Cell­phone use trans­forms Burmese life

Lesotho Times - - International -

RAN­GOON — In­cense swirls through the air on a dark­en­ing evening, as a Bud­dhist monk sits cross-legged be­fore an an­cient tem­ple, his eyes closed in med­i­ta­tion. His cell­phone rings. The monk fum­bles in his tra­di­tional crim­son robes, speaks for a while, then puts it aside and con­tin­ues med­i­tat­ing.

Just a few years ago, a mo­bile phone was a lux­ury well beyond the reach of or­di­nary cit­i­zens in Burma, also known as Myan­mar, a coun­try iso­lated from the rest of the world dur­ing decades of mil­i­tary rule.

The junta tightly con­trolled who got SIM cards, and just a few years ago black-mar­ket cards cost as much as $2,000.

Less than 10 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion had ac­cess to cel­lu­lar tele­phones, mak­ing the South­east Asian na­tion one of the largest un­tapped mar­kets in the world.

But in re­cent months, cell­phone use in Burma has sky­rock­eted as the quasi-civil­ian gov­ern­ment opened up its mo­bile mar­ket to two for­eign telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies, which launched sales in Au­gust and Septem­ber. As a re­sult, cheap smart­phones are more widely avail­able, and the price of a SIM card has dropped dra­mat­i­cally — to $1.50 (M16.30).

Ear­lier this month, some in Ran­goon braved the rem­nants of a trop­i­cal storm to line up out­side a Te­lenor store, an out­let of the Nor­we­gian tele­com firm that opened here in Septem­ber and al­ready has two mil­lion cus­tomers. Oth­ers shopped in the dark — after the power went out — at a Sam­sung deal­er­ship nearby.

Myint Thein (67) a re­tired gov­ern­ment em­ployee who waited pa­tiently in line, left the store with his first mo­bile phone, which he said he bought at a “very cheap price” — about $20.

“It sur­prises me in my heart that I can ac­tu­ally have a cell­phone,” he said.

Last year, a SIM card cost about $200, a huge ex­pense in a poor coun­try where the av­er­age per capita an­nual in­come is still about $1 000.

Those who could af­ford one prized it like a fam­ily heir­loom, while the rest of the coun- try — pop­u­la­tion 51 mil­lion — made do with old-fash­ioned dial sets at road­side tele­phone stands.

After the Burmese gov­ern­ment be­gan a process of demo­cratic re­form in 2010 un­der a new pres­i­dent, Thein Sein, ex­pand­ing the coun­try’s mo­bile net­work be­came an early pri­or­ity, ex­plained Ross Cor­mack, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Oore­doo Myan­mar, the Burma branch of the Qatar-based company that won the other li­cense awarded by the gov­ern­ment last year.

“It’s one of the last un­pen­e­trated mar­kets in mo­bile,” Cor­mack said. “There was a huge pent-up de­mand.”

Oore­doo Myan­mar serves the ma­jor ci­ties of Ran­goon, Man­dalay and Naypyi­daw, the cap­i­tal, but it is plan­ning to ex­pand into ru­ral ar­eas in the next two years, with the goal of cov­er­ing most of the coun­try in five years.

There is some con­cern about whether the growth of so­cial me­dia will pro­vide a greater plat­form for Bud­dhist-mus­lim hate speech that has plagued the coun­try re­cently.

But most feel that the ex­pan­sion of mo­bile ser­vice to re­mote cor­ners of Burma will have the same ben­e­fits seen in other de­vel­op­ing coun­tries.

Of the more than 6 bil­lion mo­bile phone users world­wide, ac­cord­ing to a 2012 World Bank study, 5 bil­lion are in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, where they now have greater ac­cess to ba­sic health-care in­for­ma­tion, bank­ing and em­ploy­ment. — Wash­ing­ton Post

Un­til re­cently, few peo­ple in once-iso­lated Burma had mo­bile tele­phones.

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