On a sunny September day at Yangon’s Inya Lake, couples sprawl out on the grass, relaxing under umbrellas on the banks of the water. Until just a few years ago, one of the only ways young couples in socially conservative Myanmar could get to know each other better was to find a quiet spot in a public park and, shielded by an open umbrella, steal a few kisses away from prying eyes. Displays of affection are frowned upon in public spaces like malls or restaurants, but parks offer a cool breeze and privacy.
While parks and lakes still serve as popular dating spots, the way that young people are meeting up has changed. Instead of mingling with friends of friends offline, they’re adding strangers they share mutual friends with on Facebook. Social media has radically changed the way city-dwellers find love; young urbanites are now using Facebook to connect and get into relationships—sometimes before they even meet IRL.
Serendipity on Facebook
Kyaw Oo Min* and Thazin Phyu*, a couple in their early 20s, sit at Inya Lake and insist that they brought the umbrella for shade from the sun. Kyaw Oo Min lives in Yangon, but Thazin Phyu goes to school in Bangkok and her hometown is Kawthaung, a beach town near the Thai border that’s over 1,000 miles southwest of Myanmar’s capital. They’ve known each other for two years, but met in person for the first time a year ago in northern Yangon—after they’d already been an item for about five months.
Like many young couples in Yangon, they got to know each other on Facebook. Kyaw Oo Min and Thazin Phyu met through mutual friends who set up a group chat. Of the nine people in the original chat group, there are now two couples. Thazin’s school is now on break, so she’s back in Yangon to reunite with Kyaw Oo Min.
When I asked how long they’ve been together, Thazin Phyu says, “One year, five months and 14 days!” without hesitation. She knows this because Kyaw Oo Min keeps count on his Facebook bio. The long-distance couple call and text every day; their exchanges are strewn with heart emojis, Facebook stickers, and selfies.
From Facebook to marriage
It’s also common for men to propose to women via Messenger. Feminist activist Nandar says, “They’ll send mass proposals to ten, fifteen girls they’re talking to and then weed them out from there.” Although these proposals aren’t always serious, it shows the collision of a traditional “marriage first” practice colliding with a desire for instant gratification.
Some of those men propose before the couple has even met in person.
Esther Ngun Nei Mawi was living in her hometown in Myanmar’s Chin State in 2014 when she received a friend request from her now-husband Van Bawi Piang on Facebook. He’d been living just outside of Kuala Lumpur for over three years, but managed to court Esther over Facebook, Viber and many phone calls. In 2016, the couple held a wedding ceremony in Chin State sans groom, where his picture was superimposed on to his cousin’s face in a fake wedding photo. Shortly after, Esther packed her bags and moved to Malaysia.
During the first month, Esther was sure she would return home and divorce him if the relationship didn’t work out. However, within that month of living together, she fell in love with him. “He is my best friend,” Esther says. The couple now has a baby named Genevieve, just over a year old.
Keeping in touch with one’s sweetheart used to be tough. Ten years ago, people resorted to phone calls or glitchy Google Talk in internet cafés to get to know each other. SIM cards were a rare luxury until internet carriers dropped their prices in 2014. SIM cards now go for MMK1,500 (USD1), and the Facebook app comes preloaded on to each smartphone—although much has been said about the dangers of hate speech and misinformation, it’s also marked a huge shift in the way people connect, and even how they fall in love.
Although much has been said about the dangers of hate speech and misinformation, Facebook’s also marked a huge shift in the way people connect, and even how they fall in love
In a short period of time, people in Myanmar leapfrogged from having no internet to having a smartphone, opening the country to celebrity gossip, memes, trolling, and a way of making friends that’s easier than ever before. It’s common in Myanmar for people to send friend requests to strangers and friends of friends on Facebook.
Cape Diamond, a 22-year-old Myanmar journalist, says this is in part because Myanmar people are friendly by nature and often want to increase their friend count. “And yes,” he says, inevitably “young people friend each other, start chatting on Facebook Messenger and then meet up for a date.”
Nandar agrees: “I get a lot of friend requests from people, whether or not we have mutual friends. That’s very common.” In fact, Nandar’s former love interest was a Facebook friend-cum-romance. She saw that he posted political cartoons and Burmese literature, and held opinions that intrigued her. They started chatting in 2016 and finally met on New Year’s Eve the following year, but things soured when she found out he already had a girlfriend. “People these days don’t have limits.”
Some things change, others don’t
But despite the Facebook proposals and online flirting, dating norms remain conservative in Myanmar. Men are still expected to be initiators, and to court women. Once in a relationship, social media can also be a way to keep tabs on one’s partner. Men can sometimes become possessive, calling multiple times a day to check up on their girlfriends. Esther’s husband did this when they were dating whenever he saw a tagged photo of her with a male friend on Facebook.
It can also cut the other way. “Social media has made it so that a girl can see that another girl ‘love reacts’ to their boyfriend’s photo, and get suspicious that her boyfriend is cheating on her,” says Cape Diamond.
Double standards also still exist. Soe Lin*, on his first date with Mya Mya Khin* at Inya Lake, says he doesn’t use Facebook much except for checking a girl’s profile before deciding whether he wants to date her. He says he will only date a “good girl who doesn’t go to clubs, drink alcohol or have too many ex-boyfriends.”
He’s been to the club himself, though, when his male friends wanted to go. “It’s a good experience for men to have, just once or twice,” Soe Lin says.
But Nandar says there’s been some changes to cultural attitudes about everlasting love. Exposure to international media and celebrity gossip has changed young people’s view of breakups. Women are inclined to accept that a relationship might not last forever, even if the couple has been dating awhile.
“They see celebrities dating for seven or eight years, then breaking up or divorcing. That’s unheard of in Myanmar culture,” says Nandar. Today, she observes a growing number of couples who date, travel and live together for a few years before settling into marriage.
The urban/rural divide
Still, these changes in dating are only felt in cities, says Pascal Khoo Thwe, the author of From the Land of Green Ghosts, a memoir about his journey from his childhood in a remote jungle village to attending Cambridge University. He observes a disconnect between urban and rural Myanmar youth: “The shift from essentially what was the 19th century to the 21st is both amazing and frightening, but it hardly affects young people in rural communities.”
Social media has, however, been transformative for the LGBT community in Myanmar’s cities. Apps like Facebook and Viber give LGBT people a safe space to meet and connect. Gay and lesbian couples are generally not yet accepted in Myanmar society and those who are out of the closet face discrimination both online and off.
Honey, an LGBT activist and filmmaker, met her partner “Z” three years ago in Viber group chat between lesbian friends. Honey’s ex-girlfriend, who remains a good friend, happened to show Z a photo of Honey on her phone, and Z reached out to Honey on Viber. Over two years, their chatting blossomed into a relationship. As it turns out, Honey and Z had already met in person 12 years ago when Honey was with her ex-girlfriend. But they would never have reconnected without the internet.
The couple had initially met with trouble from Z’s conservative family, who were opposed to their relationship. But Z’s parents eventually came around. Today, Honey is proud of her sexual orientation and posts romantic photos of her and Z on Facebook. Their fame as a lesbian couple in Myanmar has garnered them 3,000 reactions and over 2,000 shares on a recent photo of them in traditional clothing, Honey caressing Z’s face. Of those reactions, 1,200 of them were “love reacts,” though they did receive a few hate comments.
Facebook has provided LGBT events a platform to promote themselves. Yangon’s monthly FAB clubbing nights and &PROUD festivals draw hundreds of attendees and supporters, mainly through promotion on the social media platform.
September’s FAB night featured an Indian-inspired dance performance paying tribute to the Indian Supreme Court’s ruling on Section 377 that decriminalised gay sex. Such events draw people from as far as Kawthaung in the southernmost part of Myanmar: Tun Tun* connected with Yangon native Htet Ko Ko* on Facebook through mutual friends and they met at FAB for the first time.
Tun Tun points to his own wide stature: “I am fat, so I am in the army. But I come all the way to Yangon for this because I love dancing!” He cheers and flamboyantly gyrates to Beyonce’s All the Single Ladies.
Dating apps like Tinder and Grindr have also made their way into Myanmar’s cities, but Tun Lin Oo*, a recent graduate of an American liberal arts college says the dating pool is limited to people with exposure to Western views and culture. The concept of using an app to meet people, LGBT or not, has not yet become widespread. Despite having used dating apps in other countries, Tun Lin Oo stays off them because Yangon’s pool is so small that he ends up swiping past people he already knows.
For all its deep flaws, Facebook has become a place for Myanmar’s urban youth to find love. Nandar gives dating advice to fans who watch her feminist videos. Honey and Z post photos of themselves kissing in public. Shared videos, words and photos can sometimes create a connection. Love can blossom from a row of heart-eye emojis stuck on the end of a message. A stranger sending a friend request can turn into a husband or wife.
*Names changed to protect privacy
Tiffany Teng is an American freelance writer based in Yangon, Myanmar. She writes about culture, food, technology and sustainability.