The question didn’t surprise me. Many still imagine Burma as a place where activists and writers meet covertly in doughnut shops, trailed by secret police, and where bloggers and monks alike are thrown into prison for dissent.
But Burma is changing at a dizzying rate, as the government tries to slough off its former censorship regime and take tentative, delicate steps to build a more open and inclusive economy. The change is quite apparent, from the crumbling colonial buildings of Yangon to the hinterlands near the Chinese border. Kids in traditional dress now walk Yangon’s city streets with smartphones glued to their ears. Shop keepers gather in the evening around the glowing screen of a tablet computer. Hundreds of thousands of people in Burma — around 80 percent of Internet users there, by one estimate — now use Facebook. Even the iconic gold-plated Shwedagon Pagoda offers a WiFi hot spot.
In another signal of Burma’s technological and cultural-political changes, a small group of local bloggers, technologists, and general-interest geeks banded together to host the country’s first ever forum on Internet freedom at the beginning of June. The event revealed optimism about opportunities for a newly connected society, even as bloggers and observers expressed uncertainty about growing tension between a desire for openness and a need for stability in the face of sectarian conflict.