Beyond Access Salon in Burma.

Beyond Access Salon in Yangon: What are Myanmar’s Information Needs in the 21st Century?

Contributed by Wendy Rockett of the Asia Foundation, a member of the Beyond Access team visiting Myanmar.

“We want Myanmar to be a knowledge-based society, a learning society. One that is very open, one where everyone is treated with respect.”

Dr. Aung Tun Thet, senior adviser at the United Nations Resident Coordinator’s Office in Myanmar, kicked off Beyond Access’ salon in Yangon with this vision for the country’s future. Although Myanmar has a high literacy rate and the number of news outlets has exploded since the dismantlement of state censorship, school drop-out rates are high and access to information remains a challenge, particularly in rural areas. Electricity is often unreliable, even in Yangon, and only 30% of the country has internet. In order to identify new ways forward, a wide coalition of people ranging from librarians and community groups to international NGOs and aid agencies to technology, publishing, and education professionals gathered at the National Museum on Tuesday to discuss Myanmar’s pressing information needs.

Local organizations highlighted the difficulties faced by rural communities and suggested ways in which libraries could be revitalized to play a central role in educating and informing remote communities. Daw Cho Cho Aung, a representative from the Bayda Institute pointed out there is a lack of books in the Myanmar language. “English books are very precious. But those who live in rural areas cannot read them, which is why Myanmar books are needed.” U Htoo Chit, director of Thabyay Education Foundation, added ,”We need not only books, but we need to also raise awareness about the importance of reading.”

May Moe New, managing director of the Myanmar Book Center, emphasized that libraries need to address the specific needs of the communities they serve: “If it’s a normal public library, people are not so interested to come. What we can do is is to provide everyday, up-to-date info in Myanmar language to these community centers in rural libraries at grassroots level.”

Technology was a hot topic of conversation. Martin of Kant Kaw Education Center suggested that equipping rural libraries with computers and internet access be prioritized. He pointed out that villagers often have “little or no current information on what’s happening inside Myanmar.”

Ed Anderson of international development organization The Asia Foundation suggested, “Instead of focusing library by library, book by book, we should look at the bigger picture.” He urged the group to “think beyond the building” and examine how libraries use technology to provide enhanced services. iG Publishing’s Dr. Aung Maw agreed: “We need to think about ways and means for access. Libraries are one of them. Radios and call centers are another means of accessing information.” He also suggested collating information central to people’s lives, such as news on agriculture, business, and health, from Myanmar’s numerous news journals and distributing them to remote communities via DVD. Journals are one of the main sources of information in the country.

Other topics discussed included the important of open government initiatives and public-private partnerships.

Monika Elbert of EIFL neatly summed up the main challenges identified as the 5 c’s : connectivity, computers, content, competence of librarians, and community needs. Stay tuned for our updates on these fronts as we continue our tour of Myanmar’s libraries.