Information & Communication Technology

The Challenges and Opportunities of Myanmar’s New ICT Networks

16 September 2014

By Lucy Purdon, Policy Officer, Privacy International; Research Fellow, IHRB

Pay-as-you-go SIM cards are now available for 1500 kyat (around US$1.50). SIM cards previously exchanged hands for hundreds of dollars. Photo: Frédéric Gloor | www.flickr.com/fredalix

The speed at which Information Communications Technology (ICT) develops is apparent in most countries in the world, but none more so than Myanmar in 2014. The mobile and internet infrastructure is being modernised and expanded rapidly from a comparatively limited service that existed during the sanctions years.

New cellular towers are being built and a new home-grown Burmese language search engine Bindez is being developed.

Two international telecommunications operators are rolling out their mobile networks, signalling huge opportunities for the country’s development as affordable communications become a reality for the first time. Although internet/mobile penetration among the population is still very low among users, there has been a quick uptake of international web-based services such as Facebook, Viber and Gmail. This potential flood of information and freedom of communication is in stark contrast to the decades of military rule, where information was strictly controlled and censored.   

Elsewhere, the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB), which celebrated its first anniversary last month, is focussing on the emerging ICT sector. MCRB, an IHRB and Danish Institute for Human Rights joint initiative, encourages responsible business practice across the country. One of the main projects of MCRB is to produce Sector Wide Impact Assessments (SWIAs), comprehensive reports analysing potential human rights impacts of different business sectors to help a range of stakeholders build on potential opportunities and avoid negative impacts. The first SWIA on the Oil & Gas sector was published on 4 September.  A Tourism SWIA is in draft for consultation.  An ICT SWIA is currently in development.

I visited Yangon in late August to train local researchers working on the ICT SWIA and conduct preliminary scoping of the sector. The opportunities of the rapidly developing ICT sector are immense, as are the challenges. Mobile reception and internet access is still patchy; laws governing the ICT sector are incomplete; companies are struggling to build the necessary infrastructure on time; and there are questions around how “cyber security” technology will be utilised.

As the ICT SWIA gets underway, here is a summary of the current status of the ICT sector in Myanmar and some of the potential impacts ICT companies are dealing with:

Service roll-out

Mobile operator Ooredoo (headquartered in Qatar) launched its service in late August and Telenor (headquartered in Norway) is expected to launch by end of September.  Both companies have committed to selling pay-as-you-go SIM cards for 1500 kyat (around US$1.50).  SIM cards previously exchanged hands for hundreds of dollars, which put mobile communications out of the reach of the vast majority of the people of Myanmar. The affordable price for a SIM card is a significant achievement for both companies and has provoked a pre-emptive attempt by the state-owned company Myanmar Post and Telecommunication (MPT) to flood the market with low price MPT SIM Cards to lock in customers, since number portability is not envisaged.

Both companies have decided to introduce ‘data packages’ in connection with 3G services. This is a new concept for users in Myanmar, who have grown used to costs of calls and internet connection being charged per minute and per SMS. The concept of using bytes of data and the costs associated with this will confuse customers, according to Myanmar civil society activists. Companies need to be transparent and clear about how they will charge users so that Myanmar consumers new to the technology and varying tariff structures are able to make informed decisions about how they wish to use the services.

Land and Labour Rights

Land rights have become a sensitive issue in Myanmar due to widespread “land grabs” by the previous military government and their business associates over the past decades.  Tower and base station construction is not as disruptive or on the same scale as an industrial estate or a rubber plantation.  However, determining land ownership is a challenge.

Some 20,000 towers are expected to be built across the country in the next few years.  Tower construction impacts on land rights, labour rights and health and safety.  Operators contract other companies to build the towers, and these companies also sub-contract. As the ability to monitor suppliers becomes more difficult further down the chain, it can be a challenge for companies to ensure rights are respected. Telenor recently conducted an online sustainability report update and was frank about the supply chain challenges they face, which is to be commended.

Companies building towers must seek permission from those who own the rights to that land, whether wealthy landowners or small farmers, and whether the land is held individually or communally. They also must obtain permits from local governments. This is a slow process - local land administration offices are overwhelmed as hundreds of applications for site permits are pending. Telenor identified further challenges such as confirming the identity of the land-owner; securing consent from neighbours; and problems around building in heritage zones. However, as towers occupy a small amount of land (approx. 15x15m) sites can be easily moved if a problem is identified before construction begins.

Telenor’s report is also candid about the discovery of several instances of child labour in tower construction, either through spot checks or from reports from a contractor. Child labour is prevalent in Myanmar, where the majority of children are lucky if they complete primary school.  Working at age 13 is legal in some contexts.  But Telenor wants to uphold its own standards. Being transparent raises awareness about the issue; helps stakeholders improve processes for identifying and resolving instances of child labour; and ultimately strengthens prevention mechanisms. Companies should also reveal the remedial and corrective steps they are taking, bearing in mind that in many cases the children who work come from desperately poor families with limited sources of income.  They should consider solutions that involve employment opportunities for adults in those families. 

Myanmar is recovering from decades of internal armed conflict, and in many regions ethnic minority armed groups have signed cease-fire agreements with the central government but still control territory. This makes the issue of access to these regions difficult for companies as they negotiate site acquisition. Telenor has in place a network of local liaison officers across the country in order to engage with remote and ethnic minority populations and negotiate access to land. Once the towers are built (the “passive” infrastructure), the companies building networks and providing “active” infrastructure (which will be placed on the towers) will also need help to negotiate access into these areas to ensure their staff can safely do their jobs. At the same time, all companies involved in the rollout and maintenance of the network should be aware of exposure to the risk of being complicit in the acts of armed groups, if their negotiations involve armed groups.

Lawful Interception

The government is writing and implementing many new laws on the ICT sector and has in the past year published drafts for public consultation (see here for MCRB’s submission regarding proposed mandatory SIM card registration).

The laws governing interception of communications have not yet been drafted or published for consultation, with no clear indication of when this will happen. In the absence of both legislation and technical regulation, it is not clear how companies should or will respond to government requests for interception. Although Telenor is not due to launch its service until the end of September, the company publicly stated in the sustainability update that until the rules on lawful interception are finalised, Telenor will not respond to any government requests for interception. Ooredoo launched its service in late August and has not publicly stated how it will respond to government requests on interception in the absence of a law, or indeed if it has received any requests.

Hate Speech

The rapid uptake of social media use in Myanmar has quickly led to problems. The use of potentially inflammatory statements that some may consider as “hate speech” in the media is rife, and there are well documented instances of vituperative language directed at minority groups, in particular Muslim communities.  Ethnicity and religion are extremely sensitive issues in Myanmar as in many parts of the world, and tensions have spilled over into violence in in the last two years. In July, violence broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in Mandalay, reportedly following rumours circulated online that a Buddhist woman had been raped by Muslim men. These allegations were widely circulated on Facebook, by nationalist Buddhist leaders. Facebook was inaccessible, likely on orders of the government, for several hours, coinciding with a government-imposed curfew to dispel the violence. Such tensions don’t just affect social media companies. Certain monasteries are advocating a boycott of Ooredoo SIM cards, because the company is based in a Muslim country.

Local civil society organisations are doing excellent working promoting responsible speech online. Yangon-based organisation MIDO was established by well known blogger Nay Phone Latt, who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2008 for writing blogs critical of the government.  He was released in 2012 and began working on ICT issues. MIDO’s Pan-zagar (“flower speech”) project encourages youth to embrace Myanmar’s ethnic diversity and promotes ICT education in schools. The newly opened PEN Myanmar centre is undertaking a media monitoring project.

In addressing all of these challenges, one common approach seems obvious; stakeholder engagement is key.  If companies do not properly engage with users and communities, they risk being ignorant of issues that could expose them to human rights risks, jeopardise their commercial success, and magnify deep-rooted tensions around religion, ethnicity and land.  For companies without a presence on the ground, engagement with users is even more essential, either directly or through civil society groups, so the company understands the context in which they operate. As companies like Facebook rely on users reporting content that may violate their standards, it is essential that users know how to do this. Therefore any company terms of service, community standards or rules that users sign up to must be translated into the Burmese language. If companies have not done this already, it should be a priority, and should be combined with active media outreach given that most users do not read terms and conditions.

Myanmar can establish an ICT sector that increases opportunity and strengthens enjoyment of human rights for its people. Increasing connectivity and access to information is one more reason why the country is unlikely to return to dictatorship, and a reason to be cautiously optimistic about the future. 

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