Mobile phones & democracy
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]