by Jeremy Wagstaff
Myanmar has fewer phones per capita than any other country and probably the fewest internet connections, and that has regional telecoms and IT companies licking their lips.
But behind those statistics lies more than simply a virgin market waiting to be tapped. Myanmar has been run by generals for decades, leaving not only pent-up demand for connectivity, but also a complex web of interests and a unique ecosystem of technological make-do. All of which will require careful navigation by would-be investors.
A recent gathering of techies in Yangon's Myanmar Info-Tech complex illustrates the promise, changes and problems Myanmar presents as the next frontier for investors.
The meeting was organised by a loose triumvirate of business-oriented folk, bloggers and the country's IT diaspora. It was a so-called barcamp - an unstructured conference and chat-fest whose format was dreamed by up California techies tired of the exclusive, closed-door meets that are a regular feature of Silicon Valley.
The barcamp idea has taken Asia by storm, but nowhere more so than Myanmar. In October 2009, Emily Jacobi, founder of the first barcamp, traveled to Yangon in part to rustle up interest. Independent-minded bloggers and the business-oriented Myanmar Computer Professionals Association jumped at the idea, but overcoming mutual suspicions between the groups was less straightforward. Businessmen had long been used to building ties with government to win work.
"It was harder to convince my fellow independent co-founders of BarCamp Yangon that parking our activities under the umbrella of this legally standing computer association was a good idea," says Thaung Su Nyein, secretary of the association and managing director of IT and media company Inforithm-Maze.
The first BarCamp Yangon, in early 2010, had 3,000 people turn up - a barcamp record. This was all the more surprising as it took place before any public sign of a political thaw. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was then still under house arrest. By the time of the third gathering last month she was a free woman, about to contest a by-election - and the gathering's guest of honor.
The conference's popularity is a reflection of how much interest there is in technology, but also illustrates how deprived local people are of information and networking opportunities.
Thar Htet, a Singapore-based IT consultant who gave several talks at the first barcamp, said it was clear that most of those attending didn't understand even relatively basic topics. "You could see from their eyes that they didn't really understand," he recalls.
When he went back this year, however, he found things had changed - a little. "People are teaching themselves and now certainly understand the topics better. But I also made the presentations simpler."
This is perhaps unsurprising. Although internet cafes have proliferated since 2003, helping spawn a generation of bloggers and self-taught programmers, there are limits to what they can do on slow Internet connections and without foreign training and expertise.
When Pyae Phyo Maung, for example, attended the University of Computer Studies, Yangon, he had to bring his own computer. Those who want to learn more must head overseas. Pyae Phyo Maung left for Singapore in 2009 where he still works as a computer consultant. Of his class of 10, he says, only two have remained in Myanmar.
The barcamp highlights the challenges facing both local IT players and any future investors: how to address the tight grip on the country's IT and communications network by a coterie of government and business players.
The government has long been caught between the commercial possibilities of technology and an instinct for self-preservation. Until recently, that self-preservation meant severely restricting access to communications, whether it was a telephone or an Internet connection.
This became more acute after the 2007 Saffron Revolution, when activists posted photos, videos and reports of the anti-government protests to the outside world via cellphone and Internet. A crackdown on bloggers quickly followed.
"It's more worries about an Arab Spring," says Marc Einstein, Tokyo-based regional analyst at Frost & Sullivan. "It's not a lack of funds holding things back."
This is, after all, a country where the US State Department warns visitors that it is illegal to own a modem, and where all network-ready computers must be registered with state-owned Myanmar Post and Telecommunications (MPT). Failure to do so could result in a fine and a 15-year jail term.
In 2000, according to a survey of the industry by Australia-based consultant Paul Budde, the MPT changed its terms of service to warn that online content would be subject to the same strict filtering the offline media was subject to, and that users must obtain permission before creating web pages.
The result is an IT industry rife with gaping holes, divides and bottlenecks. There is, for example, no standard Unicode font for Burmese text, meaning users must install special fonts to read web pages. Mobile penetration is anywhere between 1 percent and 3 percent. North Korea's penetration is about 4 percent.
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