Recent changes in the Myanmar political environment have created a policy window. Those in government are looking at the ICT sector as being capable of yielding “quick wins” in terms of showing the citizenry and key stakeholders the benefits of opening the country. For example, it has been learned that Paul Collier, the well-known author of development books including The Bottom Billion, recommended mobile-based payments as a “quick win” during his recent visit to advise the government. What he apparently did not realize is that mobile money requires the existence of the mobile eco-system, including widespread connectivity and a distribution network for prepaid value. So the true quick win is mobile connectivity. To get to the kind of discussion of inclusion embedded in the principal module in Myanmar, it is necessary first to ensure that its people are electronically connected.
According to reports from the World Economic Forum in Bangkok in June 2012, Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi responded to a question on “what sectors she would look to promote first?” by stating that the telecom sector is important as the need to have mobile phone for development is real. She said that she will look to support advancement in this field. She expressed a wish to target what she calls “low-hanging fruits” sectors to create jobs and bring Burmese migrant workers home. This suggests that there is an opening for IT enabled services that depend on low-cost and reliable international connectivity. Again, the precondition is the existence of the ICT infrastructure.
It has also been learned that the government is being advised by the ITU to enact a retrograde piece of legislation that for example includes an international gateway monopoly in the hands of the government, and the licensing of terminal equipment. Both provisions are better suited for the 1990s than the second decade of the 21st Century. The draft includes an opaque, three-layered licensing approval system (Department, Ministry and undefined Government) that is unnecessarily conducive to extraction of rents from potential licensees.
LIRNEasia has already made an intervention, using its own resources, laying out the dangers of bad or incoherent policymaking at this critical juncture (Samarajiva, 2012). What is proposed is a concerted and focused effort, drawing on LIRNEasia’s Scientific Advisory Council and research and policy fellows, to make available relevant and timely information for convenient access by Myanmar decision makers and stakeholders:
- The first activity will be the preparation and publication of a report that expands on the content of the quick op-ed published in May. This would be a background paper reflecting the experience of other countries at similar stages of telecom development, and will highlight successes, failures and options. It will position Myanmar in relation to either the Greater Mekong Region (greatest similarities) or a slightly larger comparison group. The performance shortfall relative to reasonable comparator countries will be demonstrated. The costs of inaction or wrong action will be illustrated. The document will be placed on the web in English and in Burmese and, as feasible, will be pushed out to the media.
- The second activity is a dedicated rapid response program that will be responsive to policy windows and stakeholder requests. This will be modeled on the successful rapid response program operated since 2004 by LIRNEasia.
- Depending on ability to attract a high-quality audience and some level of cost-sharing, a short course on the challenges of telecom reform that draws on experiences such as those of South Africa in the 1990s will be offered.