Digitalizing Myanmar: Connectivity Developments in Political Transitions

Dr. Andrea Calderaro is a researcher at the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom at the European University Institute, and his work focuses on ICTs and International Affairs. He is currently engaged in research on connectivity building and telecom reforms happening in Myanmar with CGCS’s Internet Policy Observatory. Follow him on twitter at: @andreacalderaro

Following decades of isolation, Myanmar is undergoing a profound and sudden political transition. This transition includes the rapid development of the country’s telecommunication infrastructures and related policy framework. With one of the lowest internet and mobile subscriber rates in the world, building connectivity in Myanmar is facing multiple challenges from both infrastructural and policy perspectives. (Please see Monroe Price’s blog posts on the policy challenges in Myanmar here and here).

As Myanmar builds connectivity infrastructure, it is necessary that the country also implements a regulatory framework that both secures citizens’ freedom of expression and digital rights, and creates an open and transparent telecom framework. This is particularly true as the government still lacks a clear political agenda that establishes the necessary conditions for securing telecom developments in an uncertain political climate.

Ongoing connectivity development in Myanmar can be identified along three functional dimensions based on initiatives launched by the government that remain only partially completed. These  dimensions are complementary yet parallel, including:

(1) Licensing: A public open international competition for the assignment of telecom licensees, and their actual release;

(2) Design and Release of a national telecom law: Defining a set of rules guiding the development of telecom infrastructure, including licensing regulations, securing an open market, and protecting the freedoms of both investors and citizens;

(3) Establishing an independent telecom regulator: Establishing a national telecom regulatory agency, independent from the Ministry and its political agenda, ensuring and monitoring therefore the application of telecom regulation.

Among these dimensions, licensing is the first and only finished step on the country’s telecom development path. In June 2013, the government opened its internal telecommunication market to international operators with the goal of enhancing connectivity in the country. Among the more than 90 companies vying for the license, the government awarded two new mobile phones licenses to the Qatari company Ooredoo, and the Norwegian Telenor. Together, Ooredoo and Telenor have committed to connect more than 90% of the territory over the next 5 years. After decades of repression and control in the Myanmar, over the coming years, these international mobile operators will face the challenge of convincingly demonstrating their corporate social responsibility.

Contrary to what is suggested by the “UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” and the EU Commission’s ICT Sector Guide on Implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, Ooredoo does not have a clear corporate policy regarding freedom of expression and digital rights, and has never produced evidence of a commitment to human rights. Instead, Ooredoo has a history of accepting the Qatari government’s internet censorship requests by blocking VoIP Skype services in the country and using SmartFilter to block websites deemed inappropriate for the national morality and customs. Ooredoo faces additional problems as its perception as a “Muslim” company has been negatively received by Myanmar’s Buddhist leaders. As internal religious tensions between the country’s 90% Buddhist population and 4-8% Muslim minority have caused an increasing number of violent episodes and conflicts, Ooredoo faces a serious challenge in easing this potential conflict.

In contrast to Ooredoo, Telenor is member of the Telecommunication Industry Dialogues, which recently published a joint document on “Guiding Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy.”  Telenor also released its own policy document, in which it publicly commits to respecting freedom of expression and right to privacy. The company, however, still keeps doors open for collaborations with governments. Telenor is open to disclosing customer information and shutting down its services when the governmental request is considered “appropriate,” though the company does not specify what conditions are deemed “appropriate.” With the political uncertainty following years of repression in Myanmar, Telenor’s policy documents may not be sufficient enough to secure the freedom of its services and the privacy of its customers.

Although the Myanmar government assigned the mobile licenses in June 2013, the operators only received their licenses and permission to implement their mission on January 30, 2014. Having now received their licenses, both Ooredoo and Telenor announced that they will begin offering services in June 2014. This delay was caused by the absence of a national telecom law in Myanmar (identified in this paper as the second functional dimension for Myanmar’s telecom reform), required to set both the rules for the licensing process and the conditions of the national telecom market. Distributing licensing has been an important milestone for Myanmar’s telecom development, however issues such as debates on Myanmar’s internet freedom, the implementation of a new telecom law, and the establishment of an independent regulator have just begun and will be the next crucial steps of reform in Myanmar. The investigation of these following stages of the country’s telecom reform is central to my work, addressing the dynamics surrounding connectivity building in an (post)authoritarian regime in transition such as Myanmar.

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Featured Photo Credit: Andrea Calderaro

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