Notes from the Field

Building a Technology Future in Burma/Myanmar

April 3, 2013

Driving from the airport down the gridlocked streets of Yangon – with people of all ages going about their business in patterned longyis – it’s hard not to notice the dozens of billboards jutting out at eye level advertising web services and brand name mobile devices.

Mobile phone billboards in Myanmar

Though mobile and internet penetration rates are still very low in Burma, billboards advertising new phones and technology devices are becoming more prevalent. Photo/Michelle Chang Rodriguez

Though mobile and internet penetration rates are still very low (no higher than four and two percent, respectively, of Burma’s 50 million people), senior leadership in the government, NGOs, and the private sector is increasingly focused on improving the country’s existing technology infrastructure. These collective efforts to loosen censorship laws, extend telecommunications licenses to foreign operators, and develop new legal frameworks for eGovernment and information and communications technology (ICT) are likely to not only ramp up mobile penetration rates, but also bring greater access to information for Burma’s citizens.

These legal frameworks play a critical role in setting the foundation for increased access to information and more open dialogue and participation between government and citizens. Burma has reached a critical moment in time where getting these legal frameworks right has the potential to define and accelerate the country’s political, economic, and social transformation. What’s also needed now more than ever is to ensure committed coordination, learning, and dialogue among diverse stakeholders on lawmaking processes. Such consultation and collaboration from both international, external, and cross-sectoral actors can advance the way in which Burma’s government, private sector, and citizens interact and engage.

Over the last week, The Asia Foundation’s director of Digital Media and Technology Programs, John Karr, and I traveled to Burma to discuss the country’s ICT future with many of the country’s senior government officials, private sector individuals, and NGOs. Our trip also coincided with Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s first visit to the country. We were invited to attend an event where Schmidt spoke to a packed room full of young Burmese entrepreneurs and university students. He urged them to build prosperity for their country with the power of the web, mobile phone, and freedom of internet speech.

Schmidt’s visit comes at a time when Burma is seeing unprecedented foreign interest and investment. What’s crucial at this stage is designing an effective set of key ICT-related laws and regulations to allow for long-term implementation to be successful. Burma’s leaders have already declared that ICT development and telecommunications sector reform are among the prerequisites to building a more connected and regionally competitive Burma. Prior to this period of opening, little investment had been allocated to infrastructure development, internet freedom, or privatization of operators. To date, no private telecommunication entities are allowed to operate within the country. Now, government leaders are envisioning a country in which at least 50 percent of the population will have 3G connectivity by 2015.

The new draft telecommunications law is expected to open up competition to two foreign licenses for private operators to extend these services to citizens. This law will influence the way that government and citizens interact for decades to come. International technical and legal expertise as well as a convening body will be helpful to push Burma’s law-drafting process in the right direction.
It is these types of legal frameworks that can also set the stage for a robust mobile industry that can deliver far-reaching government services such as eGovernment, e-Learning, mobile health, and mobile banking.

For example, eGovernment can improve transparency and accountability between citizens and national and local government, and promote more efficient internal workflow processes that will benefit the government, businesses, and society at large. ICT-driven government-to-citizen services can decrease cost, increase efficiency, promote transparency and accountability, and reduce corruption across a range of web-enabled services such as birth registration, business licensing, land registration, health, and education. Mobile phone applications can also power these services and deliver information to millions of Burmese across the country. With few if any legacy applications that require integration with new eGovernment platforms and a market clamoring for mass cell phone adoption, Burma has an opportunity to even leapfrog ahead of some of its neighbors. Already, Burma’s leaders are demonstrating that commitment to their country.

Michelle Chang Rodriguez is The Asia Foundation’s ICT program coordinator in the Digital Media and Technology Programs unit. She can be reached at michelle@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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