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Myanmar's great tech switch is chance to become part of world's web

Using global standard Unicode font opens up internet in growing market

| Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos

On October 1, Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi officially launched one of the biggest technological changes in the country's history: its computers and websites would start using Unicode, a kind of universal script containing characters from most of the world's written languages.

After all, Myanmar was the only country in the world yet to officially adopt Unicode. Without it, local users' ability to read the rest of the world's Unicode-based digital content -- from Google searches to Wikipedia -- is hindered. In her speech, Suu Kyi called for Myanmar to catch up to its neighbor Cambodia, which had already embraced Unicode as early as 2010.

Why is this so important? By adopting this global standard, Myanmar can start to fully integrate its web with the rest of the world's web. This allows government functions to run more smoothly; global tech companies to bring services more easily; and Myanmar's entrepreneurs to start businesses which reach beyond their home market.

As early as 1999, Myanmarese characters had been added to the Unicode standard. But sanctions by the U.S. against the country's military dictatorship discouraged tech businesses like Microsoft from rolling out Unicode support for Myanmar. More than 90% of websites worldwide use Unicode today.

Instead, internet users relied on a homegrown font, Zawgyi, as a substitute. Approximately 90% of Myanmar-based websites have been using Zawgyi for their data encoding and digital content over the last decade.

Global tech giants like Huawei, Samsung and Facebook therefore supported both Unicode and Zawgyi standards, to capture the latter's substantial user-base -- but this did not mean Myanmar was properly integrated.

Eliminating Zawgyi now is no easy feat for a developing Myanmar. A shift in the standard implies normal internet users having to relearn how to input the script and the massive rewriting of digital content, such as webpages and databases. The bulk of Myanmar's citizens and businesses had been relying on Zawgyi-based content for commercial and day-to-day purposes.

Converting millions of local data from Zawgyi to Unicode at different times also risks clashes. These can result in disrupted communications between Myanmar's ministries, local telcos, devices, apps, website content and internet users for an indefinite period of time.

The decision to migrate now, however, does arrive with some time-sensitive reasons.

During its transition to civilian rule, Myanmar's government produced an economic strategy with a strong emphasis on developing its information and communications technology sector. It also drafted a Universal Service Strategy, whose aim was for all of Myanmar's citizens to have access to telecommunication services by 2022

There has been promising growth in internet penetration already. Individuals using the internet rose from less than 1% of the population in 2011 to 31% in 2017. Fixed broadband subscriptions increased nearly fourfold between 2015 and 2017 to 121,000, albeit still at a low level in a country of 53 million.

Moving to Unicode will have administrative benefits. It will feed into the nation's e-government platform and help to standardize communication channels across local authorities and businesses in Myanmar. The government can also consolidate its supervision over regional administrative and commercial activities.

Recently, the national government had looked like it lacked technological control over the regions, for example when a Chinese tech company wanted to single-handedly create a special economic zone based on blockchain in Mongla, Shan State.

The lack of Unicode had also affected commercial interests for businesses and consumers. Notably, the tech market's growth was hindered by the divide in code standards. For instance, until 2015, Google neither released Myanmar-specific apps on the Play Store nor supported the Myanmar language across its products.

If the nationwide Unicode migration becomes successful, major foreign tech giants like Adobe will find it easier to roll out more products in Unicode for Myanmar's cyber community.

Despite the establishment of new data centers in Myanmar, many local tech startups have instead chosen to store their data in Singapore and Hong Kong. Now, with a nationwide emphasis on migrating to Unicode, these startups can step forward and build further links with their foreign counterparts.

Adopting Unicode also enhances international tech cooperation with Myanmar. In recent years, China's technological expansion in Southeast Asia has benefited developing nations. Local authorities in Myanmar have been working with Chinese technology giants like Huawei to create a broadband infrastructure based on fifth-generation, or 5G, technologies. The government procured China's BeiDou satellites for precision agriculture purposes.

A model of the BeiDou navigation satellites system: Myanmar's government procured those satellites for precision agriculture purposes.   © Reuters

The nation is involved with international partners on underwater cable projects and the China-Myanmar International terrestrial cable project, which is not yet in operation. These technologies, however, are difficult to translate into real gains when they are mostly incompatible with Zawgyi.

While launching a nationwide migration to Unicode is only the beginning of an endless administrative backlog, if the country turned away from that task it would be tantamount to forsaking Myanmar's potential to develop into one of Asia's critical digital nodes -- located strategically between a technologically empowered China, South Asia and mainland Southeast Asia.

Alongside the government, Myanmar's business community and its cybercommunity must ensure a successful migration to Unicode.

Chan Jia Hao is a Research Analyst in trade and economic policy at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.

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