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Myanmar’s first home-grown social media site launches

Squar, the first exclusively Myanmar language social media website, has launched this week following a successful four week trial on mobile devices.

Squar Co-founders Rita Nguyen (right) and Quynh Anh Nguyen (left) at a BarCamp conference in Pyay, Myanmar. Photo: SQUAR / Facebook

The social media platform has been active in a prototype form for mobile devices since June 15, and has already attracted users in the thousands. This week the website launched, marking an important milestone in Myanmar’s online development.

“The nice thing is that we have a runway to learn, there isn't a lot of competitors and there aren't a lot of people online so we're allowed a few mistakes,” says Rita Nguyen, co-founder and CEO.

“Our goal has always been to get about 1 million people in a year. Given the reception we've gotten in first couple of weeks, I imagine that we’ll blow past that number very quickly.”

Myanmar currently has an internet penetration rate of about 1.5 percent of it’s total population of 60 million, according to World Bank figures. That number is expected to sky rocket over the next couple of years following the decision to invite two foreign telecoms partners, Ooredoo and Telenor, into Myanmar on the 27th of June.

Myanmar has a proven appetite for social media, it’s thought that 80 percent of the country’s internet users have a Facebook account, including multiple politicians and influential figures.

Despite the huge popularity of Facebook, Rita Nguyen insists that Squar will find its own niche, tapping into the same market as Facebook.

“We fully expect all our users to have account” says Rita, “but in a country like Myanmar where your neighbors and friends aren't connected and don't have accounts, Facebook can be a very lonely destination.”

“It was all about common interest and being able to find friends. It's not about bringing previous networks online, it's about meeting people.”

Myanmar’s social media has experienced significant setbacks in the past six months. Hate speech on the popular sites, including Facebook, has been blamed for a spate of violent attacks between the country’s ethnic and religious groups.

Just last month, Deputy Minister of Information Ye Htut discussed the attacks in Lashio, saying that “People wanted news fast, and they could not wait, so they just went straight to Facebook.” He went on to say that the spread of vicious rumors “caused more conflict than peace.”

Copies of controversial material and falsified images are becoming a big problem for Myanmar’s social media. Perpetrators have been accused of creating multiple anonymous Facebook accounts to increase followings and disseminate incriminating material.

According to Rita Nguyen, Squar will host a zero tolerance policy to hate speech, however she acknowledges that it will be a difficult task.

“It’s going to happen, we know that,” says Rita. “We just have to be vigilant about it, and create a flagging system.”

Squar, like many other internet start-ups in Myanmar, base their development in neighboring countries. The high speed connectivity and abundance of developers abroad means that the site will be operated largely from their base in Vietnam, says Rita.

This is expected to change in the next few years, following the proposed roll-out of 3G infrastructure by Telenor and Ooredoo, and an increase in IT infrastructure, including the MIT/Hitachi data centre that will begin construction next year.

“We've always come into this market on the basis that the connectivity will correct itself, we are confident in that,”says Rita. “Once these kids are connected though, they will need a destination to go and have a voice. That’s what we want to provide.”