With room for growth on every front in the telecommunications sector, Myanmar offers great opportunities to tech investors. However, the country is notoriously a difficult place to do business, and technical capacity has taken some time to build. The uptake of smartphones has been one of the swiftest in human history, with many making the leap from having no phone at all to having a browser-equipped device. Facebook comes pre-installed on many devices. The social media platform has become enormously popular, particularly among young people. It has revolutionised dating for many youths: in an often conservative society, without much disposable income, the mobile revolution has paved the way for people to connect online.
The explosion in mobile connectivity and accessibility has had an enormous impact on the way people across all sectors do business: for example, a market vendor is now able to place orders for stock, or a farmer can more easily coordinate logistics. For the millions in Myanmar with family members working abroad or elsewhere in the country in seasonal or migrant labour, connecting with their loved ones is just a matter of picking up the phone.
Myanmar’s digital revolution has paved the way for optimism about technological leapfrogging: in a country where millions are unbanked, the explosion in connectivity has opened up the possibility of mobile money made available to those in remote and rural areas, as well as those working overseas and sending remittances home.
Mobile networks have all partnered with banks to provide services. Wave Money is a joint venture between Telenor and Yoma Bank. M-Pitesan is a joint venture between local lender CB Bank and Qatari telephone company Ooredoo. TrueMoney operates under AGD Bank’s Mobile Banking license, separate from the mobile networks. Wave Money, TrueMoney and M-Pitesan are the three major mobile money providers. TrueMoney is particularly popular among migrant workers overseas for sending remittances. Red Dot, a mobile payment service launched in 2015, is now accepted in over 16,000 stores nationwide.
Apps often come pre-loaded onto mobile phones, a service offered by mobile phone shops which saves users data and makes things easier for those who are not so technologically literate. Facebook enjoys supremacy in the country, while other messaging apps such as Viber and WeChat are also popular.
Hate speech and propaganda has been a major issue in the country, with Facebook having drawn widespread condemnation for its lack of meaningful action on the matter despite warnings from civil society groups. The platform has been used to stoke communal tensions, and in some cases this has spilled over into violence - most notably in Mandalay in 2015, in days of rioting that left two men dead. Facebook has stated that there are some 18 million active users in the country, but given many people own multiple accounts it is unclear if this figure is overblown or understated.
In August 2018, Facebook announced that it had detected covert propaganda campaigns being run by the Myanmar military on its platform, which was being posted to look like independent content. This material was used to denigrate the Rohingya and undermine the civilian government. The company has not provided any transparency on just how many accounts were in the reach of such covert material, or if it received higher prominence from paid boosts or the site's algorithms. For those working in civil society and the tech-for-good sphere, the issue of military and government interference online is an extremely sensitive topic.
Font integration issues have posed challenges to developers. Attempts to launch a Myanmar-specific social media network have largely fallen flat, to date, with one notable example being MySquar. The site was hyped upon launch and optimistic investors rushed to back the project, however in late 2018 it was announced that it looked likely to enter administration with large amounts of funding having gone missing.