In 2014, telecommunications companies Ooredoo and Telenor introduced a 3G phone network to Myanmar, one of the last, great un-phoned territories of the world (“Mobile Mania”). Formerly accessible only to military and cultural elites, the smartphone was now available to virtually all. In 2020, just six years later, smartphones are commonplace, used by every class and walk of life.
The introduction and mainstreaming of the smartphone in Myanmar coincided with the transition from military dictatorship to quasi democracy; from heavy censorship to relative liberalisation of culture and the media. This ongoing transition continues to be a painful one for many in Myanmar. The 3G network and smartphone ownership enable ordinary people to connect with one another and the Internet—or, more specifically, Facebook, which is ‘the Internet in Myanmar’ (Nyi Nyi Kyaw, “Facebooking in Myanmar” 1). However, the smartphone and what it enables has also been identified as a new instrument of control, with mass-texting campaigns and a toxic social media culture implicated in recent concerted violence against ethnic and minority religious groups such as the Muslim Rohingya.
In this article, I consider the political and cultural conversations enabled by the smartphone in the period following its introduction. The smartphone can be read as an anomalous, hybrid, and foreign object, with connotations of fluidity and connection, all dangerous qualities in Myanmar, a conservative, former pariah state. Drawing from Sarah Ahmed’s article, “The Skin of Community: Affect and Boundary Formation” (2005), as well as recent scholarship on mixed race identification, I examine deeply held fears around ethnic belonging, cultural adeptness, and hybridity, arguing that these anxieties can be traced back to the early days of colonisation.
During military rule, Myanmar’s people were underserved by their telecommunications network. Domestic landlines were rare. Phone calls were generally made from market stalls. SIM cards cost up to US$3000, out of reach of most. The lack of robust services was reflected by remarkably low connection rates; 2012 mobile connections numbered at a mere 5.4 million while fixed lines were just 0.6 million for a population of over 50 million people (Kyaw Myint, “Myanmar Country Report” 232). In 2013, the Norwegian telecommunications company Telenor and the Qatari company Ooredoo won licenses to establish network infrastructure for Myanmar. In August 2014, with network construction still underway, the two companies released SIM cards costing a mere 1500 kyats or US$1.50 each. At the time, 1500 kyats bought two plates of fried rice at a Yangon street food stall, making these SIM cards easily affordable. Chinese-manufactured handsets quickly became available (Fink 44). Suddenly, Myanmar was connected.
By early 2019, there were 105 smart connections per 100 people in the country (Kyaw Myint, “Facebooking in Myanmar” 1). While this number doesn’t count multiple connections within a single household or the realities of unreliable network coverage in rural areas, the story of the smartphone in Myanmar would seem to be about democratisation and a new form of national unity. But after half a century of military rule, what did national unity mean? Myanmar’s full name is The Republic of the Union of Myanmar. Since independence in 1948 the country has been torn by internal civil wars as political factions and ethnic groups fought for sovereignty. What actually bound the Union of Myanmar together? And where might discussions of such painful and politically sensitive questions take place?
Advertising as a Space for Crafting Conversations of National Identity
In a report on Asian Advertising, Mila Chaplin of Mango Marketing, the agency charged with launching the Telenor brand in Myanmar, observes that
in many markets, brands talk about self-expression and invite consumers to get involved in co-creation … . In Myanmar what the consumers really need is some guidance on how to start crafting [national] …] identities. (4)
Advertising has often been used as a means of retelling national stories and myths as well as a site for the collective imaginary to be visualised (Sawchuk 43). However, Myanmar was unlike other territories. Decades of heavy censorship and isolationist diplomatic policies, euphemistically named the “closed” period, left the country without a functional, independent national media. Television programming, including advertising, was regulated and national identity was an edict, not a shared conversation. With the advent of democratic reforms in 2011, ushering in a new “open” period, paid advertising campaigns in 2015 offered an in-between space on nationally broadcast television where it was possible to discuss questions of national identity from a perspective other than that of the government (Chaplin). Such conversations had to be conducted sensitively, given that the military were still the true national power. However, an advertising campaign that launched a new way to physically connect the country almost inevitably had to address questions of shared identity as well as clearly set out how the alien technology might shape the nation. To do so required addressing the country’s painful colonial past.
The Hybrid in National Narratives of Myanmar
In contemporary Myanmar, the smartphone is synonymous with military and government power (mobile Internet traffic in northern Rakhine state, for example, has been shut down since February 2020, ostensibly for security). Yet, when the phone was first introduced in 2014, it too was seen as a “foreign” object, one that had the potential to connect but also “instantiated ... a worldly sensibility that national borders and boundaries are potentially breached, and thus in need of protection from ‘others’” (Sawchuk 45). This fear of foreign influence coupled with the yearning for connection with the outside world is summed up by Ei Phyu Aung, editor of Myanmar’s weekly entertainment journal Sunday:
it’s like dust coming in when you open the window. We can’t keep the window closed forever so we have to find a way to minimize the dust and maximize the sunlight. (Thin)
Ei Phyu Aung wishes to enjoy the benefits of connecting with the world outside (sunlight) yet also fears cultural pollution (dust) linked with exploitation, an anxiety that reflects Myanmar’s approach to belonging and citizenship, shaped by its colonial history.
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was colonised in stages. Upper Burma was annexed by British forces in 1886, completing a process of colonisation begun with the first Anglo-Burmese wars of 1823. The royal family was exiled from the pre-colonial capital at Mandalay and the new colony ruled as a province of India. Indian migration, particularly to Rangoon, was encouraged and these highly visible, economic migrants became the symbol of colonialism, of foreign exploitation. A deep mistrust of foreign influence, based on the experiences of colonialism, continued to shape the nation decades after independence. The 1962 military coup was followed by the expulsion of “foreigners” in 1964 as the country pursued a policy of isolation. In 1982, the government introduced a new citizenship law “driven as much by a political campaign to exclude the ‘alien’ from the country as to define the ‘citizen’” (Transnational Institute 10). This law only recognises ethnicities who can prove their presence prior to 1824, the year British forces first annexed lower Burma. As a consequence of the 1982 laws, groups such as the Rohingya are considered “Bengali migrants” and those descended from Chinese and Indian diasporas are excluded from full citizenship. In 1989, the ruling State Law and Order Council (SLORC) changed the country’s name to Myanmar and the anglicised Rangoon to Yangon. Thus the story of Burma/Myanmar since independence is of a nation that continues to be traumatised by colonisation. Given the mistrust of the foreign, how then might an anomalous hybrid object like the smartphone be received?
Smartphone Advertising and National Narratives
Television advertising is well suited to creating a sense of national identity; commercials are usually broadcast repeatedly. As Sarah Ahmed argues, it is through “the repetition of norms” that “boundary, fixity and surface of ‘social forms’ such as the ‘nation’ are produced” (Cultural Politics of Emotion 12). In her article, “The Skin of Community”, Ahmed describes these boundaries as a kind of “skin”, where difference is recognised through affective responses, such as disgust or delight. These responses and their associated meanings delineate a kind of belonging through shared experience, akin to shared identity—a shared skin. Telenor’s first advertisement in this space, Breakfast, draws from the metaphor of skin as boundary, connecting a family meal with cultural myths and social history.
Breakfast was developed by Mango Marketing Services in 2014 and Telenor launched its initial television campaign in 2015, consisting of several advertisements brought to market in the period between 2014 and 2016 (Hicks, Mumbrella). The commercial runs for 60 seconds, a relatively expensive long format typical of a broadly-disseminated launch where the advertiser aims to introduce something new to the public and subsequently, build market share.
Opening with images of Yangon, the country’s commercial centre, Breakfast tells the story of May, a newlywed, and the first time she cooks for her in-laws. May’s mother-in-law requests a famous breakfast dish, nanjithoke, typical of Mandalay, where May is from. But May does not know how to cook the dish and blunders around the kitchen as her in-laws wait. Sensing her distress, her husband suggests that she use his smartphone to call her mother in Mandalay and get the recipe. May’s dish is approved by her in-laws as tasty and authentic.
In Breakfast, the phone is used as if it were a landline, its mobility not wholly relevant. The locations of both parties, May and her mother, are fixed and predictable and the phone in both instances is closely associated with connecting homes and more significantly, two important cities, Yangon and Mandalay. The advertisement presents the smartphone as solving the systemic problem of unreliable telecommunication in Myanmar as well as its lack of access; there is a final message reassuring the user that calls are affordable. That the smartphone is shown as part of everyday life presents it as a force for stability, a service that locates and connects fixed places. This in itself represented a profound shift for most people, in light of the fact that such communication was not possible during the “closed” period. Thus, this foreign, hybrid object enables what was not previously possible.
While the benefits of the smartphone and network may be clear, the subtext of the advertisement nonetheless points to fears of foreign influence and the dangers of introducing an alien object into everyday life. To mitigate these concerns, May is presented in the traditional htamein or longyi and aingi, a long wrap skirt and fitted blouse with sleeves that end on the forearm, rather than western jeans and a t-shirt—both types of clothing are commonly worn in Yangon. Her hair is pulled back and pinned up, her makeup is subtle. She inhabits domestic space and does not have her own smartphone. In fact, it does not even occur to her to call her mother for the nanjithoke recipe, which is slightly surprising given her mother has a smartphone and knows how to use it, indicating that she has probably had it for some time. This subtext reflects conservative power structures in which elder generations pass knowledge down to new generations.
The choice to connect Yangon and Mandalay through the local noodle dish is also significant. Breakfast makes manifest historic meanings associated with “place” a mapping of the “hidden” and “already given cultural order” (Mazzarella 24-25). As discussed earlier, Yangon was the colonial capital, known as an Indian city, but Mandalay as the pre-colonial capital remains a seat of cultural sophistication, where the highest form of the Myanmar language is spoken. The choice to connect Myanmar with the phone, as foreign object and bearer of anomaly, should be read as a repudiation of its bordered past, when foreigners (or kalaa, a derogatory term), including European ambassadors, were kept separate from the royal family by walls and a moat.
The commercial, too, strongly evokes a shared skin of community through the evocation of the senses, from Yangon’s heat to the anticipation of a tasty and authentic meal, as well as through the visualisation of kinship and inheritance. In one extremely slow dissolve, May and her mother share the screen simultaneously, compressed in space as well as time. It is as if their skin of kinship is stretched before us. As the viewer’s eye passes from left to right across the screen, May’s present, past, and future is visible. She too will become the mother, at the other end the phone, offering advice to her daughter. There is suggestion of a continuum, of an “immemorial past” (Anderson 12), part of a national narrative that connects to pre-colonial Mandalay and the cultural systems that precede it, to the modern city of Yangon, still the commercial of contemporary Myanmar.
At first glance, Breakfast seems to position the phone as an object that will enable Myanmar to stay Myanmarese through the strengthening of family connections. The commercial also strives to allay fears of the phone as a source of cultural pollution or exploitation by demonstrating its adoption among the older generation and inserting it into a fantasy of an uninterrupted culture, harking back to pre-colonial Burma. Yet, while the phone is represented in anodyne terms, it is only because it is an anomalous and hybrid object that such connections are possible. Furthermore, the smartphone in this representation also enables a connection between pre-colonial Mandalay to contemporary Yangon, breaching painful associations with both annexation and colonisation.
In contrast to the advertisement Breakfast, Telenor’s information video, Why we should use SIM slot 1, does not attempt to disassociate the smartphone with foreignness. Instead, it capitalises on the smartphone as a hybrid object whose benefit is that it can be adapted to specific needs, including faster Internet speeds to enable connection to external video channel, such as YouTube.
The video features young women dressed in foreign jeans and short-sleeved tops, wearing Western-style make-up, including sparkly nail polish. Both women appear to own their smartphones, and one is technically adept, delivering the complex information about which slot to use to facilitate the fastest Internet connection. Neither has difficulty with negotiating the complicated ports beneath the back cover of their smartphone to make the necessary change. They are happy to alter their phones to suit their own needs.
These women are perhaps more closely in line with other markets, where the younger generation “do not expect to follow their parents’ practice” (Horst and Miller 9). This is in direct contrast to Breakfast, where May’s middle-aged mother has adopted the phone and, in keeping with conservative power structures, is already well-versed in its uses and capabilities. While this video was never intended to be seen by the audience for Breakfast, there remain parallels in the way the smartphone enables a connection within the control of its user: like May’s mother, both women in Breakfast are able to control or mitigate the foreign material through the manipulation of their device, moving from 2G to H+. They can opt in or out of the H+ network.
This article has explored discussions of national identity prompted by the introduction of the smartphone to Myanmar during a moment of unprecedented political change. Breakfast, the advertisement that launched the smartphone into the country, offered a space in which the people of Myanmar were able to address questions of national identity and gently probe the discomfort of the colonial past. The communication video Why we should use SIM slot 1 reflects Myanmar’s burgeoning sense of connection with the region and presents the smartphone as customisable. The smartphone in advertising is thus positioned as a means for connecting the generations and continuing the immemorial past of the Burmese nation into the future, as well as a hybrid object capable of linking the country to the outside world. Further directions for this enquiry might consider how the discussion of Myanmar’s national identity continues to be addressed and exploited through advertising in Myanmar, and how the smartphone’s hybridity is used to counteract established national narratives in other spaces.
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