Burmese monks receive instruction on new services after buying a mobile phone in a shop in Yangon.
YANGON: Incense swirls through the air on a darkening evening, as a Buddhist monk sits cross-legged before an ancient temple, his eyes closed in meditation. His cellphone rings. The monk fumbles in his traditional crimson robes, speaks for a while, then puts it aside and continues meditating.
All around him, his fellow Burmese are celebrating a full moon festival at the Shwedagon Pagoda, snapping pictures of themselves in front of flickering candles and filming their children. Once, a trip to the most sacred site for Burmese Buddhists meant prayerful contemplation. Today, it’s like Disneyland.
Just a few years ago, a mobile phone was a luxury well beyond the reach of ordinary citizens in Myanmar, also known as Burma, which was isolated from the rest of the world during decades of military rule.
The military junta tightly controlled who got SIM cards, and just a few years ago black-market cards cost as much as $2,000. Less than 10 percent of the population had access to cellular telephones, making the Southeast Asian nation one of the largest untapped markets in the world.
But in recent months cellphone use has skyrocketed in Myanmar as the current quasi-civilian government opened up its mobile market to two foreign telecommunications companies, which launched sales in August and September. As a result, cheap smartphones are more widely available, and the price of a SIM card has dropped dramatically — cards are now just $1.50.
Earlier this month, some Burmese braved the remnants of a tropical storm to line up outside a Telenor store in Yangon, an outlet of the Norwegian telecom firm that opened in Myanmar in September and already has 2 million customers. Others continued shopping in the dark — even after the power went out — at a Samsung dealership nearby.
Myint Thein, 67, a retired government employee who patiently waited in line, left the store with his first mobile phone that he said he bought at a “very cheap price,” about $20. “It surprises me in my heart that I can actually have a cellphone,” he said.
Last year, a SIM card cost about $200, a huge expense in a poor country where the average per capita annual income is still around $1,000. Those who could afford one prized it like a family heirloom, while the rest of the country — population 51 million — resorted to making calls from old-fashioned dial phones at roadside telephone stands.
After the Myanmar government began a process of democratic reform in 2010 under a new president, Thein Sein, expanding the country’s mobile network became an early priority, explained Ross Cormack, chief executive of Ooredoo Myanmar, a branch of the Qatar-based company that won one of the two mobile network licences awarded by the government last year. “It’s one of the last unpenetrated markets in mobile,” Cormack said. “There was a huge pent-up demand.”
Ooredoo Myanmar currently serves the major cities of Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyitaw, the capital, but it is planning to expand into rural areas in the next two years, with the goal of covering most of the country in five years.
Sean Turnell, a professor at Macquarie University in Australia who studies Myanmar’s economy, said the mobile market’s lightning-fast expansion is positive but that questions remain about the larger economy as a whole. The government has yet to make deeper economic reforms or relinquish power over large segments of industries controlled by state-owned entities or the military, he said.
There is also some concern about whether the growth of social media will provide a greater platform for Buddhist-Muslim hate speech that has plagued the country recently. But most feel that the expansion of mobile service to remote corners of Myanmar will have the same benefits seen in other developing countries. Of the more than 6 billion mobile phone users worldwide, according to a 2012 World Bank study, 5 billion are in developing countries, where they now have greater access to basic health-care information, mobile banking and employment.
“I can already see how it will be better for business,” said Khin San Nwe, 59, a government employee in the Ministry of Cooperatives. She said it is far easier now to reach the small labourers who have microloans from the ministry and work in the Irrawaddy River delta.
Awthahta Nyani, 26, a Buddhist nun, said she bought her first cellphone about a month ago and uses it for an online dictionary and to tape her lectures at college. Now, she said, she can call her nephew in Malaysia with Viber, the mobile application that is wildly popular in Myanmar. She also likes the fact that her mother, a rice farmer, can reach her easily when she calls from a telephone shop in the home village. “It’s like freedom,” she said.