Business / Tech

Unicode in, Zawgyi out: Modernity finally catches up in Myanmar's digital world


Accessing everything from Wikipedia to Google Maps is about to get a lot easier in Myanmar on Tuesday when it finally adopts the universal code underpinning phone and online communication.

Tech experts say the move to bring the country more in step with the rest of the digital world is crucial but will cause chaos in a rocky transition period.

Myanmar is the last nation to embrace Unicode that has significant numbers of people online. Without it, most users see international content — and even a lot from within the country — as meaningless symbols. Major websites can be impossible to read, and translation and voice recognition software do not work.

Oct. 1 is “U-Day,” when Myanmar officially will adopt the new system. From then on, all electronic communication from government offices, telecommunications companies, banks and media must be in Unicode, by law.

Myanmar became a global code anomaly due to isolation under its former military junta.

Microsoft and Apple helped other countries standardize years ago, but Western sanctions meant Myanmar lost out.

IT pioneer Zaw Htut, 47, described this as the final battle won in a decades-long code “war.”

“This is like changing to democracy,” he enthused.

However, making the switch to Unicode will be a turbulent ride, and he warned that initially there will be “chaos.”

Facebook — the main social media platform in the country — has developed automatic conversion software to give users a “seamless experience,” said strategic response team member Sarah Oh.

But many will suddenly be unable to read messages on other apps and from banks or phone operators, and those who switch will no longer be able to communicate with friends still using the old system.

A homegrown rival to Unicode called Zawgyi — pronounced “zaw-jee” and meaning wizard — evolved in Myanmar’s detached digital ecosystem.

Its popularity exploded as the country opened up from 2011 and smartphone use soared.

Today around 90 percent of people use Zawgyi instead of Unicode.

Incompatible without fiddly plug-ins, it only allows people to communicate in Burmese with other Zawgyi users, excluding the nation’s minority languages. Its clunkiness also means search functions do not work, crippling data storage systems.

It could take years to achieve full migration. Zaw Htut compares the abrupt switch to Unicode with the former junta’s overnight decision for Myanmar drivers to drive on the right instead of the left. “But we’re digitally empowering the nation,” he said.

Joox, a regional version of Spotify, said it is impossible to convert the millions of Burmese-language songs on its app.

With the deadline looming, celebrities and influencers are hammering home the need to convert and technicians are preparing for a deluge of queries.

An army of volunteers is helping in online forums and offline at tea shops.

“There’s a lot of confusion,” explained computer science student Tin Lat Nandar, 23, as she updated retirees’ phones at a drop-in session on Sunday.

Yangon street vendor Mi Mi, 35, said she has heard about the switch but does not want to change. “I don’t know how to do it,” she said.

An estimated 10 to 15 percent of mainly older phones will not be advanced enough to convert.

Many cheaper, illegally imported devices come pre-installed with the old system — putting those too poor to buy newer models at a clear disadvantage.

Still, others are excited at the wealth of information now at their fingertips.

“I’ll be able to read Wikipedia in Burmese,” said a beaming Aung Kyaw Oo, 62, as he left a drop-in session.

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