Burma – breaking down barriers

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Known for many years as a land of great resources but scarce interaction with the world at large, Burma today is on the point of becoming one of the planet’s most thriving countries. In recent times the mysterious and closely-guarded nation has undergone political shifts that saw its societal, commercial and physical borders open up and invite the world to come on in and talk business. Hand in hand with this new spirit of openness has gone a hunger for technological developments that could present great opportunities for multinational corporations (MNCs) down the line.

Full disclosure at this point, I’ve spent a lot of time living near to the Burmese border in Northern Thailand, and so find the place quite fascinating. Burma has high levels of English literacy, a legacy of its colonial days under British rule, but has also long been known for its oppressive state and junta administration. Times have changed though.

By 2012 the military control that had for so long kept tight rein on technological advancement and commercial development in Burma had eased, and since then the country has made positive steps. Mobile device penetration remains relatively low at 10 percent – at least compared with the rest of technology-hooked Asia – but the government has plans to drive mobile usage forward dramatically, with an ambitious target of 80 percent penetration by 2016, equivalent to around 48 million new subscriptions. It will be interesting to go back there in a couple of years’ time and see if the masses are walking about with faces glued to their handsets as they already are in South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand and other countries in the region.

IT infrastructure and progress rank high on the new agenda for Burma, and 2013 saw Google Chairman Eric Schmidt take a trip there to discuss internet regulation. Schmidt visited Burma around the time that foreign investment first began to pour into the country, and following his trip sizeable strides were taken. New mobile licenses were made available and mobile operators rushed to snap them up, recognizing the potential within the newly open and reformed marketplace. The licenses were awarded on the understanding that Burma will enjoy 3G connectivity covering at least half of the country by 2015, a dramatic increase on its current situation. I’m certainly looking forward to trying it out on my own next visit there.

Inward investment on the rise

For a while now the world has been watching Burma to see if and when it would be ready to join the community of nations. Next-door neighbour China in particular has been quick to see the investment potential on offer, with Chinese MNCs becoming involved with oil, natural gas, mining and hydropower projects.

The many economic sanctions against Burma have been lifted over the past couple of years and investment has begun to make its way steadily in. In 2012 various financial services companies began operating in Burma, enabling the likes of Visa, MasterCard and Western Union to enter the market.

Tourism is on the up too, with Burma welcoming 67 percent more tourists in 2012 than in the previous year. Naturally these tourists come with expectation levels of being able to communicate as they would do anywhere else, which means 3G and Wi-Fi and eventually the shift to 4G - again highlighting the need for mobile internet connectivity and an improved infrastructure. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve never seen anywhere quite like Southeast Asia for mobile device addiction – so Burma has a lot to live up to. 

Mobile device manufacturers are seeing the potential here too; visit Burma’s capital Yangon today and you will see billboards advertising Asia’s current favourite mobile phone – Samsung – everywhere you look and mobile device shops abound. China’s Huawei is seeing good penetration thanks to its handsets being more affordable than Samsung devices. NGO Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO) educates rural Burmese citizens on how to use mobile internet. Times are changing fast.

The road ahead

Thanks to the changes in legislation and regulation, the technological world can now come to Burma – and will change the country for good. By engaging with the world at large through technology, Burma now opens itself up to a dramatic transformation; where once the internet was banned almost universally, today the new government is embracing its potential to drive systemic change. 

Online services can help improve many aspects of daily and commercial life, while the burgeoning mobile industry will help deliver wide-ranging government services like eGovernment, e-Learning, mobile health and mobile banking.

Recent research revealed that half of Burma’s internet users went online within the past 12 months, while for half the country mobile devices are their sole way to access the internet. As the country continues to deregulate and open itself up to the world, the potential for commercial opportunities and technological development seems clear.

Steve Harris

I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.