Technology

This new messaging app from developers in Myanmar is kind of revolutionary

A woman in Yangon, Myanmar checks her text messages on her phone. Business opportunities are expanding in the Southeast Asian country as it emerges from financial isolation.

YANGON, Myanmar — In the United States, typing goofy messages into an anonymous messaging app might seem unremarkable.

But in Myanmar — a brutal police state until recently — it’s kind of revolutionary.

Just five years ago, every bit of expression in Myanmar (also called Burma) was filtered through a panel of stuffy censors. Every lyric, every pamphlet, even sports item and piece of pop star gossip — all of it was subject to state censorship.

Angsty punk songs? Banned. Models wearing pink wigs? Banned. Calls to oust the military government? Banned plus prison time, maybe torture.

Watch: Myanmar Emerges: Mock StarsMost Burmese have been cut off from the outside world for so long, they have no idea their favorite tracks are actually songs from top 40 western artists.

Myanmar’s dreadful history of totalitarianism, only now receding after five decades of military domination, is what makes Hush so extraordinary. The perfectly named Hush is an app, designed by a young Myanmar-based team, which allows long-repressed citizenry to express any thought with total anonymity.

Its closest cousin in the Western world is YikYak, an app so popular in the states that it’s widely banned on high school campuses.

“Hush is designed to let people expose their feelings without getting caught,” says Ye Myat Min, the 24-year-old CEO of Nex, a digital startup in Yangon. “We’re targeting teenagers and letting them say whatever the hell they want.”

“The Burmese have been conservative introverts for a long time,” he says. “My friends never talk openly about their true feelings.” 

For decades, loose talk was a luxury most in Myanmar weren’t able to afford. A surveillance network of military spies forced many to temper their speech. So does cultural pressure. Myanmar is as conservative as 1950s America and young women are expected to be prim and chaste.

So what exactly are the long-repressed youth of Myanmar yearning to talk about? Mostly heartache and sex, unsurprisingly.

Hush is loud with notes such as “SADNESS IS WHEN UR BF IS SOO BUSY TO TALK TO U” or “feeling unhappy, wanna cry.” There are odes to beautiful strangers spotted in ice cream shops and hair salons. There are occasional requests for threesomes.

But there are also more and more posts on weightier issues. Users can comment endlessly on each anonymous post. One of the longest threads is on Aung San Suu Kyi, an icon of resistance to military rule, and perhaps the most famous living person from Myanmar. 

Some argued that she should be allowed to become president; others insisted that she should retain her iconic status by veering away from direct politics. It wasn’t so long ago that any public discussion of Aung San Suu Kyi risked a visit from military intelligence.

On a much darker Hush post, a distraught brother rants about a semi-nude man who appears near his sister’s window and masturbates. (He even uploaded a not-too-explicit photo.) 

Hush's anonymity allowed the poster to vent without exposing his precise location. He described it as a Muslim-majority neighborhood, which have been targeted by shadowy all-Buddhist vigilante squads in recent years. Full-on riots have exploded over Muslim-on-Buddhist sexual assault — some real, some fabricated — and the poster apparently feared another could erupt if he divulged his family name and location.

So far, Hush has racked up more than 12,000 users. That might not sound like much. But consider that only about 5 percent of Myanmar’s 50 million population uses the internet and, until recently, mobile phone SIM cards were priced absurdly high ($1,500-plus) to keep mobile phones only in the hands of a connected elite.

Hush could play a small role in cracking rigid barriers of caste and religion that define life in Myanmar. Or it could serve as a medium for crush fantasies and hookups. Or it could do both. “We’re hoping for more constructive thought,” Ye Myat Min says.

So far, he says, the government has not interfered with the app. But he’s registered its license abroad, in Singapore, just to be on the safe side.

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