#Asia How tech and new media revolutionised Myanmar’s election process

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Aung San Suu Kyi called the election process a “communication revolution”, and some of her Facebook posts reached more than 50,000 likes during Election Day

The author Harald Friedl lives in Yangon, Myanmar. Friedl is an observer of innovative trends, technology, startups and media.

It has been more than fascinating to experience the recent elections held on November 8 in Myanmar. The transition is happening gradually and is an extended process.

A look-back on the election process provides some interesting insights into the role of connectivity and social media on the process — even more so if one sees where Myanmar was coming from.

Before the start of the transition process in 2010, Myanmar was often compared with North Korea as a ‘white spot on the map’. North Korea, which also held local elections earlier this year, had 99.97 per cent of North Koreans turn out for the elections, 100 per cent of whom confirmed Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un as their leader.

New media certainly did not play a role there.

Also Read: Myanmar startups ready for disruption after historic polls

Elections in India and Indonesia

Contrary to this development, other recent elections in the region have shown the tremendous influence of social media during elections campaigns.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, along with his team, is a master of political messaging through social media. His campaigning online has played an important role in winning the elections in 2014, especially among younger voters, in the world’s biggest democracy.

Analysts even called the 2014 elections “India’s first social media elections”. Modi has also become the second most-followed political leader globally after US President Barack Obama – with 16 million followers on Twitter.

In Indonesia where 90 per cent of Internet users are on Facebook, young voters are very active online. All of the 12 campaigning political parties had a social media presence; some also were running YouTube channels. Photos on Facebook that carried the political messages more effectively then local newspapers. Early morning tweets set the stage for political debates on a day.

Also Read: 5 Indonesian apps for the upcoming Regional Election

So, based on these case studies, here are some observations:

1. High level of transparency 

In Indonesia, concerned citizens set up websites to monitor the counting, which were updated at 10 minutes intervals. With this level of openness and scrutiny, complaints were immediately communicated and potentially complicated situations dissolved. The election is now being hailed as Indonesia’s most transparent and democratic.

In Myanmar, which is recorded as one of the countries with the strongest SIM card-penetration growth rate, this was one of the key worries before the elections – How transparent would the elections be?

The Union Election Commission, political parties and their spokespeople as well as ministers were active online. Results were communicated on the web — a first in the former military dictatorship.

International observers confirmed: the process was conducted transparently and the media presence showed a high level of transparency and integrity throughout the process, to the surprise of many. No restrictions were apparent and connectivity and social media played a very positive role.

Aung San Suu Kyi even called the election process a “communication revolution” which had made a difference to the electorate because “it’s much more difficult for those who wish to engage in irregularities to get away with it”. Some of her posts reached more than 50,000 likes on Facebook during election day, up five times from a post just after the elections.

2. Thirst for digital/online information

Some statistics of the local daily The Myanmar Times give a good insight into the huge online interest and thirst for information online.

On the day after the election, November 9, the online team of The Myanmar Times registered the busiest day overall on the website and received three times as many pageviews as on a normal day.

The top tweet in the post-election week gained over 25,000 impressions alone; tweets on the day reached 226,000 impressions, compared to about 60,000 for a more typical weekday.

On Facebook, the post-election time has brought record-high engagements on social media. The Facebook site showed reach rates that were up by 180 per cent.

Also Read: Mobile is revolutionising the way people think in Asia

3. The tech community helped

A very positive impact was the involvement of the Myanmar tech community. Several startups and individuals have been involved in the MaePaySoh initiative, a project initiated by The Asia Foundation. It was organised together with local tech and innovation hub Phandeeyar, in co-ordination with several local and international organisations.

This initiative helped bring together the local development community to create solutions for voters’ lack of access to important election information. A comprehensive database was created online (a first in Myanmar) with information about candidates and political parties, FAQs about elections and government, information on the performance of parliamentarians as well as data on the constituencies.

The Myanmar government’s co-operation was very positive as the Union Election Commission provided access to candidates’ information and allowed digitising it and the Ministry of Information helped to promote this effort for transparency across the country.

In total, 26 apps were created. The winning app from the MaePaySoh Hack Challenge, mVoter2015, had more than 250,000 unique users country-wide, reaching 289 of 330 townships.

A total of 200,000 people (about one per cent of the eligible voters) had access to election data online through these apps, which was used primarily before election date. During peak time, 1,000 people accessed the data each second.

The election-related information database, created through the MaePaySoh initiative, even reached 12 million hits/page views between the launch date of October 7 and Election Day, with usage spiking significantly on November 7-8.

The impact and reach of the MaePaySoh apps, however, were greater than even the number of unique app users. It is reported that, for example, in remote areas, local voter education groups shared the apps offline and even used screenshots of mVoter2015 to teach voters about candidates and the elections.

Also Read: Stay local or go regional? Startups in the Mekong duke it out

A lot of these efforts have been geared towards educating first-time voters, certainly many others have also benefitted.

4. How social media can increase accountability remains to be seen

It will need to be seen how new technologies in Myanmar can support in holding the new government accountable. Transparency was a first positive step and technology is bound to play key role in establishment of a new culture in engaging Myanmar citizens.

That Kyi publishesd her party’s letter inviting the President to a discussion about national reconiciliation on Facebook, is a sign of a new culture of openness that is dawning in Myanmar.

5. New self confidence and empowerment of the population

Election Day started with thousands of voters posting photos of their “purple pinkies” online, a visible proof that they exercised their right to vote. A sentiment of hope was in the air in Myanmar, rather than a sentiment of fear. And this hope continues to shape public discussions at the moment.

More analysis on the impact of technology on the election process should happen soon, and finding more and better ways to support the positive influence of technology and the engagement of citizens in the future.

As one of the programmers of the MaePaySoh Hack Challenge said: “We did the best we could under the current circumstances. During the next elections, we will ensure even more transparency and citizen involvement. ”

The views expressed here are of the author’s, and e27 may not necessarily subscribe to them. e27 invites members from Asia’s tech industry and startup community to share their honest opinions and expert knowledge with our readers. If you are interested in sharing your point of view, please send us an email at writers[at]e27[dot]co

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