Burmese is the dominant language of Myanmar, but its had a long and winding journey in the digital realm, and now there is a tension between two competing systems to represent it online.
Unlike Latin script or pictograph scripts like Chinese, Burmese doesn’t use spaces between words and generally doesn’t fit into nice, tidy blocks that are easy for computers to render on a screen.
Almost all languages have fonts that adhere to the Unicode standard for the consistent encoding, representation and handling of text. In Myanmar the development of Unicode compliance had a very slow start, and until recently, there wasn’t a strong Unicode standard.
To help Myanmar enter the digital age, a group of individuals produced the Zawgyi font to represent Burmese script. Most of the tech elite learned to type using Zawgyi, and like the American Qwerty system, the network effects – from keyboards to typing classes – has made Zawgyi the most widely used font. However, its popularity doesn’t mean Zawgyi is the best font to use.
Technologically, Zawgyi is a nightmare for backend software development, as it requires extensive customization to present the font correctly. The font itself also needs to be installed on computers or mobile phones, which can be a technical hurtle for novice users.
But culturally, there is an even greater imperative to use Unicode instead of Zawgyi. Zawgyi is useless for typing other ethnic Myanmar languages that use Burmese script, like Sanksrit, Shan, and Mon. Myanmar already has a rocky history (past and present) with ethnic minorities, and we should not use any digital tool that excludes them or presents a barrier to their digital voice.
Unicode fonts support 11 languages that use the Myanmar script, including Burmese, Pali, Sanskrit, Mon, Shan, Kayah, Rumai Palaung, and four Karen languages. Unicode is now standard on Android devices, which are and will be the most popular way to get online in Myanmar, and over 30% of Myanmar government websites use Unicode.
So it is time for all of us to use Unicode fonts to communicate in Myanmar, so we can truly communicate with everyone.