and account,” said Nay Phone Latt, a newly elected Rangoon Region lawmaker for the NLD.
“One of my friends called it ‘the silent revolution’, we don’t have an armed force but it’s an ideological revolution,” said the one-time political prisoner and dissident blogger from Thingangyun Township constituency.
NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi used Facebook to reach out to voters, attracting more than one million followers in the lead up to the election, with her posts often shared tens of thousands of times.
It’s not only the opposition that has recognised the power of social media. Burmese army Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, a USDP ally, has become an active Facebook user, with his nearly 400,000 followers kept up to date about his meetings, speeches and travels.
Still, Michael Suantak, program manager at Phandeeyar – a Rangoon-based tech hub promoting technological and social innovation, noted, “The NLD used social media far better than the USDP … it was entirely unintentional but the USDP misused social media in the election.”
Days before the election, a video posted on President Thein Sein’s Facebook page depicted violent images from conflict in the Middle East. The bizarre montage – which underlined how violence and chaos followed many of the Arab Spring democratic uprisings – suggested that the relative stability of Thein Sein’s term had prevented such scenes in Burma.
The post was a source of much online derision and many saw it as an example of how out of touch the USDP government was with voters.
ONLINE VOTER EDUCATION
Telecom access in today’s Burma is a world away from just five years ago when both SIM cards and mobile phones were prohibitively expensive as the junta-run telecom sector struggled to develop under international trade sanctions. Few people had a cellphone, let alone a social media account.
Mobile phone penetration has soared from 7 percent in 2012 to 33 percent of the population in 2014. Cheaper SIM cards have enabled mass connectivity and as a result the numbers of those using social media have soared.
From March 2014 to March 2015, the number of Facebook users in Burma grew by 204 percent to reach between 6-7 million monthly users, according to Facebook figures.
Online campaigns like Mae Pay Soh (Let’s go to vote), which Rangoon-based tech start-up Geek Girls helped develop, enabled voters easy access to information on candidates, political parties, the electoral processes and how to vote.
Despite such efforts, disenfranchisement of ethnic and minority groups and an inefficient voter registration process hampered election turn-out, which at 69 percent dipped below that of previous elections.
The impact of social media on voter education was positive, but had limited effect in rural areas, said Suantak. “Cartoons and videos on how to vote, and what it means to have a ‘free and fair’ election, were all over social media, but it could only cover a narrow area and is dependent on availability of the internet,” he said.
Connectivity rates in remote rural areas, such as Chin State, are far lower than in urban areas and often a local language is spoken instead of Burmese.
VIRTUAL PLATFORM, REAL WORLD IMPLICATIONS
Despite technical limitations, many in remote ethnic areas with internet access embraced social media in the election- seeing its potential as a political tool.
Footage of neatly piled advanced votes ballots, still wet with glue, with almost identical marks for a USDP candidate went viral on Facebook just hours after the close of polls. Similar posts surfaced in the following days. One such post alleged suspected voter irregularities in Myitkyina, Lashio and Taunggyi, and included the hashtags of major international news organisations.
“We need international media coverage & observers. Please help us to enjoy clean & fair election!” it read.
Under the military regime, allegations of such irregularities would never have been made public. Such a public accusation would have quickly been shut down and those involved arrested.
“Everyone has smartphones, everyone can take pictures and everyone has the ability take evidence… dare I say, it will bring Burma closer to democracy,” Suantak said.
However, ahead of the polls conservative forces backing the USPD also took to Facebook to spread their not-so-democratic message.
Nationalist Buddhist monk and Ma-Ba-Tha movement figurehead, Wirathu, has over 40,000 likes on his page, a platform he has been accused of using to spread anti-Muslim hate speech. In 2014, Wirathu shared a post with a rumour that a Buddhist women been raped by two Muslim men. The spurious claim sparked communal violence in Mandalay that cost two lives.
With disregard for the 2008 Constitution, which says religion cannot be used as a political tool, Wirathu changed his profile picture to a photo of Thein Sein, the words “I’ll be with you Mr PRESIDENT – You are OURS” emblazoned across the top and bottom, a month before the election.
Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN American Centre, a network of international writers that promotes freedom of speech, said whilst social media provides a platform for extremists to make gains in the political sphere, it does not drive them.
“Social media, in and of itself, doesn’t increase anyone’s political influence. When extremism rises online it is critical that moderate voices speak out and organise to reject racist and ethnocentric ideologies,” she said. Nossel warned against formally outlawing hate speech as it could quickly devolve into broader curbs on freedom of speech.
SOCIAL MEDIA NOT YET FREE
On 13 November, five days after the election, as it was officially confirmed that the NLD had won a parliamentary majority, Patrick Kum Jaa Lee was sitting in his cell in Rangoon’s Insein Prison. His appeal for bail had just been denied. In October, the Kachin activist was charged under the Telecommunications Law after posting a digitally altered photo on Facebook of a boot trampling Min Aung Hlaing. He faces up to three years in prison.
Activists warn that despite democratic gains, a number of laws – some of which stem from the junta-era such as the Electronic Transaction Law – continue to pose a danger to social media users. Criminal defamation charges are also used to repress free speech online.
“It’s not only the Telecommunications Law or Electronic Transactions Law that need to be amended,” said May Sabae Phyu, Patrick Kum Jaa Lee’s wife and director of the Gender Equality Network. “During the last five years a lot of new laws have been permitted and approved by parliament without proper consultation with civil society.”
“They need to abolish Burma’s criminal defamation laws,” said Nossel, of PEN America. “People should be free to disagree with, criticise and even mock the government, the military, and all other institutions and individuals.”
Nay Phone Latt, the NLD MP and blogger, said social media users need to be wary of such laws until further reforms are implemented. “We have already tried to amend these laws two years ago. It wasn’t successful but in this coming term of government, I think we can do it,” he said.