Mo­bile phones & democ­racy

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS -

When this writer vis­ited Myan­mar for the first time in 2000 com­mu­ni­ca­tion op­tions in the cap­i­tal city were limited and dread­ful. The in­ter­net was in its in­fancy and the au­thor­i­ties were quite sus­pi­cious of it. In the early years of the new cen­tury the few in­ter­net cafés that were al­lowed to ex­ist had to re­port on their clien­tèle. Home con­nec­tions were a priv­ilige of the elite and priced ac­cord­ingly.

Mak­ing an in­ter­na­tional phone call to Europe dur­ing that first visit re­sulted in a cir­cus, with five Myan­mar as­sist­ing me at the ho­tel re­cep­tion desk and a bill that trans­lated to $9 a minute. The qual­ity didn’t match the price tag; it was hard to un­der­stand what was be­ing said at the other end of the line.

After the phone call I sat down in the restau­rant of the ho­tel, the Yuzana Gar­den Ho­tel, in front of a mir­ror wall. There was no­body in the room and I imag­ined gov­ern­ment spooks sit­ting be­hind that very wall, op­er­at­ing cam­eras and sound record­ing ma­chin­ery of the kind the Rus­sians and the East­ern Ger­mans were so fond of. Those were para­noid days.

But times have changed. The in­ter­net is ev­ery­where, al­beit slow, and Face­book is the new teashop. The mo­bile phone mar­ket has opened up, with Oore­doo and Te­lenor launch­ing cheap ser­vices and state-run provider MPT hold­ing on for dear life and align­ing it­self with a Ja­panese part­ner.

The fran­tic build­ing of new mo­bile phone net­works will re­sult in the pen­e­tra­tion rate rais­ing from less than 10 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion to 80 per­cent by the end of 2015. That is, if the telco gi­ants invest the amounts they pledged and the strug­gling tow­er­cos find the money needed to keep build­ing their hideous metal struc­tures.

The im­pact of mo­bile con­nec­tiv­ity on so­ci­eties is not to be un­der­es­ti­mated. Easy ac­cess to mar­ket prices will al­low farm­ers to elim­i­nate bro­kers and the dodgy prices they tend to work with from the pic­ture. Mo­bile phones will democra­tise agri­cul­ture and eman­ci­pate farm­ers.

Mo­bile bank­ing will have sim­i­lar ef­fects. The leap frog to a bank­ing sys­tem founded on mo­bile trans­ac­tions will pave the way for a tran­si­tion from a cash-based to a mod­ern credit- based econ­omy. Again, this will not only help farm­ers – 70 per­cent of the coun­try still de­pends on farm­ing to make a liv­ing – to get ac­cess to credit and ar­range eas­ier and fairer pay­ment, it will also help curb cor­rup­tion.

Some might think the mo­men­tum of the re­form process is wan­ing, but the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions revo­lu­tion will be one of the rea­sons why pos­i­tive change will pre­vail in Myan­mar in the end. [Marnix Krouwel]

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