Sweaty palms as Myanmar stalls telco license decision

burma templeOver on The Register I’ve been following quite closely the carve up of Myamar (Burma) by international technology giants.

This deceptively massive country bordering China, Thailand, India and Laos, has of course only recently opened its doors to the global community after decades of self-imposed exile thanks to rule by a military junta.

So Myanmar not only offers tech firms a market of 60 million+ users to tap, but also offers rich business opportunities for infrastructure providers and could even serve as an outsourcing destination in the years to come.

An IDC report from last year, Myanmar ICT Market 2012–2016 Forecast and Analysis, predicts 15 per cent year-on-year growth in IT spending in 2012, with the market to reach $268.45m (£172.9m) by 2016.

One of the biggest opportunities lies in the telecoms space where global operators have been eyeing up the two licenses set to be awarded this month. However, the decision – due to take place today – was postponed at the last minute until lawmakers pass a new telecommunications law, still be being drafted.

It emerged that an emergency statement was submitted by a telecoms committee urging lawmakers to favour local joint ventures over global bids.

Whether this ends up scuppering the ambitions of France Telecom, Qatar Telecom, Singtel, Telenor and others remains to be seen, but it must be said that some operators are walking a fine line in getting stuck into the country before human rights concerns have been fully allayed.

Human Rights Watch, for example, has been lobbying telcos to boycott the country until legislation is passed which does better to outlaw things like mass surveillance and hardline censorship.

In fact, Vodafone and China Mobile withdrew their joint bid last month, in what some think was a decision influenced by Myanmar’s current failure to protect online freedoms.

John Morrison executive director of the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), told me that if nothing else, the recent NSA debacle has shown that even in western democracies, telcos are vulnerable to mass surveillance requests from governments.

“Given Myanmar’s human rights record it is all the more important that the companies that secure the license to operate in the country do so in a way that respects privacy and free expression,” he added.

“As Myanmar continues political and economic reforms, it should work towards making telecommunications technology a tool for advancing human rights, including guarding against hate speech that incites violence.”

Time will tell whether Myanmar can make a stable transition from repressive hermit state to 21st century Asian tiger, but if it does, technology will be a major driving force.

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