RANGOON — The immense popularity of Facebook in Burma has turned the social networking site into the default medium for most Burmese internet users, and with its growing popularity has also come an increased use of Facebook for social activism and charity fundraising.
The power of this new development was on show in early November when Kyi Lin, a betel nut seller in Pegu town posted a photo on his Facebook page of 93-year-old independence fighter Thakin Hla Kyaing begging at Pegu Bridge.
Soon after, local media and the Burma Veterans Organization contacted him to inquire about the case, while a campaign began on Facebook calling on people to donate money to Thakin Hla Kyaing. Within a few weeks, the veteran—who had reportedly joined the Burmese independence movement in the 1930s when he was 16 years old—received an outpouring of support.
“I saw him on Pegu Bridge begging, I took a photo of him and interviewed him. Then I posted about him on Facebook,” said Kyi Linn. “Later, lots of generous well-wishers came out after they saw the Facebook post and helped him. Now he has over 10,000,000 kyat [US $10,000].”
“We bought a garden and are building a house for him from the donated money,” he said. “I think now, a person’s life has been completely changed by a Facebook post.”
Decades of international sanctions have left Burma with one of the most underdeveloped telecom and internet networks in the world. Internet penetration is among the lowest in Asia and is slowly creeping up.
According to some estimates, the country could now have close to one million internet users, and among them Facebook is hugely popular and it is the dominant medium for using the internet.
The social networking site therefore offers Burmese charity groups a good opportunity to reach out to the public and volunteer and youth-based organizations have increasingly taken to Facebook to raise funds and organize activities.
Chan Nyein Phyu, a member of Myanmar Story Teller, an organization that promotes youth reading, said, “We use Facebook to organize annual donation activities and ask for donations. Our story teller groups do edutainment activities such as telling stories to children.”
Myanmar Story Teller is one of 20 organizations that are part of the Rangoon-based Youth Volunteer Network, which does volunteering and fundraising for victims of natural disasters and emergencies.
Chan Nyein Phyu said the social media site also plays a key role in raising funds for the network’s charity initiatives, adding that it managed to collect about $10,000 to help victims of the deadly 2011 floods in Pakoku town in Magwe Division.
“A lot of people donated money after learning about our fundraising posts on Facebook, people from Mandalay and abroad donated to the Youth Volunteer Network when we organized help for the Pakoku flood victims,” she said.
Htaik Htaik Aung, of Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO), said Facebook is increasingly being used in Burma for social activism and charity work, public awareness campaigns and advocacy, adding that Burmese entrepreneurs use the social media site to market their brands.
“Myanmar people use Facebook for social networking purposes, businesses have started to use it to promote their brand, and it also used for campaigning and advocacy [for social causes],” she said.
MIDO holds seminars to help develop ICT skills in organizations in Burma in order to further development goals. It has also taken on the issue of freedom of expression and lobbies the government to lift restrictive laws.
Htaik Htaik Aung said in MIDO’s work Facebook also plays a central role. “We do advocacy and campaign using Facebook. When we have activities, we announce advertising or promotions on Facebook,” she said.
However, the popularity of the social networking site among Burmese internet users has also rendered it a powerful tool for political activities.
During the past year, the dark side of its influence has been on display during the outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence which have affected numerous communities across Burma.
Burmese Facebook users have frequently used the social network to vent their opinions about the inter-communal tensions between Burma’s Buddhists and the Muslim minority, often taking extreme positions, using hate speech and further fanning conflict.
Htaik Htaik Aung said these developments were a source of concern for MIDO, adding, “We are doing research on how online hate speech about the religious conflict affects the community offline.”
“There has been lots of propagandizing on Facebook pages by religious extremists. Some pages intend to attack individuals with hate speech. Most hate speech is done under an alias, so we can never track who actually is doing it,” she said.