INTERNET AND COMMUNICATIONS IN MYANMAR

INTERNET IN MYANMAR

According to Freedom House’s 2012 Report: “Access to the internet is expensive, tightly regulated, and censored, with the government controlling all of the several dozen domestic internet service providers. In addition to the poor infrastructure in the country, these factors mean that only 1 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2011. [Source: Freedom House]

The number of Internet used in Myanmar is one of the lowest of any country in the world. Internet users: 110,000 (2009), country comparison to the world: 158 Internet country code: .mm ; Internet hosts: 1,055 (2012), country comparison to the world: 172. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

For a long time private citizens were not allowed access to the Internet. It is generally impossible read your e-mail. Some people can have e-mail accounts operated on a store-and-forward basis, which allows the government to monitor and block it. Access to the Web is allowed at Internet cafes and some educational and business institutions, but a national system blocks sites considered objectionable by the junta.

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “Nay Phone Latt, a blogger who was arrested in 2008 for coordinating anti-regime protests, discovered, during his trial, that the judge and the prosecutors had a tenuous grip on twenty-first-century technology: “They knew that I was a blogger, but they thought the word was ‘blocker,’ that I was creating economic ‘blocks’ against the country or something. I could see from their faces that they weren’t joking. They had never heard the word ‘blog.’ ” (He was sentenced to twenty years and six months in prison, but was released in January.)” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012]

Enterprising young techies have found ways to bypass the controls and have developed a lively online community. Hannah Beech wrote in Time, “Suu Kyi, a woman who first used a cell phone on the day of her release, says she's committed to nurturing a new generation of technologically savvy political youth. "The advantage is they're very electronic. They can communicate with the world," she says, referring to the NLD youth wing's members who use Facebook to debate politics when there's enough electricity to power computers. "Everything goes on the Internet. Did you know that?" The equalizing power of the digital revolution ties in nicely with the philosophy that has inspired Suu Kyi, that of Czech dissident and fellow Peace Prize laureate Vaclav Havel, who wrote of "the power of the powerless." "My very top priority is for people to understand that they have the power to change things themselves," she says. "Then we can do it together. Then we'll be home and dry." [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, December 29, 2010]

Internet Serviced in Myanmar in the Early 2000s

As of 2003, there were only two Internet cafes in Yangon and they were the only ones in the country, and only 5,000 people had access to the Internet. At that time universities had Internet access and the government was installing a number of firewalls, filters and other limiting technology.

In 2003 the Internet cafes charged $1.50 an hour for Internet usage, a lot of money for Myanmar citizens. Many users it seems were just there to play video games or check employment- and education-related sites. Pornography sites and e-mail were blocked. Checking out an anti-government websites or sites deemed “detrimental” to Myanmar or its “current policies and secret security affairs” could land one in prison. One of Yangon’s Internet cafes, Surf n’ Surf, had a sign that read ”We don’t provide any pornography, free e-mail, anti-government Web site, due to strictly prohibited by authority.”

In 2003 anyone who wanted e-mail service had to purchase it from an expensive government-authorized service. Even five-star hotel business services did not offer Internet connections. One law set the punishment at 15 years for possession of a modem. Once, six soldiers and a colonel were arrested for checking out an anti-government website. In the late 2000s Myanmar's military rulers were still banning access to news sites and even to web-based email services such as Yahoo or Hotmail.

Online Censorship in Myanmar

According to Freedom House: While there are no existing laws on monitoring internet communication, the government tracks internet activity and blocks certain websites, including some foreign news sources and foreign-hosted email services. However, in September, Reporters Without Borders confirmed that access to a number of previously banned foreign news websites—including the British Broadcasting Corporation, Reuters, the Bangkok Post, the Straits Times, Radio Free Asia, Irrawaddy, Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma, Voice of America, Burmese service—had been unblocked, although internet connections continued to be very slow. In addition, a range of e-mail, blog, and social-media sites, including Gmail, Facebook, and YouTube, were unblocked. [Source: Freedom House]

Since an elected, though still military-backed, government took power in 2011, people have been using the Internet and social media in increasing numbers, and the press has been unshackled, with censorship mostly dropped and privately owned daily newspapers expected to hit the streets in the next few months.

The Paris-based Reporters Without Frontiers has described Myanmar as “one of the countries most shut off from the Internet.” and named it as one of 13 worst countries for online censorship. The group called Myanmar's legislation on Internet use, the Electronic Act, as "one of the most liberticidal laws in the world". According to a report a May 2007 by the OpenNet Initiative Myanmar employs one of the most extensive filters on political sites in the world.

Twitter is banned in Myanmar but can be accessed easily through proxy servers, as is the case with many other barred Web sites. Aung San Suu Kyi told Time the Myanmar censors “cannot keep even these young people - boys - cut off completely from the rest of the world.”

Describing Myanmar in 2005, Richard Paddock wrote in Los Angeles Times, “Access to Internet sites is limited and e-mail is delayed so government minders have time to read it. There are few cellphones, and foreign publications are censored. Some people get around it, including Internet users who have become expert at accessing restricted websites. [Source: Richard Paddock, Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2005 ]

AFP reported. The military was outraged by the bloggers during pro-democracy protests in September, when they provided detailed running accounts of the violence and helped spread the news from a country where media access is severely curtailed. The junta cut off the nation's Internet links at the height of the violence, choking off the flow of information about the crackdown. [Source: AFP, January 29, 2008]

Arrest of Popular Blogger in Myanmar

In January 2009, a popular blogger who belongs to Aung San Suu Kyi's pro-democracy party was arrested for violating Myanmar’s nation's tough Internet controls. AFP reported: Blogger Nay Phone Latt and another man were arrested Tuesday, according to Nyan Win, spokesman for the National League for Democracy (NLD) party. "We still don't know exactly why they were arrested, but he had a lot of knowledge and experience with computers," the spokesman told AFP.The other man arrested was believed to be a member of NLD's youth wing, but the party was still trying to identify him, Nyan Win said. [Source: AFP, January 29, 2008///]

“Nay Phone Latt He made his name through political commentary and poetry on his blog, which he set up to avoid press censorship and which soon became an important source of news on isolated Myanmar for the outside world. His blog was written in Burmese and in the style of a novel. He used it as a forum to discuss the difficulties of daily life, such as the power outages that last most of the day and the rising cost of living. ///

Nay Phone Latt “was among activists rounded up for their links to the "Saffron Revolution" monk-led protests against the junta in 2007, and believes he was punished for both his blogging and support for opponents of the generals. His sentence was later reduced to 12 years and cut short in January, when the new government released hundreds of political prisoners -- one of a series of reforms sweeping the country. "To frighten the other bloggers and other IT-related youth, they sentenced me to so many years," he told AFP, in English, over a cup of coffee in his hometown of Yangon, which is dotted with popular Internet cafes. [Source: Rachel O'Brien, AFP, February 24, 2012 \\\]

“Specific accusations against him included storing caricatures of the junta chief, found in his email inbox, and giving out CDs of performances by a satirical entertainment troupe. "I don't know what crime I have committed, I really don't know that," said Nay Phone Latt, who also owned and ran two cyber cafes before his arrest. The authorities, he added, hated bloggers and "did not understand the Internet and technology". \\\

Freed Myanmar Blogger Vows to Pushes 'People's Voice'

Rachel O'Brien of AFP wrote: “Aside from an emotional reunion with family and friends, Myanmar blogger Nay Phone Latt knew exactly what he wanted to do after his release from prison: get back online. It was a bold move, given that his Internet activities landed him a two-decade jail term back in 2008 under the former military regime."There are so many friends online who supported me via my blog," said the 32-year-old, a few weeks into his newfound freedom. "So what I wanted to do when I was released was to go online and post a new post." [Source: Rachel O'Brien, AFP, February 24, 2012 \\\]

“While detained in his own country, Nay Phone Latt was feted from abroad, winning the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in New York for showing the "strength of the creative spirit" in the face of repression. On the military regime in Myanmar he told AFP, "I don't think that they will turn back again..."They cannot change their uniform to the military so easily, so they want to go on, but this progress can slow and stop. This all depends on all of the people in our country". \\\

“Nay Phone Latt is especially keen to see reform of Myanmar's legislation on Internet use, the Electronic Act. He has no plans to become a politician himself, but neither does he intend to keep quiet as he tastes his new freedom, despite his ordeal behind bars. His plans include furthering IT education in rural Myanmar, where many are still without access to the Internet, and publishing a book of "so many articles, letters and short stories and poems I have written in the prison". \\\

“For Myanmar's reform to keep momentum, citizens must keep on speaking out -- "now they are listening to the people's voice", said Nay Phone Latt. "They have got to give freedom of expression, so we need not be afraid of anything," he said. "We have to say loudly and we have to say freely and we have to say bravely". \\\

Cyberattacks in Myanma

In September 2008, Reuters reported: “Myanmar’s military junta has launched a series of crippling cyberspace attacks on dissident websites on the first anniversary of major protest marches by Buddhist monks, the sites said. The Irrawaddy, a Thailand-based weekly journal and website (www.irrawaddy.org) covering the nation, described the online assault as persistent and “very sophisticated”. In a posting on a temporary site hosted on a back-up server, it also made a direct connection between the start of the cyber-attack on Wednesday and the monk-led protests that began in Yangon on September 18 last year. “Burma’s military authorities obviously did not want any similar sentiments this year and, once again, shot down their enemies,” Irrawaddy editor Aung Zaw said. There were similar outages at the Burmese-language New Era Journal and the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) (www.dvb.no), an Olso-based news outlet that aired footage and images of the 2007 protests and the ensuing crackdown, in which at least 31 people were killed. [Source: Reuters, September 20, 2008 <>]

“Irrawaddy said Thai web host I-NET had confirmed its site had been under “distributed denial-of-service” assault. In “denial-of-service” attacks a website is bombarded with so much traffic it grinds to a halt. The Internet inside Myanmar had also been running even slower than its normal snail’s pace this week and Internet cafes had come under unusually tight surveillance, the Irrawaddy said, suggesting junta unease at the protest anniversary. Security was also tight on the streets of Yangon, with some vehicle checkpoints, one diplomat said. <>

In November 2010, the BBC reported: “An ongoing computer attack has knocked Burma off the Internet, just days ahead of its first election in 20 years. The attack started in late October but has grown in the last few days to overwhelm the nation's link to the net, said security firm Arbor Networks. Reports from Burma say the disruption is ongoing. The attack, which is believed to have started on 25 October, comes ahead of closely-watched national elections on 7 November. [Source: BBC, November 4, 2010 ><]

“It will raise suspicions that Burma's military authorities could be trying to restrict the flow of information over the election period. The Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack, as it is known, works by flooding a target with too much data for it to handle. The "distributed" element of it means that it involves PCs spread all over the world. These networks of enslaved computers - known as "botnets" - are typically hijacked home computers that have been compromised by a virus. ><

“They are typically rented out by cyber criminals for various means, including web attacks. They can be called into action and controlled from across the internet. Burma links to the wider net via cables and satellites that, at most, can support data transfers of 45 megabits of data per second. At its height, the attack was pummelling Burma's connections to the wider net with about 10-15 gigabits of data every second. Writing about the attack, Dr Craig Labovitz from Arbor Networks said the volume of traffic traffic was "several hundred times more than enough" to swamp these links. The result, said Dr Labovitz, had disrupted network traffic in and out of the nation. ><

“He said the attack was sophisticated in that it rolled together several different types of DDoS attacks and traffic was coming from many different sources. At time of writing, attempts to contact IP addresses in the block owned by Burma and its telecoms firms timed out, suggesting the attack is still under way. "Our technicians have been trying to prevent cyber attacks from other countries," a spokesperson from Yatanarpon Teleport told the AFP news agency. Mr Labovitz said that he did not know the motivation for the attack but said that analysis of similar events in the past had found motives that ran the gamut "from politically motivated DDoS, government censorship, extortion and stock manipulation." He also noted that the current wave of traffic was "significantly larger" than high-profile attacks against Georgia and Estonia in 2007. ><

Myanmar Gradually Goes Online

In March 2012, The Economist reported: “Myanmar's government continues to surprise the world with its new-found tolerance for change. Its apparent willingness to nurture a fledgling IT sector is no exception. Myanmar has lowered its firewalls, opening access to social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. People can read international newspapers online or chat with family abroad via Skype. Sponsors of BarCamp included the telecommunications ministry. [Source: The Economist , March 3, 2012 **]

“Though the government now acknowledges the importance of an IT industry for economic development, much work remains. Few people in Myanmar own computers and only a handful can afford the sort of connectivity that is commonplace elsewhere. Setting up an internet connection costs $850, and monthly packages range between $40 and $150. A SIM card for a mobile phone will set you back $700. **

Yet demand for IT is soaring. Firms from Asia and the West are paying unofficial visits, and local companies are scrambling to become their partners. The government faces a barrage of proposals on how to lower the cost of mobile phones and how to build data centers to compete with those in India and the Philippines. A call center was recently established, and there are even online-shopping sites in the works. Transactions online are widely expected to start this year: the infrastructure is ready and a payment union has been formed. Yet despite these encouraging signs of liberalisation, no one expects Myanmar's cyber-awakening to progress at broadband speed. **

In 2012, BarCamp, a get-together of tech geeks, held its biggest event since its founding in Silicon Valley in 2005. More than 5,000 developers and bloggers gathered in Yangon. The star speaker was the country's opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

In the March 2013 the chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, visited Rangoon to lend support to encouraging telecommunications development. “The Internet will make it impossible to go back,” Schmidt was quoted by Radio Free Asia as telling students. “The Internet, once in place, guarantees that communication and empowerment become the law and practice of your country.”

Internet, Politics and Racism in Myanmar

Facebook is the main forum for popular political discussion in Myanmar. It also has been used to stir up racist and anti-Muslim sentiments. According to Reuters: “Sectarian hatred in towns and villages in Rakhine State is mirrored online. "They should shoot at least one (to) make them shut up," read a comment on Facebook under a photo purporting to show rioting Muslims. Twitter users are railing against "Rohingya terrorists," one under the hashtag "#OneThingWeAllHate". These sentiments were echoed by nationalistic blogs such as Won Thar Nu, which ran gruesome photos of what it said were Buddhist victims. It accused the Rohingya of staging a "foreign invasion". [Source: Reuters, June 11, 2012]

“Anti-Muslim postings on Facebook, including those with images of the recent deaths and destruction in Meikhtila, have been ‘liked’ by thousands and solicit approving howls from Burmese netizens who show no restraint in expressing their neo-Nazi views in public on-line domains,” Maung Zarni commented. [Source: William Boot, The Irrawaddy, April 11, 2013 \+/]

“Religious tensions are now being whipped up again in the main city, [Rangoon], largely by Buddhist nationalists using what many pro-democracy activists here thought would be a tool for promoting peace: the Internet,” reported the Wall Street Journal. The paper quoted leaders of the 88 Generation movement of pro-democracy activists expressing dismay at the Internet becoming a tool of extremists. \+/

Relaxing Internet Restrictions

Rachel O'Brien of AFP wrote: “The recent political changes are being felt online. Internet connections are often still painfully slow, but websites of the opposition and exiled media groups that the government once tried to block are now freely available. "There's no more ban on the political websites," Ye Htut, director general of Myanmar's Ministry of Information, told AFP. Aside from an emotional reunion with family and friends, Myanmar blogger Nay Phone Latt knew exactly what he wanted to do after his release from prison: get back online. It was a bold move, given that his Internet activities landed him a two-decade jail term back in 2008 under the former military regime."There are so many friends online who supported me via my blog," said the 32-year-old, a few weeks into his newfound freedom. "So what I wanted to do when I was released was to go online and post a new post." [Source: Rachel O'Brien, AFP, February 24, 2012]

Rohingya Violence, Social Media and Freedom to Hate in Myanmar

Hanna Hindstrom wrote in Foreign Policy, “The brutal religious violence in Burma's western Arakan state has cast a shadow on the country's democratic progress....Even more shocking than the violence itself has been the public outpour of vitriol aimed at the Rohingya....Anti-Rohingya views have swept both social and mainstream media, seemingly uniting politicians, human rights activists, journalists, and civil society from across Burma's myriad ethnic groups. "The so-called Rohingya are liars," tweeted one pro-democracy group. "We must kill all the kalar," said another social media user. (Kalar is a racial slur applied to dark-skinned people from the Indian subcontinent.) Burmese refugees, who themselves have fled persecution, gathered at embassies across the world to protest the "terrorist" Rohingya invading their homeland. Even the prominent student leader Ko Ko Gyi, who played a key role in the 1988 democratic uprising, lambasted them as imposters and frauds. [Source: Hanna Hindstrom, Foreign Policy, June 14, 2012 <<]

“No doubt Burma's nascent media freedom has played a key role in stirring religious tensions. Vast swathes of inflammatory misinformation are circulating inside Burma -- with mainstream media largely accusing Al Qaeda and "illegal Bengali terrorists" for staging the violence in a bid to spread Islam in Asia. Many allege that the Rohingya are burning their own houses in a bid for attention. One paper published a graphic photo of the corpse of Thida Htwe, the Buddhist woman whose rape and murder allegedly by three Muslim men instigated the violence, prompting President Thein Sein to suspend the publication under Burma's censorship laws. These are the same papers that in recent months have openly criticized the government for the first time since a nominally civilian administration took over last year. <<

“Ironically, this freedom has also led to a virulent backlash against foreign and exile media, who have reported on the plight of the Rohingya -- described by the U.N. as one of the most persecuted groups in the world. A leading national paper, The Weekly Eleven News Journal, has launched a campaign against exile media for their coverage of the crisis. "Foreign media are now presenting bias [sic] reports on the clashes between Rakhine people and Bengali Rohingyas to destroy the image of Myanmar [Burma's official name -- ed.] and its people," warned Eleven Media Group in a statement. "Only Rohingyas killed Rakhine people and burned down their houses." Earlier this week they denounced New York Times reporter Thomas Fuller for citing hateful comments made against Rohingyas on their website. <<

“While anti-Rohingya sentiments are not new to Burma, the attacks have taken on a more urgent and egregious nature with greater access to information. In November last year, a social media campaign whipped up a tirade of animosity against the BBC for a report (published one year earlier) that had identified the Rohingya as residents of Arakan state. In the wake of the latest violence, a number of online campaigns have been set up to coordinate attacks against news outlets that dare to report on their plight. Angry protesters rallied in Rangoon this week, brandishing signs reading "Bengali Broadcast Corporation" and "Desperate Voice of Bengali." The latter was a reference to my employer, the Democratic Voice of Burma, the Norway-based broadcaster that has made a name for itself among many Burmese as one of the most reliable sources of information about their country. This weekend DVB faced the biggest cyber-attack on its website in the organization's history, while its Facebook page is still under constant assault from people issuing threats and posting racist material. It is not without irony that an organization once hailed as a vehicle for free speech has become the target of censorship by the very people it sought to give a voice. <<

“As International Crisis Group explains, the violence is both a consequence of, and threat to, Burma's political transition. However, what they wrongly assume is that the "irresponsible, racist, and inflammatory language" circulating on the internet is likely to be resolved through discussion in the national media. The few balanced voices -- let alone those representing the stateless minority -- are vastly outnumbered by news outlets spouting simplistic, anti-Muslim rhetoric. The ongoing crisis illustrates the need for Burma to embrace not only independent, but also responsible and inclusive journalism. In order to facilitate this transition, the government must take concrete steps to address the underlying dispute surrounding the Rohingya. The sheer level of racism against them in Burmese society -- enforced by a government policy of discrimination and abuse -- lies at the core of the matter. <<

Telephones in Myanmar

The Communications, Post and Telegraphs Ministry operates the telephone system in Myanmar. Service is pretty awful and few people have phones. However, the situation is changing fast—almost every month and infrastructure is gradually improving but less so in rural areas. Cell phones are still relatively uncommon. Until fairly recently they were very expensive and the the government made them difficult to obtain. In 2004, cell phones cost as much $4,000. But again things are changing very fast and cell phones are much easier and cheaper to obtain now than they were in the past.

According to go-myanmar.com: “As mobile phone usage can be expensive, using phone stands can be the simplest way to make local calls. These can be found on streets and in shops all around Myanmar, and local calls should cost around K100 (15 cents) per minute. International calls are significantly more expensive (over $5 per minute) and can only reliably be made from hotels; only some call stands will allow international calls. Be careful, as you may be charged for calls that fail to connect. It should be noted that many businesses in Myanmar have several phone numbers, as calls sometimes don’t connect and lines can go dead.”

Telephones: main lines in use: 521,100 (2011), country comparison to the world: 96, compared to 357,300 in 2003. General assessment: meets minimum requirements for local and intercity service for business and government. Domestic: system barely capable of providing basic service. Landing point for the SEA-ME-WE-3 optical telecommunications submarine cable that provides links to Asia, the Middle East, and Europe; satellite earth stations - 2, Intelsat (Indian Ocean) and ShinSat (2011) [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Cell Phones in Myanmar

Smartphone are still a novelty in Myanmar and fewer than one in 10 people own a cellphone but if you visit villages along the main roads it can be surprising how many people have cellphones. Joseph J. Schatz wrote in the Washington Post, “Until just a few years ago, getting wireless access cost thousands of dollars in this largely offline corner of hyper-connected Asia, and the government was the only provider in town. Controlling the communications apparatus was a way for the junta to monitor its citizens and a lucrative source of revenue for favored business interests. But along with a raft of other economic and political reforms since 2011, the government of Burma — which the former military regime renamed Myanmar — is making mobile phone access cheaper and opening its telecommunications market. [Source: Joseph J. Schatz, Washington Post, June 14, 2013 /::\]

“Reliable statistics are hard to come by in Burma — whether it’s Internet usage or the size of the population — but most experts agree that, at most, 9 percent of Burma’s nearly 60 million people have access to a mobile phone, concentrated in Rangoon and Mandalay. The government says it wants to increase mobile-phone usage to 75 percent by 2016, and consulting firm McKinsey & Co. projects Burma will require as much as $50 billion of investment in telecom infrastructure, including the wireless towers, fiber cables and wiring that it largely lacks. Far fewer people have a land line, meaning that cellphones will be the first phone that most people own. /::\

“Cellphones are not hard to find; shops throughout Rangoon peddle scores of models, authentic and bootleg, many made in nearby China. But just a few years ago, under the government monopoly, getting mobile access cost upward of $2,500. Until early this year, the price was $250, well out of reach for most people. In a fast-opening economy that remains Asia’s poorest, a mobile phone will be most people’s ticket to the Internet. It’s a boon to development but also has a toxic side, seen in the rising use of social media to spread hate speech amid recent anti-Muslim violence in parts of this largely Buddhist country. /::\

As of late 2013 few could afford mobile phones and SIM card fees, which in the past cost about US$200. The the government is trying to make prices more affordable. In April 2013 state-owned giant Myanmar Post and Telecommunication started releasing SIM cards costing 1,500 Burmese kyats, or about $1.60. But people had to enter a lottery for the limited supply of cards, many of which were sold on the black market for as much as $90. A state media said one lottery in Pyinmana, on the outskirts of the capital Naypyidaw, had selected “slow vehicle drivers” as the recipients of its budget SIM cards. Naypyidaw’s council sold 95 cheap SIMs to “pony cart and trishaw drivers” in the area, the report said. [Source: Washington Post, June 14, 2013; AFP, August 29, 2013]

Cell phones: 1.244 million (2011), country comparison to the world: 151, compared to 66,500 in 2003). The mobile-cellular phone system is grossly underdeveloped. Myanmar has one of the lowest mobile penetration rates in the world, with only 3 percent of the population owning a phone in 2011, according to the World Bank. In neighboring Bangladesh, 56 percent of people have a mobile phone. [Source: CIA World Factbook, Jeremy Wagstaff, Reuters, January 13, 2013]

According to Freedom House’s 2012 Report: “The government also remains wary of mobile communications. SIM cards for mobile phones in Burma remain the most expensive in Asia, and complicated schemes for pre- and post-paid services make short-message service (SMS) either out of reach or politically risky for those Burmese who sought to use them as another platform for news, information, or mobilization. [Source: Freedom House]

Mobile Phone Use in Myanmar

Although mobile internet access can be patchy, mobile phones generally work well in towns. Mobile phones from other countries generally will not work in Myanmar.Go-myanmar.com reports: “International roaming with a number of western mobile networks is now possible in Myanmar; the situation is changing fast, so it is best to check with your operator. Some roaming services are becoming available with Asian networks, including Thailand (AIS), Singapore (M1 and Singtel), Indonesia (Telkomsel) and Vietnam (Viettel). However, you may encounter a block on SMS text messaging even if you are able to make and receive calls.

“The mobile phone industry and availability of SIM cards in Myanmar are in a state of flux. For many years, SIM cards were very expensive, but in April 2013 the price of a SIM card was reduced to K1,500 (US$1.70). However, these cards are currently only available to Myanmar citizens at normal outlets on a lottery basis. It is possible, however, to rent a SIM card (and hand set) from vendors in the arrival halls at Yangon, Mandalay and Pagan airports. This costs $5 to $12 per day, depending on the rental period.

“Some outlets will sell permanent SIM cards to foreigners, usually costing around K150,000 (you typically have to pay an additional fee to enable 3G mobile internet). Phones work on a top-up basis, with K5000 and K10,000 cards available. Cards can be bought at Yangon airport and numerous shops in downtown Yangon and Mandalay, and other larger towns and cities. Micro SIM cards (for use in iPhone, Samsung Galaxy and other high-end smart phones) are not available in Myanmar, but most phone shops can professionally cut normal SIM cards to fit into a Micro SIM slot.”

One traveler posted in Lonely Planet Thorn Tree bulletin board: I was there in November [2012]. I rented a SIM at the airport (arrivals hall), I think it was $50 deposit, then bought $10 worth of international call time (outgoing, incoming free) and the same for in-country calls. These are not refundable and can be topped up any time. That 10 bucks means only a few minutes of calls and no SMS, but enough to let family know my new number so that they can call me. Calls inside the country are cheap, in 2 weeks I used only a fraction of that allowance calling/texting my travel partner who also had the same rental SIM, hotels etc. In the end when returning the SIM $2/day was deducted form the deposit and the rest returned. I used my own phone, they also rent phones if you need one.

Your only options are to rent a SIM at the airport, as described above, or to buy a prepaid one for 18000 kyat that will last only for 28 days, with no way of topping it up. It's GSM only, so you can't access email and web pages. It works on the GSM 900 band (a 2G service), and your handset from Australia should find the frequency without any need for you to make changes. (There is no 3G service as we know it in Australia; Myanmar does, however, offer a CDMA service to locals.) I bought a prepaid one from my hotel. It's the equivalent of USD 20 and you get that much in credit. Local calls are cheap are it should be more than you need for up to a month. You can make international calls with it for about USD 0.90 per minute. You could give the number to your friends in other countries and they could try to call you; however, I didn't bother testing this. Another poster wrote: “Ouch!! pretty expensive compared to the rest of Southeast Asia— might do without one in Burma, especially if hotels can call and book for you.”

Cell Phones, Smart Phones, HTC, Samsung and the Burmese Alphabet

In January 2013, the Taiwan smartphone company HTC Corp introduced cell phones and smartphones that use the Burmese alphabet. Reuters reported: Peter Chou, HTC’s Myanmar-born CEO announced that his company had teamed up with a local distributor and a software developer to customize Google's Android operating system so its devices display local fonts and feature a Myanmar language onscreen keyboard. Until now, Chou says, Myanmarese users of mobile phones and computers must install fonts in their own language, a process that is cumbersome, often invalidates the device's warranty and has, he says, slowed innovation and the embrace of technology. "You don't have to spend two months to learn how to type it," Chou said in an interview ahead of the launch. "You just type it. We want to give people here a computing device they don't have to learn. They just try it, they just use it, they just get it."[Source: Jeremy Wagstaff, Reuters, January 13, 2013]

Myanmar IT experts say that while the country's alphabet is no more complex than some other Asian scripts, a failure to agree how to apply an international standard for language symbols called Unicode to existing versions of the computer font has made it difficult to bake the language into software. As a result, web pages and apps will often be unreadable. With at least two competing types of font software available, disagreements remain on how the issue will be resolved.. The problem is worse on smartphones, says Soe Ngwe Ya, general manager of KMD, HTC's distribution partner for the new phones. In order to install such fonts on mobile devices users must first "root" the phone, effectively bypassing the manufacturer's controls on customizing the phone's operating system. That often invalidates any warranty. "It's a major issue," he says.

HTC also hopes it can claw back some ground from its biggest competitor in Android phones, Samsung Electronics, which has established a first mover advantage in Myanmar. Samsung has at least two distributors for its handsets and its advertisements are visible around the capital. Soe says KMD will act as HTC's distributor, open a flagship store and service HTC users. Chou, who was born in Myanmar but left to work and study in Taiwan more than 30 years ago, says that at least for now the Myanmar fonts and keyboard will only be available on HTC devices. He denied that this undermined his claims of contributing to his homeland. "While sometimes you can be idealistic," he said, "the first thing you have to show the people is something to get excited about."

Race to Tap Myanmar’s Cell Phone Market

Joseph J. Schatz wrote in the Washington Post, “ As people here experiment with newfound freedom of expression and increasing access to information, nearly a dozen international wireless companies are furiously vying for the two mobile licenses that the government is auctioning off June 27. The prize will be the right to operate in Southeast Asia’s last untapped mobile market. “It’s the last country apart from North Korea where mobile penetration is in the single digits,” says Denis O’Brien, the Irish billionaire who owns Jamaica-based Digicel. O’Brien is pursuing a bid with financial backing from investor George Soros. “There is a huge pent-up demand in Myanmar for mobile and Internet access,” O’Brien said. [Source: Joseph J. Schatz, Washington Post,June 14, 2013 /::\]

“Foreign companies are swamping local media with promised plans for charity projects they would undertake if they got a license, as well as touting their expertise in emerging markets. South African mobile giant MTN says it has raised living standards across Africa. Digicel is highlighting its role in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake and has been sponsoring a national soccer team. Still, Britain-based Vodafone and China Mobile, two wireless behemoths that were pursuing a joint bid for a telecom license, withdrew from the running in late May, saying the conditions laid out by the government for winning the bid do not meet their “strict internal investment criteria.” /::\

And Human Rights Watch, a New York-based nonprofit organization, warned foreign wireless companies last month that they “risk complicity in illegal surveillance, censorship, and other repression.” Among other concerns, the group said the government might violate citizens’ rights in order to secure land for wireless towers or laying cable. Indeed, while the government no longer enforces most of the strict laws governing the media and telecommunications sectors, some of them remain on the books. The government’s telecom selection committee, however, pledged last month that it is running a “fully transparent” auction process that “follows international standards and best practices.” Once millions more people have access to mobile phones, efforts to roll back Burma’s reforms could become more difficult, said Bagan’s Thet Lynn Han, whose company employs 50 local workers. “By that point,” he said, “you already know the value of the Internet, the value of the press.” /::\

Myanmar Telecoms Bill Grants Licenses to Norwegian and Qatari Firms

In August 2013, AFP reported: “Burma’s parliament has passed a telecoms bill paving the way for licensed international firms to operate the latest move to open the potentially lucrative mobile market. The former junta-run nation awarded telecom licences to Norway’s Telenor and Qatari firm Ooredoo as it tries to raise telephone coverage from less than 10 percent currently to 80 percent by 2016. [Source: AFP, August 29, 2013]

The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper said the bill had been approved by parliament. MP Phone Myint Aung said the move would mean “international operators can launch their operations. They are waiting for this bill.” Telenor said in a statement: “A clear and stable regulatory and legislative framework that ensures predictability and a level and transparent playing field is important for a long-term investor such as Telenor.”

The bid process has been closely watched as a bellwether of economic reforms aimed at driving rapid foreign investment in the nation, which has seen sweeping changes since a quasi-civilian government replaced the military regime in 2011. Ooredoo, formerly known as Qatar Telecom, this month pledged to introduce “affordable” phone services to Burma as it pumps US$15 billion into the country as part of its 15-year 3G licence.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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