Myanmar’s e-government is a sham

Myanmar has a recent history of bloodshed and one of the worst human rights records in the world. It’s also in the process of developing e-government.

The “”government”” — or militia junta that rules Myanmar by force — is rolling out seven e-government pilot projects.

These include e-passport,

e-visa, e-procurement, e-certification authority, smart cards, smart schools and trade e-data interchange, according to Myanmar’s e-National Task Force (e-NTF). The Southeast Asian nation bordered by Thailand, China, India and Bangladesh is receiving assistance from e-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) to develop its IT infrastructure. Myanmar was one of the first member countries to sign the e-ASEAN Framework Agreement initiated at the ASEAN Summit in Singapore in 2000, and, as such, it’s formed the e-NTF to support its IT development.

The government has also been trying to boost its software industry with the construction of two ICT Parks — the first in Yangon, and, most recently, a second in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city. The government expects the two parks will help the software industry grow at a rate of 20 to 30 per cent.

Now, forgive me if I’m just a little bit skeptical about all of this. Myanmar is a country where the average citizen doesn’t even have access to the Internet. There is no such thing as a public kiosk or Internet cafe and, where computers are available, access is strictly controlled and e-mail usage monitored by the government-run ISP. Amongst all these pilot projects, I don’t see anything that will provide ubiquitous computer access to the general populace.

In this case, if we examine the services the government has chosen to “”e-enable,”” we can see that they directly benefit the elite — the government itself — and not the average citizen. Take Myanmar’s e-passport project, for example, which uses an RFID tag to verify a person’s identity with technology from Malaysian-based Image Retrieval Identification System (IRIS). Rather than investing in kiosks to help citizens access information and services, it appears the government is putting money into projects that will maintain the status quo and protect its own interests. E-passports and smart cards mean that Big Brother is watching; the government can keep better tabs on political dissidents, all under the guise of technological “”development.””

It’s interesting to note that IRIS Technologies is partly owned by the UN special envoy to Myanmar, Razali Ismail. He also heads up Leader Universal, another tech firm looking to expand into Myanmar, and is on the board of Wah Seong, a Malaysian engineering firm with interests in Yangon.

So what about smart schools, a pilot project that is already operational? The government claims that 103 schools have an Internet connection — though Myanmar’s Defence Ministry will “”censor Web sites as it considers appropriate.””

Obviously, Myanmar is feeling pressure to keep up with the rest of the world and is jumping on the e-government bandwagon, particularly as a member of e-ASEAN. But while it’s busy keeping up with the Jones’, it’s failing to see the true importance and relevance of e-government. While Myanmar’s e-National Task Force is busy drafting cyber laws and forming “”action plans”” for e-government implementations in accordance with e-ASEAN, Myanmar’s elected leader remains unable to participate in all of this. It’s been more than 10 years since Aung San Suu Kyi has been imprisoned or under house arrest — denied the right to govern the country as a democratically elected leader.

After being temporarily released from house arrest, her convoy was attacked last May outside of the capital while she was visiting outposts of her party, the League for Democracy. The official version reports four dead and 50 injured. The unoffical version places this number between 70 to 80 dead. Offices of the League for Democracy have been shut down and opposition leaders detained. As a result, the U.S. has blocked the transfer of U.S. currency to Burmese banks and banned Burmese imports. The European Union has imposed tighter sanctions, while Japan — Myanmar’s largest donor — has suspended economic aid. This is the political climate under which Myanmar’s so-called government is developing e-government. e-ASEAN, for its part, makes a point of not interfering in the internal affairs of its member countries. But it’s naive to think IT development can exist in a vacumn, unaffected by political or economic events.

Does e-government simply mean putting government services online? I see e-government as a natural evolution of government itself. If there are inherent faults within a system of government, there will be inherent faults within e-government. I’d like to think that e-government can encourage openness and fairness. But how can e-government work if government doesn’t work? It’s unlikely, however, that the colonels and generals that make up Myanmar’s “”government”” will consider this in their race to keep up with technological developments in the rest of the world.

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