Entrepreneur Hla Hla Win uses tech to help students learn remotely during COVID-19. Her startup has been hit by the military coup and ensuing internet disruptions
By Beh Lih Yi
Feb 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – COVID-19 did not stop Myanmar entrepreneur Hla Hla Win from reinventing school learning with cutting-edge technology, but the country's military coup last week and internet disruptions have all but crippled her education startup.
Her Yangon-based company, 360ed, was helping students learn subjects like chemistry and biology with augmented reality amid COVID-19 school closures - until she closed her business for three weeks following the Feb. 1 coup.
"Everything is uncertain. Internet shutdown... and even the phone line is on and off," said Hla Hla Win, 39, a co-founder of 360ed, a social enterprise.
"We don't know what to expect even for the next hour," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Myanmar's biggest city Yangon, with chanting protesters and cars honking in the background.
Thousands in Myanmar, including monks and nurses, have protested against the military's removal of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, which prompted outrage at home and abroad.
The government lifted a day-long internet ban at the weekend, but social media remain restricted "for many" according to the Netblocks Internet Observatory monitoring group on Sunday.
360ed is part of Myanmar's tech startup scene that has grown rapidly since 2011, when a quasi-civilian government started opening up the country and its economy after nearly half a century of military rule.
Even as demand for Hla Hla Win's apps increased, the latest uncertainty has thrown the future of her business into question.
Although internet access has been restored, Hla Hla Win said her team of 60 educators and coders are still experiencing unreliable connectivity, forcing them to put the development of new apps on hold.
"During COVID-19 we continued to work from home and it's alright with the internet access. Now there's no way. No internet means no work," she said.
Hla Hla Win must use a VPN to access social media, including Facebook, which is synonymous with the internet in Myanmar and counts half of the country's 54 million population as users.
Citing "election fraud", Myanmar generals seized power from Suu Kyi's democratically elected government. The popular leader, 75, has been kept incommunicado since the Feb. 1 coup.
In his first televised address as junta leader on Monday, Min Aung Hlaing said the junta would form a "true and disciplined democracy," different to previous eras of military rule which left Myanmar in isolation and poverty.
Min Aung Hlaing gave no time frame but the junta has said a state of emergency will last one year.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced Hla Hla Win to cut 20% of her staff to save costs. Now, the political turmoil is threatening the future of her learning apps used by some 150,000 students.
"Our apps don't require internet access (once downloaded) so it's very helpful and it has been a lifeline to students," she said.
The apps, some available for free and others costing parents $10, also cover subjects like English, physics and sex education.
The entrepreneur hopes the country can return to a sense of normalcy soon.
"In 1988 we didn't have COVID-19 or the digital economy. Things are very different now," Hla Hla Win said of the 1988 demonstrations that first brought Suu Kyi to prominence.
"I hope we don't have to relive the past and go through the dark ages again," she said. "We are not asking for mountains and heavens, we're just asking for peaceful lives to live.
(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)