On Zawgyi’s slow march towards death

Last month, the Burmese tech community joined hands with the national Ministry of Transport and Communications to launch the Myanmar Unicode Migration initiative, which has sparked and garnered greater attention from Burmese media (e.g., on 7 Day, BBC, DVB, Eleven Media, VOA, Myanmar Business Today, etc.).

I’ve been a steadfast advocate for Unicode, especially as operating systems in recent years, from iOS and Android to Windows, have all come to provide built-in “out-of-the-box” support for Burmese Unicode. It’s been many years in the making, even landing on the country’s Myanmar e-Governance Master Plan (2016-2020) back in 2015. However, there was scant progress for the next several years.

So what’s the plan?

Image may contain: text

In a migration roadmap published by the Myanmar Computer Federation (MCF), government agencies began the migration process in April. Up next are the following players, who have an official deadline of October 1.

  • Telecom and mobile network operator (MNOs)
  • Media and content providers
  • NGO, CSO, FI, and public organizations
  • Developers and tech communities

On an promising note, I noted that 3 of the 4 major telecom providers, have published KB / support documentation for customers:

Telecomမြန်မာစာEnglish
Telenor
Ooredoo
MPT
Mytel

Telenor has even gone a step above, producing digestible video content and offering real-time support to end users:

Sadly though, the migration roadmap is noticeably light on metrics to benchmark and assess the success of these migration efforts. The roadmap also lacks enforcement mechanisms – there are no incentives or penalties for non-compliance. Hence, it will likely be the first in a series of migration waves, because adoption will require buy-in…

Where the rubber meets the road

Despite the publicity and increased awareness, the reality of migration is much more complex, and getting adoption will not be easy.

For many years, the Zawgyi – Unicode divide has been a complete and utter nightmare for Burmese language users like myself, who have to actively straddle between 2 competing worlds, because Zawgyi and Unicode cannot co-exist as standards. (I’ll spare you the history, but Frontier Myanmar has an excellent piece.) As a native Unicode user, the majority of Burmese language content I consume online is complete gibberish (see text on the right column):

I’ve tried in vain to convince my own family and friends to adopt Unicode. In the end, I caved in, learning to swiftly convert my texts and messages from Unicode to Zawgyi, and vice versa to accommodate my own social circle.

Which brings me to the next point. Awareness is simply not enough. Until Unicode adoption hits an inflection point and reaches a critical mass of users, migration efforts will stall. Nobody wants to be the first mover. Billions of Facebook posts, Viber messages and Tiktok posts remain in Zawgyi today.

Without the buy-in of tech companies beyond the country, working hand in hand to facilitate this important migration, progress will stall. This is especially crucial in a country that is rapidly reaching a saturation point: in 2018, the country had over 50 million mobile subscribers, a far cry from the 375,800 subscribers in 2008.

Case study: Facebook

As of January 2019, Facebook users from Burma numbered 21 million strong, accounting for almost 40% of the population. A report commissioned in 2018 by Facebook itself recommended the need for Facebook to support the Unicode migration (as a means of improving content oversight):

Continue to participate in the Unicode transition campaign.
Facebook has a critical and decisive role to play in the transition to Unicode, such as removing Zawgyi as an option for new Facebook users and improving font converters for existing users.

BSR, 2018. “Human Rights Impact Assessment: Facebook in Myanmar.”

These sentiments were echoed in an August 2018 Newsroom update:

We’re also working to make it easier for people to report content in the first place. One of the biggest problems we face is the way text is displayed in Myanmar. Unicode is the global industry standard to encode and display fonts, including for Burmese and other local Myanmar languages. However, over 90% of phones in Myanmar use Zawgyi, which is only used to display Burmese. This means that someone with a Zawgyi phone can’t read websites, posts or Facebook Help Center instructions written in Unicode properly. Myanmar is switching to Unicode, and we’re helping by removing Zawgyi as an option for new Facebook users and improving font converters for existing ones. This will not affect people’s posts but it will standardize how they see buttons, Help Center instructions and reporting tools in the Facebook app.

Facebook Newsroom. 15 Aug 2018 “Update on Myanmar.”

However, even amid the public outcry over Facebook’s poor policing of Burmese language hate speech on the platform, the tech giant has done little to meaningfully service the country’s digital gaps. A year on, Facebook still has not implemented controls and tools to oversee and convert Zawgyi text, which continues to proliferate at a rapid clip on the platform. Search interoperability between Zawgyi and Unicode remains non-existent on Facebook. By contrast, Google has a built-in conversion engine that allows Unicode users to search for Zawgyi content across its platform, from Google Search to Youtube. It’s a sad state for the most widely adopted social network in Myanmar.

What’s next?

As I write, we are 6 days away from the official migration deadline. But if history is any bellwether, things won’t change overnight. This won’t be the last we hear of a migration effort, unfortunately.

Long story short, Zawgyi will die a slow, painful death as Unicode adoption grows, organically adopted by a few families and social circles at a time. But official endorsement from the government and tech community at large means Unicode is future-proof. Meanwhile Zawgyi will one day be relegated to the dustbins like its forebears, the Win family of fonts (which also died a slow death during Zawgyi’s ascent). And for that, I’m grateful.

How can I migrate?

If you’re interested in migrating away from Zawgyi, you can consult the following resources and tools:

One thought on “On Zawgyi’s slow march towards death

  1. Johnny Knox says:

    Great post! Thanks for your write up in English. Glad to see that Telenor produced a quality video on the subject. I think the key to adaption is emotional engagement. Users need to understand in a broad sense that Unicode somehow benefits them and that they are going to get “left behind” if they don’t take action. Funny videos with star celebrities would do the trick. Most users don’t need to know technical details, but just need to know what actions to take. Small (and big) phone shops could easily set up a service to “upgrade” phones to Unicode. This could be a small fee (2000ks) or free to customers. This would make it easier for the average person who gets lost with words like settings, encodings, upgrades and .apkg package. I was told from a Facebook staff member that there already is setup auto-converting between encodings of posts and messages on Facebook and Messenger. My experience has been mixed with sometimes it working but older devices without updates not supporting the auto-convert. My recommendation would be to store everything in Unicode on the database and convert back to Zawgyi for old phones from server-side. On Oct 1 start attaching an additional small message to Zawgyi users that says, “You need to upgrade your font to continue to access facebook content.” This would quickly push the audience in the right direction. Facebook is the internet for the majority of people in Myanmar. If they need to upgrade to read facebook again it would happen incredibly fast. Facebook has the greatest power to make the change happen.

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