Royal capital to ‘smart city’: Myanmar’s Mandalay gets high-tech makeover, sparks ‘spy’ fears

YANGON (Reuters) – Once a seat of kings, town of Mandalay in northern Myanmar has seen turbulent chapters in its 162-year historical past – the autumn of Burma’s final royal dynasty and a long time of colonial rule. Now, officers are trying to rework the previous royal capital into Myanmar’s first “smart city”.

A girl appears to be like at her telephone on the metropolis wall space of the Mandalay palace in Mandalay, Myanmar, March 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ann Wang

In a rustic the place officers nonetheless largely labour with pen and ink, surrounded by stacks of mouldering papers, authorities in Mandalay are tapping social media and new applied sciences akin to synthetic intelligence software program and drones to revamp a torpid forms.

Under the secretive navy junta that dominated Myanmar till 2011, folks within the nation’s second largest metropolis hardly ever had any contact with those that ruled them. Now, they discuss to the mayor on Facebook and pay for companies with QR codes, one thing not accessible in Myanmar’s business capital, Yangon. Authorities observe rubbish disposal with GPS and management visitors flows with distant sensors.

“It is very good that we can communicate with the mayor like this,” stated 55-year-old taxi driver Kyi Thein. “Before, we could only see their motorcades.”

Formerly dominated by military-linked males and considered a hotbed of graft and mismanagement, town’s first municipal authorities with an overwhelmingly civilian background has pushed the plan, which is a part of a regional initiative.

The tempo of change has gained plaudits in regional media and from abroad Myanmar nationals – the mayor was given the Citizen of Burma award by a U.S. diaspora group in May – underscoring alternatives for Myanmar because the nation emerges from half a century of isolation right into a world dominated by quickly evolving know-how.

But a few of the makes an attempt to push by change have met with resistance, not solely from corners of the creaky forms, however from activists involved that sensible know-how, deployed with out regulating laws, might permit authorities to extra intently surveil them.


In April 2018, Singapore, then the chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations, proposed the creation of a community of 26 “smart cities” that will harness know-how to deal with a few of the challenges created because the area’s as soon as largely rural inhabitants converges in cities.

Three Myanmar cities had been chosen, however it’s in Mandalay, within the centre of the nation, the place authorities have finished most to embrace the proposal.

Locals there say points are myriad. The faucet water shouldn’t be drinkable. Congestion is rising because the variety of autos has skyrocketed because the liberalization of imports in 2012. The roads are potholed and pavements plagued by trash.

Many credit score mayor Ye Lwin, a former eye surgeon turned politician and the primary appointed to the publish by a civilian authorities after elections in 2015, with overseeing a turnaround over the previous two years. He responds to gripes on his Facebook web page every day, tagging subordinates and issuing directives.

He declined an interview request by Reuters, referring questions to officers in his workplace.

“Our goal is to create a city which doesn’t damage the environment, is liveable for people, with a good economy and friendly environment,” stated Ye Myat Thu, an IT professional who created Myanmar’s hottest Burmese-language font and now works alongside the mayor within the Mandalay City Development Committee. “We get there using technology.”

Although the Asian Development Bank gave cash for an improve to the waste administration system, a lot of the reforms have been funded by taxation, Ye Myat Thu stated.

Authorities undertook a digital survey of town, utilizing 3D pictures shot by drones and information obtained by municipal officers roaming town with GPS units that they are saying has given them a greater image of the households and companies that ought to be paying property tax.

The funds have paid for an Australian-made visitors management system and units for workers to learn electrical energy payments routinely by strolling previous homes relatively than checking the meters.

Inside a brand new management centre hooked up to town’s municipal workplace on a current morning, two visitors officers monitored probably the most congested roads on 13 screens. Sensors put in in CCTV cameras detect congestion and modify the sequencing of visitors lights accordingly, defined Ye Myat Thu.


But change has not come simple. “Only after I joined here, I realized how bureaucratic the system was,” stated Ye Myat Thu.

For instance, authorities departments throughout the nation nonetheless eschew electronic mail for a paper-based letter system, he stated, and Mandalay is not any exception.

When authorities put in monitoring on rubbish vans to make sure that they had been gathering the litter, drivers poured water on the units in an effort to destroy them, Ye Myat Thu and one other official stated.

Recent weeks have introduced a backlash towards a proposed deal between Mandalay’s regional authorities and Chinese tech large Huawei to present CCTV cameras outfitted with facial recognition know-how and different safety tools as a part of a “safe city” undertaking value $1.24 million, in accordance to native media.

The United States has instructed its allies not to use Huawei’s know-how due to fears it could possibly be a automobile for Chinese spying, an accusation the corporate has denied.

“Huawei supports privacy protection,” Bob Zhu, a spokesman for Huawei Myanmar, instructed Reuters in an electronic mail, including that the deal in Mandalay had not but been formally signed.

Nyi Kyaw, an activist from the Mandalay-based non-profit Metta, stated authorities already stored an in depth eye on their actions and facial recognition might allow abuses.

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“There is no trust between civil society organizations and the government. If this happens with the excuse of security, activists and political activists will be watched, rather than the criminals.”

Ye Myat Thu from MCDC stated the nation ought to have higher “legal infrastructure” round private information earlier than the undertaking could possibly be applied.

“We face many challenges,” Ye Myat Thu stated, “We have been trying to change a system that has been going its own way.”

Editing by Poppy McPherson and Alex Richardson

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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