Will New Telecom Law Secure Freedoms in Myanmar Connectivity Developments?

Dr. Andrea Calderaro, a researcher at the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom at the European University Institute, outlines the open consultation on Myanmar’s draft telecom law. 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

In the midst of Myanmar’s current period of dramatic reforms, developing a national connectivity plan is a key priority on the government’s agenda. As illustrated in my previous discussion about ongoing connectivity building in Myanmar (see Digitalizing Myanmar: Connectivity Developments in Political Transitions), in order to safeguard citizens’ freedoms and secure the telecom infrastructure development from political uncertainty, the government must first set rules for this connectivity plan and frame its policy implementations. The design and release of the country’s telecom law provides an important opportunity to better understand the credibility of Myanmar’s ongoing reform process and is a key step forward for connectivity development in the country.

In accordance with one of the main “best practices” in telecom reform, the Myanmar government launched an open consultation in order to gather recommendations and feedback on the draft version of the law before its final release. This consultation invited multiple stakeholders to contribute through a public, transparent, and open process. The draft law was made available online in English for an international public consultation from November 4th to December 2nd 2013. As a result, 21 different stakeholders, including international telecom hardware supply companies, mobile operators, NGOs, local civil society organizations, and foreign governments (namely the U.S. government), submitted their policy recommendations.

This international open consultation launch was no small feat. After years of autocratic regime in Myanmar, this transparent and inclusive process opened up new spaces of dialogues between governments, citizens, and international companies. Moreover, this created an opportunity for parties to publicly commit to and position themselves within Myanmar’s telecom reform discussion. This can be viewed as an opportunity for various stakeholders to strengthen potential synergies and collaborations amongst each other. As the debate on internet freedom in Myanmar has just begun, this is an important first step in developing cooperation for future policy debates on telecom in the country.

In regards to the actual stakeholder feedback on the draft law, given the variety of stakeholders involved in Myanmar’s connectivity reform plan, reactions to the law and expectations for it were equally diverse. Most stakeholders responded positively to the proposed version of the telecom law, however, some raised concerns. Major concerns expressed by multiple parties involved the interconnection between national telecommunication bodies, and the government’s predominant influence in the connectivity infrastructure’s regulation.

Currently the regulatory body in Myanmar is the state controlled Posts and Telecommunications Department (PTD), a department within the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (MCIT). In order to ensure a transparent and secure telecom market, governments are supposed to withdraw from a regulatory position, and a neutral regulatory body must take over this role. The distinction between a neutral regulatory body and the government’s role in regulation is not completely clear in the draft law. The law instead designs a regulatory system composed of a complex hierarchical structure in which the government appears to be involved, especially in the licensing process. The hierarchical regulatory system proposed exposes the licensing process to several weaknesses including a complex bureaucracy machine, which will likely hinder the licensing process’s efficiency and increase chances of corruption. Most importantly, the proposed regulatory system maintains the central role of the MCIT, which could result in political control over the national telecom market and the services of mobile operators.

Establishing an independent regulatory body is currently difficult due to the lack of local expertise on telecom freedoms and regulation. This, however, is a critical step since the country’s connectivity building and policy framework is still largely controlled by the government. While this is not necessarily a threat to Myanmar’s telecom framework and its citizens’ freedoms, it is certainly a serious weakness to the overall reform process. The establishment of an independent regulator is therefore key to the success of Myanmar’s connectivity building, and it is expected to happen within 2 years (by 2015). This remains the next fundamental challenge for Myanmar’s connectivity development and telecom reform—a challenge that must be followed with high interest.

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Featured Photo Credit: Andrea Calderaro

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