Facebook’s ‘mini-revolution’ gains momentum in Burma

Dedicated Burmese news and media site Mizzima has a fascinating article on Facebook’s “mini-revolution” in the country.

The last two years have seen Facebook grow to dominate the social media scene in numerous Southeast Asian countries (as this infographic from Burson Marsteller Asia demonstrates) with the social network fighting off local competition in markets like Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and more.

Comparatively little is known, or reported, of the social network in military-controlled Burma, with Facebook itself not listing the country (as Burma or Myanmar) in its measurement database, though the article estimates that approximately 80 per cent of Burma’s 500,000 internet users have an account. Of the remaining 20 per cent, the article believes there is interest but a combination of lack of access and understanding prevent more sign-ups.

Before we start heralding the revolution, Egypt or Syria style, it is worth recalling that just 1 per cent of the population in Burma are thought to have access to the internet.

Despite this limitation, Facebook has made its way into the political environment. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has a page on the social network (here) with more than 3,000 fans, while a separate page of Suu Kyi (here – though not run by her) has more than 380,000 fans – though presumably the local content of the NLD page attracts mainly Burmese users unlike its well known leader’s page.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy political party makes use of Facebook. Pic: AP.

But for everyday folk, what benefits does Facebook bring?

For those who are connected, Facebook serves a number of functions—dissemination of news, organizing activities, meeting friends, free advertisements for private businesses, and for the exchange of technology.

The connection to the world outside of Burma, and less restricted media, is a key factor:

Viewing and swapping news from home and abroad is one of the reasons for Facebook’s popularity. Exile media Web sites are blocked by the government and the law prohibits Internet cafes from logging into these sites—unless users get around this using a proxy site, the normal practice. But Facebook is open and so news gets passed around.

Like countless other countries, Facebook’s growing popularity is fuelled by games and keeping in touch with family overseas and sharing photos.

On the future of Facebook in Burma, the rise of mobile is cited as a key factor such is the scarcity of internet access, and an important provider of freer, less restricted usage in the country:

Facebook…is beginning to pop up on mobile phones. GSM phone subscribers could use the Internet on their mobiles starting from June 21. About 100,000 people applied for these GSM phones.

The article is an excellent read but I do disagree with the conclusion that “Zuckerberg of Facebook might not be impressed by the numbers in this country of 60 million”.

Far from just the numbers, I would imagine that given how complicated (and notoriously restricted) market that Burma is, Facebook’s progress and potential to develop increased communication both inside and outside of the country would excite Zuckerberg and Facebook just as much as hitting major milestones in the world’s key markets.

The internet is about improving communication and, though moving at a gradual speed, the internet and Facebook are making positive inroads in this tricky market.