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NEWS UPDATES Asean Affairs     22 June  2016  

Myanmar’s mobile revolution

Myanmar has seen massive growth in internet penetration, mobile phone adoption and social media usage in the past few years, spurred by the end of direct military rule and rapid opening up of its market after decades of isolation.

The consumer market in Myanmar has essentially bypassed the development stages seen in other economies and moved straight to digital and mobile, making the company a potentially interesting test bed for internet-enabled businesses.

The mobile phone penetration rate in Myanmar, which barely touched double digits in 2013, has now reached around 50% of its estimated 54 million population last year.

A report last year by the telecom equipment supplier Ericsson suggested that 6% of the world's new mobile subscribers came from Myanmar, making it the fourth fastest-growing mobile market on earth.

In addition, smartphones are the first handsets owned by 80% of Myanmar's mobile users, according to the two main operators, Telenor and Ooredoo.

"Mobile penetration in Myanmar is growing faster than ever before, thanks to the cheaper cost of mobile phones and internet penetration over recent years," Thet Win, executive director of Shwe Than Lwin Co Ltd (Sky Net) told Asia Focus on the sidelines of the CLMVT Forum 2016 on Friday in Bangkok.

Just six years ago, a SIM card in Myanmar cost as much as US$1,500, but after the government awarded licences to foreign operators in 2011, they began selling data-enabled SIM cards for only about $1.50, which everyone could afford. A boom in sales of low-cost Android smartphones from China quickly followed.

"Our neighbouring countries have been able to quickly skip to the latest technologies. There's a great chance for them to leapfrog to something entirely different at a very much lower cost," said Arak Sutivong, head of corporate strategy and business development at Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) during a panel discussion.

"They can pick up where we left off and not have to go through the same journey as other developed countries."

Mr Arak said technologies were moving fast and countries around the region needed to find the best ways deal with the digitised world.

"Technologies are here to stay and they move so fast that the future is unknown," he said, encouraging officials to be more open-minded about digital development and understand that regulations can quickly become obsolete.

Rami Sharaf, senior vice-president of Royal Group of Companies Ltd in Cambodia, said he was seeing the growth of a socio-economic middle class and the rise of "netizenship" — those who have access to the internet.

"It's more of the age of M-commerce because we spend more time on our smartphones than on personal computers or laptops," he said.

The challenge, he observes, is that the digital transformation is happening so quickly, it's difficult for countries in the region to keep up in terms of talent.

"If we are talking about the future, we need more digital, IT and new-media specialists that will support the aim to increase digitisation in the region. We need to build human resource capacity and education," he said.

Sky Net's Mr Win also said that people needed greater analytical and critical thinking skills to assess the information they obtain online.

"Without these skills, they will be easily persuaded and that could be very dangerous," he said, adding that social media education in Myanmar was still very limited as the country was still in the early stage of adoption.

"Technology is like a wild horse. If we don't use it properly or if we don't educate the users properly, it could be very dangerous," he said.

The upside of the new digital wave in Myanmar is that it creates new markets for local and foreign tech startups and e-commerce around the region. "With more users, more businesses will come because the market is here," he said.

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