Yangon, Myanmar: The last time I was in Myanmar (aka Burma), the country was ruled by a military government. It was fall 2009. Elections were on the horizon, but most people I met were skeptical about what they might yield. Mobile phones and internet access were increasingly popular but relatively hard to come by – cyber cafes were crowded, and places to access wifi were few and far between.
But within the burgeoning technology community there was an eagerness to transform the country, and a commitment to doing so as a community. And so when, as part of an informational meeting with members of the Myanmar Bloggers’ Society and Myanmar Computer Professionals’ Association, Mark and I mentioned BarCamp, a kind of technology “unconference” increasing in popularity elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the bloggers and computer programmers got excited about the potential for this kind of conference to engage the local tech community. Mark and I were excited by their excitement: Pulling off a BarCamp in Burma seemed unlikely, but we were learning that not everything in the country was as black and white as it may have appeared from the outside. The potential BarCampers were clearly dedicated, so we spent some time discussing the merits and challenges of BarCamp (can you really pull off a conference where most of the schedule is determined the day of?), connected them to BarCamp friends in Bangkok, and headed back to New York City, full of thoughts and questions about the complex realities taking shape in Myanmar. Many of these were ideas we were careful not to talk much about for the past few years, in the interest of protecting people’s security and privacy. But we had reasons to feel cautiously optimistic about the trajectory of the country, in no small part due to the amazing spirit of the people we met. Their dedication to working for a better future, despite the odds, encouraged us to believe that something more was taking place, underneath the surface of this beautiful but politically-fraught country.
And then, something astonishing happened.
After a few initial hiccups, and questions over the merits of planning a BarCamp, the volunteer organizers gained momentum, and scheduled a BarCamp for January, 2010, despite the threat of events being shut down due to elections scheduled for later that year. Merely scheduling a BarCamp was an impressive astonishment, but in the weeks leading up to the actual event, as I watched from afar, something incredible happened – more and more people registered, creating a snowball effect, and driving the number of BarCamp Yangon participants higher than any other BarCamp in the world – ever. In the end, 2700 registered for BarCamp Yangon 2010, and estimates raised as high as 3,000 participants total.
Fast forward three years, and a core group of organizers – plus scores of volunteers – have been diligently planning for BarCamp Yangon 2013 – the best one yet. I’m one of a couple dozen foreigners privileged enough to attend, and, in true BarCamp style, I’m looking as forward to what I’ll learn as what I’ll give. BarCamp Yangon has become deservedly famous in the intervening years, from breaking the world record on BarCamp to Aung San Suu Kyi’s opening address at BarCamp 2012. But the real essence of the event isn’t about breaking world records or speeches by Nobel Peace Prize Winners. The real essence of BarCamp is how thousands of people can come together and collaboratively plan an event in real-time, the skill-sharing that happens, the friendships that are made.
It is an honor and privilege to be here in Yangon for the next few days to finally experience the magic of BarCamp Yangon in person. Follow along via twitter, and let me know what you most want to know from my time here!