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Just when I sat down to write about Myanmar/Burma’s recent pivot towards technological advancement, I saw online that the country’s President was visiting the White House at that very moment. Ironic. And quite suggestive that Myanmar is taking strides towards openness–and not just technology-based.

For starters, Myanmar finds itself in a completely contrasting position compared to last posts look at Indonesia. To paint a picture of Myanmar’s technology market, the general population is finally gaining access to SIM cards. In the past a SIM card would cost around $200. However now, via lottery system, one can win a SIM a tag-price of only $2 (if your lucky of course.) $2 may sound inexpensive to a Westerner, but this price mirrors that of SIM cards in neighboring countries.

Not too long ago Myanmar was considered the second most isolated and censored country in the world, right behind North Korea. Is it still today? According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in 2012 it ranked in as the #7 most censored country. So while censorship is still high, it is clear the nation is making gestures to open its’ doors. Heck, I even know people who have recently paid a visit to Myanmar and were allowed to take pictures.

At the moment, mobile phone usage is around 4 percent and internet access at 2 percent out of the total population (about 50 million people*). Yet according to the Asia Foundation,”senior leadership in the government, NGOs, and the private sector is increasingly focused on improving the country’s existing technology infrastructure.” Today one will find advertisements for web-service scattered across billboards in Yangon (Myanmar’s commercial capital). Look at Google’s Eric Schmidt’s recent visit to the country as further proof of technological openness.

Another American company moving into Myanmar is Cisco. Just recently the computer systems giant opened two “Networking Academies” at the University of Computer Studies, Yangon (UCSY), and University of Computer Studies, Mandalay (UCSM). Aside from Cisco gaining a foot into Myanmar’s virtually sealed-shut door, the program is also part of the government initiative to build a “Smart and Connected Myanmar.” The two training centers will provide students with critical technology and networking skills to design, build, and maintain the infrastructure highway, while increasing the number of job-ready graduates for the country’s ICT sector.

When analyzing telecommunications in Myanmar, the only way to go is up. Back to SIM cards, Ye Htut, a Presidential spokesman, claimed they are conducting rapid expansion of infrastructure and that the government plans to provide “unlimited numbers” of SIM cards in the near future.

To achieve this promise, Myanmar has opened its’ doors to foreign telecom providers, all of which are vying to enter the nearly-untapped market. Accordingly, acquiring a mobile network license is highly competitive. Myanmar’s government will ultimately only grant two licenses. Initially 22 firms applied for the coveted license (many in consortium with other telecom power-players, like Vodafone and China Mobile). On April 11 the list was cut to only twelve; and the final two will be announced June 27. The Bangkok Post playfully compared the competition to a beauty contest of sorts, for all the firms are trying to woo the judges.

Looking ahead, the government intends to finalize the granting of licences by September. And then start your engines, because the chosen two will have only nine months to launch commercial service. In a recent conference Dr. Set Aung, the chairman of the telecoms selection committee, announced that the government would renege on an a promise made by President Thein Sein in March to reach 80 percent mobile penetration in Myanmar by 2015. Rather the government’s new goal is to reach 50 percent mobile penetration countrywide by 2015.

It probably seems like there’s a lot of outside business coming into the once highly militarized nation. That’s because there is. Just released by CNN (at the time of this post) is a segment regarding Yangon, where a foreign business presence is soaring. The piece interviews the international owner of Centrepoint Towers, a once abandoned building in downtown Yangon. Nowadays, the building is undergoing renovations and opening up once again. And apparently about ninety percent of the people buying office space are from international firms.

You, like I, may be wondering about the Myanmar-based enterprises. Well, aside from the two foreign firms receiving a mobile network license, Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT), the government-owned sole provider of telecoms now, will receive its’ own third license and Yatanarpon Teleport – a distribution arm of MPT – will gain the fourth. Sure, this may not sound like a whole lot. But compared to just several years ago, it is.

An example of (seemingly small to someone unfamiliar with Myanmar) progress made is the Burmese based news site, Mizzima.com. The website was established in 1998 in New Delhi, India, by three veterans of Myanmar’s 1988 pro-democracy uprising. First operating as an exile-based media organization, all of this changed in early 2012 in the wake of domestic reforms in Myanmar. Today, Mizzima is a publicly registered Myanmar company with its headquarters in Yangon, employing approximately 80 full-time staff. Hopefully the future will bring other Burmese ventures.

On the upside, Myanmar has an undeniable geographical advantage located right between India and China. It is also the fifth-most-populous member of the ten-strong ASEAN, with a predominantly younger population.

And while Myanmar may be far behind the rest of the world now, in the 1930’s it was the world’s biggest exporter of rice. Myanmar was also once a hub of garment manufacturing, but sanctions from Europe and US during the military regime choked trade.

Today, international telecom firms are moving in and international business is forming roots in Yangon. Perhaps if the government takes the right steps it can follow a Singapore example– where foreign direct investment brought the country from third world status to first world in a matter of three decades.

So, will Myanmar’s future be bright? Starting so low, it seems like it can only go up.

*Note: Statistics for this article regarding population as well as internet and mobile penetration differed from source to source, probably because obtaining accurate information in a country like Myanmar is difficult.

For additional insight on Myanmar’s development, look to the Brookings Institution analysis of their economy. And for more tech-related information, you can check out Open Technology Fund’s report on internet accessibility. 

 

Image – Obama and Clinton visit Myanmar, as published in NY Daily News November 18, 2012

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