"Twenty years ago, Burma was ahead of Thailand. Today we have fallen far behind," said my Burmese guide.
We strolled down the dusty street of a border town. Bicycle rickshaws everywhere. A smokey old truck passed us.
"Look at that thing -- World War II."
In at least one respect, however, Burma is a more "futuristic" society than our own.
Baring some cataclysm, the day will arrive -- whether in five years or twenty-five -- when all important information will be delivered electronically. A world without printed newspapers or magazines is coming.
That day has already arrived in Burma. The Burmese do not turn to traditional printed media for serious information.
Sure, you can still find paper magazines and newspapers in the shops. But like George Orwell's vision of 1984, Burma's newspapers don't contain real news.
In Burma your only reliable sources of information are electronic. Electronic media offer your best chance of getting informed and making connections.
I recently spoke with Casper, a Rangoon businessman. Burmese businessman like Casper, dependent on overseas suppliers, must be technologically savvy. Casper explained to me his use of one kind of electronic media after another.*
"I don't think it's too much to ask of the government controlled media that they simply report things that happen in Burma," said Casper. He wishes government news sources delivered some basic facts -- the who, what, where, when. He said could put up with spin; figure out the "why" for himself.
Casper has satellite television. He checked off the names of various satellites orbiting over Burma.
"A satellite dish goes for $150.00 -- made in China." Casper said. "My dish gives me access to Channel News Asia out of Singapore and Al Jazeera" said Casper. "Unfortunately, Channel News Asia isn't political." he added. "So we usually watch Al Jazeera."
As he said this, the voice of an Al Jazeera anchorman boomed from a nearby television set -- something about Palestine.
Casper told me BBC and CNN are only available by subscription -- which nobody can afford.
"I'm very pleased with the Democratic Voice of Burma," he said. This station broadcasts out of Norway and is covering local Burmese issues.
"Get on the Internet in Rangoon and it seems like all the sites are blocked" Casper said.
He told me you need to use "a proxy server."
Since my interview with VOA -- it was broadcast into Burma -- this site has been getting more hits from the proxy servers. Proxy servers change constantly. Once the government discovers one, it closes the gate. It goes dead.
Casper said www.your-freedom.net is his first choice: "It's the only proxy-server the government cannot block."
Based in Germany, this organization has provided technology that has allowed the Burmese to surf the Internet for three years running.
"A sim card costs $2,000.00" said Casper.
"Incredible" I said in disbelief.
Another man seated at our table wondered whether it wouldn't be cheaper to simply buy a satellite phone. We talked about how much these cost in Thailand.
Casper explained that, in effect, you buy a sim card from someone connected to the government who has authorization to own sim cards.
There is much about Burma that is 1984, but there are important differences. Orwell did not anticipate the subversive possibilities that new technologies have opened up for the Burmese. There is a lot to be hopeful about.
On the other hand, Burma's regime has been adapting new information technology at a quick pace. Case in point: a friend who had to wait for two hours in a Thai customs office:
"To clear up my visa they had to call Bangkok. Their computers aren't even networked. On the Burmese side, everything is so efficient and computerized. Why can't Thai customs be like Burma's?"
I believe that the future of Burma will be determined by which side -- the side of freedom or oppression -- gets the upper hand in using communications and information technology effectively.
In September the world saw that the potential exists for new technologies to do good. Why don't we build on that momentum? I think we should seed Burma with the technologies that will give Burma's suffering people a fighting chance.
* What about shortwave radio? See here and especially here.
Photo: by Jotman. Shows a Burmese classroom.