By Amy Killian
Technology is not buzzing in Myanmar, not yet. However, Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s March 22 visit to the country was one of several developments in recent weeks that suggest that critical information and communication technology (ICT) could be on its way. Such initiatives are encouraging and must continue. Advancing Myanmar’s technological capacity has the potential to profoundly transform not only the country’s economic trajectory, but its political future as well.
The absence of modern technological infrastructure is one of the most detrimental legacies of Myanmar’s decades of isolation. Internet penetration is currently at 1 percent, the lowest in ASEAN. The situation was not helped by the confusing submissions process that potential investors faced during Myanmar’s January bidding round for telecoms licenses, which sparked concern from some about the country’s business potential.
Myanmar’s ICT deficit also presents major challenges for its political development. Decades of crackdowns on public association have left Myanmar civil society highly fragmented. Social media and mobile phones, which provide virtual avenues for interaction, are nearly absent. Political, business, and community associations, critical for a healthy democracy, will take years to develop. The government passed a law in December 2011 to allow peaceful demonstrations, but implementation remains haphazard.
Technology can play a vital role in fostering the growth of a vibrant civil society. In countries like Indonesia, online platforms provide important avenues for addressing social and political issues and formulating collective action. ICT can facilitate the development of formal and informal networks and linkages across Myanmar, bridging its fractured ethnic and religious terrain.
Internet connectivity will play an important role in developing a cadre of young, capable leaders in both the public and private sectors. The recent National League for Democracy party conference highlighted the country’s need for a new generation of educated and skilled policy experts. Access to information and communication with counterparts in the greater ASEAN region will help cultivate Myanmar’s next generation of political actors across all levels of society.
The public and private sectors in the United States have taken positive steps toward fostering these ends in Myanmar. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced on March 7 that it will establish technology academies in Myanmar in partnership with Cisco Systems. This initiative follows a USAID-led delegation of tech companies, including Google, HP, and Microsoft, to Yangon in early March to explore joint venture opportunities for expanding internet access and strengthening government transparency and efficiency.
There are great opportunities to build on these initial steps. India and Singapore, with their high ICT capacities and vested interests in a democratic and prosperous Myanmar, can lead regional efforts to advance Myanmar’s technological development. Promoting tech investment in Myanmar, attracting Myanmar students to ICT universities, and training civil society on using ICT to advance their work are just a few possibilities. Myanmar’s technology needs provide exciting opportunities for businesses and governments both near and far, and in return they will provide important opportunities for Myanmar’s political development.