Sectarian violence erupted Wednesday March 20 in the Myanmarian town of Meikhtila, 100 miles south of the country’s second largest city, Mandalay. What started out as a simple disagreement between a Muslim shopkeeper and a Buddhist customer soon escalated into a community-wide conflict. In a country in which telecommunication has been historically restricted, the newfound access to social media has been blamed for the swift increase in violence.

By Tuesday, forty had been killed, thousands had been forced from their homes and rights groups and foreign embassies alike were on alert, fearing the potential for much larger scale casualties at a national level. State intervention, or any attempt to placate the situation, has been virtually nonexistent.

That the violence was so rapidly spread points towards two major concerns. On the one hand, it highlights the fragility of Myanmar’s fledgling democracy – replacing nearly half a century of military rule in 2010. This is not the first time that tensions between a Buddhist majority and Muslim minority have spilled over into violence. Last year, similar fighting in the west of the country led to the deaths of hundreds and left thousands without homes.

But equally alarming is the role which new technologies have played in fanning the flames of violence. Uploaded photos and videos effectively advertised events – some footage shows houses ablaze, some pictures show Muslims fleeing for safety. Many have attributed the hastiness of the violent response to social media. According to The Guardian, “Soon after [the violence], photos and videos of mobs roaming the streets were circulating online – showing streets littered with burning motorbikes, men armed with sticks and swords destroying property, and buildings set ablaze – with little indication that security forces were putting a stop to it.”

Under military rule, the spread of information in Myanmar was at a premium: stringent censorship silenced dissenting voices at the top, and severely limited access to telecommunication technology ensured that the vast majority of Myanmarians at the bottom of the chain remained in the dark. Yet under the leadership of President Thein Sein, rapid reforms have begun to grant an unprecedented freedom of expression. And a huge rollout of internet and telephone coverage planned over the next two years will give millions in the country access to these communication platforms.

Recent events, though, raise serious questions about the future potential of disharmony in a setting where decades of public silence are rapidly giving way to the free, unregulated communication of information. How might increased communication and access to technology impact the social structuring of Myanmar? Is the recent violence a hitch in the road, or a sign of things to come?

Coming together

The danger seems to lie not so much in the change itself, but in the speed at which it is proposed to come. This is just the start of Myanmar’s technological enlightenment, coming when most of the globe has long been enlightened.

The recent publication of the UN’s Human Development Index, the subject of an article published by Record earlier this week, released figures claiming that in 2010 only one in every one hundred Myanmarians owned a personal computer, less than three in a hundred owned a mobile phone and only thirteen per cent of the country was electrified.  Similarly, telecom researchers Buddhecom found only forty thousand Internet subscribers in the country. Myanmar has a population of around fifty million.

These figures are rising, but with an “erratic rate of progress,” according to Buddhecom. The government’s plans to provide mobile access to the vast majority of the population by 2015 are achievable. Now, in the context of the recent unrest in Meikhtila, many are questioning the risks inherent with such rapid process.

Bringing the world to Burma

Last week, Google chairman Eric Schmidt visited Myanmar’s capital city, to coincide with the launch of the search engine’s new homepage (www.google.com.mm). At a Rangoon university, he perhaps unsurprisingly spoke of a need for greater information availability in the country: “The answer to bad speech is more speech. More communication. More voices,” he said.

“The Internet once in place guarantees that communication and empowerment become the law and practice of your country.”

Leaving aside Schmidt’s understandable self-promotion, his comments seem to echo the sentiment of many commentators, none more so than opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who last year contested vehemently that, “press freedom must be given, and expanded social networks that will provide legal assistance to the people are needed.”

Reforms so far have sought to realize this message of public empowerment: along with telecommunication progress, mobile banking solutions seem increasingly likely to follow in a country where banking “has long existed behind a wall,” in the words of journalist Sam Petulla. Additionally, licences have been granted to sixteen daily newspapers that will begin operating next month, ending a long state monopoly of the press.

There are few who would deny that this overhaul of Myanmar’s social and technological landscape is much needed. It would seem vital, though, that those at the helm – be it those seeking future votes, those seeking future fortunes or simply those drawn to the light of progress – be sensible in the undertaking. Especially so when increasing numbers are gaining a voice capable of protest. As Jed Hallam, author of The Social Media Manifesto, puts it, “if someone doesn’t like what’s being forced upon them they now have the power to challenge it.”

Social media and innovation

Some organisations have quickly cottoned onto social media’s potential. News is increasingly broadcast online, catering to the influx of new Internet users – and ensuring, too, that the new daily newspapers will face stiff competition.

Across the globe, social media has proven itself a magnet for civic organization and action. In Britain, for example, the Greater Manchester Police Force in 2010 began using Twitter in order to catalogue each of the constabulary’s daily operations in an attempt to improve relations with a disgruntled public.

In Harlem, New York, when youth gang crime was thought to be intensifying due to the ease with which it could be organised with the aid of social networks (“gangs would stoke their territorial rivalries via Twitter,” as one newspaper put it), Reverend Vernon Williams (@PastorVernon) took to tweeting so as to provide bespoke, tech-driven law enforcement: receiving intelligence from his followers, Williams began to track possible altercations and dealt with them accordingly.

And the mass gathering in Cairo’s Tahir Square at the beginning of Egypt’s Arab Spring in 2011 is known to have been orchestrated through the use of Blackberry Messenger.

Anecdotal evidence, then, suggests the double-edged nature of better communication. But Myanmar represents a circumstance entirely different from those of the developed world. Yet the premise remains much the same: technology is able to bring people together, for better or worse.

As Hallam puts it: “Conversations that used to be limited to your physical geography now transcend borders, and there are always going to be people that share your views, no matter how extreme those views are.”

Growing modern gracefully

The Myanmarian landscape is changing hugely, but what happened at Meikhtila is a reminder that ancient traditions will not be pacified by modern innovation. On the contrary, without regulation or intervention, new technologies threaten to succeed only in sharpening historic battle lines.

Sectarian violence has not spread only because of increased access to social media and mobile phones. But the new arrival of these technologies, with their potential to disseminate information at unprecedented rates, has surely helped fan the flames.

After last year’s unrest in Arakan state, journalist Francis Wade suggested that, “it is becoming increasingly hard to dismiss the violence as something local to western Burma.” And certainly, as Myanmar becomes increasingly connected, local matters are likely to become national matters far more quickly.

The responsibility of the state to maintain law and order has never been so pressed. Myanmar’s fledgling democracy is still fragile, and the state has an important role to play in the near future. The newfound public empowerment brought by new communication technologies is emerging as a permanent fixture in Burmese politics.

While Hallam asserts that, “technology and the web give people the power to be heard, and be together,” many worry over what that the inevitable coming together across Myanmar will bring. Should the government’s planned penetration rate for bringing Internet and mobile access to the country go according to plan – making the technologies available to up to eighty per cent of the population – the next two years will give voice to tens of millions of Myanmarians, not all of whom will embrace them with the civic-mindedness the government is hoping for.