Leapfrogging with Smartphones, Myanmar Joins the World

Do you remember the first time you made a phone call? Pwint Htun does. She was a young girl in rural Burma, in the early ‘80s.

“Because my dad was working in Malaysia,” she says. “My mom said, ‘OK, everybody, we’re going to make a phone call,’ and we got all dressed up.’ We didn’t have a phone at home, so we had to go to where the tower was, this microwave antenna, where the operator was. We called my dad, and my grandparents, who lived 14 miles away. I just remember that first phone call was a really, really big deal.

Pwint has had quite a journey since then. She’s now a telecommunications whiz, and is helping Burma — now called  Myanmar — get connected. Much has happened since her first phone call, to her, and to her country.

When Pwint was growing up, the country was called Burma. And Burma was isolated. For almost 30 years, it was run by General Ne Win. He was kind of anti-modern, paranoid and superstitious. He liked to consult fortune tellers to figure out what policies to enact.

At one point, the fortune tellers told him he could face a threat from the right, so he should make a symbolic move in that direction to protect himself. He decreed that traffic, which had been driving on the left side of the road, in the British tradition — Burma had been a British colony — should switch to the right side of the road.

Another time, the fortunetellers told him that nine was a lucky number for him. A protective number. So he changed the country’s currency system, and put all units of currency in Base 9.  Seriously. The first time I visited Burma, there were notes in denominations of 15, 45, 90.

And all this would be funny, except people who had the old currency lost a lot of money. Nor was there much to laugh at when Ne Win chose a date that added up to his lucky number, 9, for the final crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. It was September 18 — 1+8=9, plus the month of September was the ninth month.

More than anything, Ne Win ruled through fear, and violence. His army fought wars with more than a dozen ethnic minority insurgent groups. Hardly any new investment was coming in, so for years, Burma was kind of a living time capsule.

There were old colonial buildings in Rangoon, left by the British, that were kind of falling apart but still kind of beautiful.

There were vintage cars, because, for years, newer cars weren’t allowed to be imported. Out in the countryside — even that level of modern life hadn’t penetrated. That’s where Pwint Htun grew up. That’s why the new telephone tower, when it came in the early ‘80s, was such a big deal.

And then, Pwint’s family moved to Rangoon. She was about 14 in 1988 when students and others started filling the streets in front of her family’s apartment and calling for democracy.

“The students were really integral in organizing these protests. Some were maybe four or five years older than me, at most. So I felt totally with them in spirit, and wanted to go and be part of the protest. And a few of the days, my mom allowed us to. But most of the time we were closed in behind barbed wire, because our apartment was next to City Hall. And the military tightened the security of the surrounding streets.”

The military opened fire on these students more than once, and by the time of the final crackdown by the military junta in September, hundreds, possibly thousands had been killed. An especially bloody day came early. August 8, 1988 — that’s 8-8-88 — had been chosen as a day for national demonstrations, because the fortune-tellers said all these 8s was auspicious. Well, not so much for the demonstrators who got shot.

“When the soldiers were gunning down the people, any student who had a gunshot wound or some kind of health problem, going to the hospital, there were police waiting at the hospital and throwing them in jail, any time they were coming into the hospital,” Pwint says. “So the people who were shot and bleeding, they didn’t dare to go to the hospital. … A lot of them looked for alternative ways of getting help. So my mom and her students set up a clinic in the basement of a church.”

Because that was seen as an act against the regime, the family decided to leave Burma once the junta had cleared the streets. They ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand, where Pwint faced the double challenge of trying to communicate when she couldn’t speak Thai, and trying to learn on her own, because her mother couldn’t afford tuition at an international school. An aid worker from Seattle offered to tutor Pwint in physics and chemistry, then sponsored her to go to college in Seattle. Pwint got a degree in engineering, and dove into telecommunications work. Actually, from her first year in college, she gravitated toward the chance to connect that telecommunications work offered.

“My first job, the first year I was in Seattle, was selling long-distance for Sprint. They gave employees free long-distance calls during breaks,” she says. “That was the most wonderful perk anybody could give me. I was so homesick. That’s what I was missing so much. That’s what I was missing so much, the connectivity, just being able to hear their voice.”

So she called her mom and sisters in Thailand, and her grandparents in Burma. But what she was hearing from her grandparents, about what life was like in Burma under the junta, wasn’t good.

“They constantly lived in fear,” she says.  “Once, I was taking to my grandfather, and a third person was listening to our conversation and interjecting his own opinions.”  She laughs at the memory, but not at what it felt like to live like that. “It was this Orwellian environment, where people were so afraid that they could be arrested at any time, because people were listening in, in all conversations.”