INTERVIEW: Htin Kyaw Aye on Opening Myanmar to Data Transparency

INTERVIEW: Htin Kyaw Aye on Opening Myanmar to Data Transparency
Credit: Via Htin Kyaw Aye
Why you need to know

As freedoms come under threat in Myanmar, various civic tech groups are trying to promote the importance of collecting, sharing and using data to get to the truth.

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Cover photo shows Htin Kyaw Aye addressing the Ayawaddy Region Parliament (a sub-national legislature) about open data in 2016.

Htin Kyaw Aye is the founder of Ānanda Data, a civic tech and open data collective which promotes civic engagement in politics through explanations of government institutions and the budget in Myanmar.

Ahead of his presentation to last week’s g0v Summit 2018 in Taipei, The News Lens sat down with Htin Kyaw Aye to talk about his role in opening up Myanmar’s parliament to data transparency during his time as a former research director of Open Myanmar Initiative (OMI), as well as his more recent efforts to promote the collection and sharing of data among Myanmar’s civil society initiatives.

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Credit: g0v Summit Facebook
The G0v Summit 2018 event in Taipei brought together civic tech experts, advocates and nobodies from all over the world.

The News Lens: How are you enjoying the summit?

Htin Kyaw Aye: g0v [pronounced “gov zero”] is interesting as it is my first civic tech event in Asia. I’ve been to others in Europe, but this is unique, and the way its organized is interesting and inspiring.

The way people are describing themselves as “nobody” [a g0v catchphrase is "Don't ask why 'nobody' is doing this – because you are that 'nobody'"] is enlightening and illuminating because in most places, it’s about ego and your representation or that of your organization. Here, everybody is nobody.

TNL: Is that a new concept for you?

HKA: The concept is not new but to see it in practice… We have spoken about no ego in civic tech in other parts of the world but to see it implemented as a community is different.

Talking to people about being involved in the file share community and being nobody in practice in a physical community is different.

TNL: I wanted to ask you about Open Myanmar Initiative (OMI) and how it started?

HKA: I’m no longer with OMI because I quit last February, but I can explain how it managed to make some changes with the parliament in terms of transparency and how now I am trying to make further changes.

OMI started out in 2013, mostly activists who wanted to promote transparency.

TNL: How many were you?

HKA: Not many – myself and my friend who is a translator and newspaper editor, and then some activists who were imprisoned in 1988. They are a different generation from us and were released from prison in 2012. They were excited about the new parliament and government. They tried to find a way to make the system better. They didn’t approve of the 2008 constitution but they, as political prisoners, were particularly excited about the parliament. They had been talking about politics in prison for years – some of them had been in prison for 20 years, some for my whole lifetime.

Their idea was to build a sustainable democratic system through parliament.

TNL: What were you doing at the time?

HKA: At the time I was a translator and columnist for the local newspaper. I saw the deliberations in parliament were informative and how parliament is a tool to hold the government accountable. But to get people really involved and engaged in those processes required making the parliament transparent, bringing it closer to the people.

The parliament is 300 miles away from most of the people – we had a new capital city to host the parliament. [Naypyidaw] is 300 miles away from the economic center in Yangon, the traditional capital city.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Workers putting the finishing touches to Myanmar's new parliament building in Naypyidaw in 2010.

TNL: And the government didn’t put information from the parliament online?

HKA: Parliament produced minimalist records and transcripts in big books that you had to buy from government book stores but were not online. So, nobody really would read them, and nobody watches parliamentary TV because they only show debates once decisions have been made and reported in the newspaper.

Another thing is that people thought the 2010 election was fraudulent and had been manipulated, so they didn’t approve of the election, and they didn’t approve of the parliament.

TNL: I read that the military MPs in parliament had not voted on any issues for some time?

HKA: 25 percent of the parliament is military appointees appointed by the commander in chief [Min Aung Hlaing]. We produced a data set and a quantitative report on all the questions raised in parliament. One of our findings was that of those military MPs, only three of them raised questions, a total of three times in three years. They asked one question in a year.

The media picked this up and widely published the story. Why are they sitting in the parliament the whole year without participating in any debates or asking any questions? But then they began to ask more questions and that is another problem. They are not elected. They just represent the military. They are only there because the military doesn’t want to change the constitution – to do so you need more than a 75 percent majority, which is why they hold 25 percent.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Lower house parliamentary speaker Shwe Man (C) arrives at the Parliament building in Naypyidaw on Jan. 26, 2012.

TNL: Do you also look at voting records of those in parliament?

HKA: We don’t track who votes. We wouldn’t be able to track who votes on which legislation because parliament doesn’t publish voting records of individuals, only of the entire parliament: how many ‘yes’ votes, now many ‘no’ and how many abstentions. We have been advocating for the parliament to publish individual records.

TNL: Are you collecting your own data or making data collected by parliament available online?

HKA: We’re publishing our own data. Parliament only produces records, not data. They don’t produce statistics properly. We categorize the questions into areas and which MP asks which questions, and the responses.

We also produce a data set looking at which law is in which house of parliament. Mostly we produce our own data, which we source from the parliamentary records.

TNL: What other data are you producing and who is using it?

HKA: We have a website for biographies of MPs and their contacts, and a website that tracks the laws, and another one that publishes the parliamentary question data. I found that we only have a few viewers, like between 150 and 300. Compared with the 51 million population of Myanmar it’s relatively few…

They’re the same people using all the services, likely from NGOs, civil society and the media. We know because we receive media requests to use the data. We try to communicate with the public and parliament through the media.

TNL: What are you are doing now?

HKA: I'm trying to afford myself more independence in communicating and organizing different people. We started a collective called Open Anand Data, which is only one or two people. We try to have more ideas to help civil society in using and publishing data, and in engaging with the parliament.

Civil space in Myanmar is a bit threatened, and most civil society groups are ignored by the new government because it has a lot of popular support. I’m trying to help civil society understand how the government and parliament works so they can engage in a more organized way with the legal process and the data.

Most of the time, people are angry about laws and go to the street to protest only after they have been passed and the media reports its implications, but by then it’s too late. I’m trying to push out the information in advance.

TNL: How can civic tech assist in defending Myanmar’s democracy?

HKA: I’m a bit wary about the current situation because people are polarized. I’m worried that our country will become even more divided if people don’t embrace different views and opinions, and that will lead to illiberal democratic predators.

We also have weak institutions, which means we don’t have the necessary institutions to safeguard against those predators. One way we can overcome this is people engaging in politics and using evidence to overcome prejudice.

TNL: Are you in touch with any other civ tech groups in Southeast Asia?

HKA: We do communicate with them. The website for keeping track of the voting in parliament was built by our friends in Malaysia from Sinar Project. They have their own platform and they built the back-end for Myanmar, we built the front-end.

We didn’t even meet each other, and I only met them for the first time here at the summit. We also have a protocol for Open Development Myanmar (ODM), from Open Development Mekong, so we publish the data there.

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Credit: Open Development Myanmar
A screenshot from Open Development Myanmar that shows the composition of the parliament.

TNL: What's your aim for the future?

HKA: We’re trying to train civil society in Myanmar to publish more on ODM. It’s mostly government data and data from the region, but not from independent think tanks. So, we’re starting to build that capacity. We have civil society and think tanks that are cool with data and data analysis but not necessarily cool with sharing it and publishing. That’s what we are working on now.

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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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