The recent democratic reforms in Myanmar have led to an unprecedented growth in internet usage and new trends in retail behaviours. But the late arrival of Myanmar onto the international stage and its dynamic economic regeneration have been accompanied by some disturbing headlines.
InsightAsia keeps on top of the latest developments and reports why you should keep your eyes on Myanmar.
Myanmar meets the web
The political reforms in Myanmar have led to one of the great internet stories of recent years, with millions of Burmese now coming online after being virtually cut off from the rest of the world for decades.
The statistics are staggering. In less than a decade, the country's digital population has soared, with a 97% growth in internet users in a single year and mobile phone penetration now at 80%.
Just five years ago, a SIM card in Myanmar would set you back $2000, making mobile phone usage all but impossible for most citizens. Today, a SIM card costs as little as $1.50.
But what is really interesting, and what sets Myanmar apart from other internet growth stories, is how the nation has skipped a whole tier in the conventional path to the world wide web.
While other countries evolved through successive iterations of internet use and incremental technological developments, Myanmar's decades in the dark means that, as the country plays catch up, it is exploiting the internet in subtly different ways to many of its Southeast Asian neighbours.
For example, internet users have traditionally cut their teeth on desktop devices before moving first to laptops, then to tablets. Similarly, phone users typically migrate first from landlines to feature phones (with only limited internet capability) and finally to smartphones (with a full range of internet access).
But, in Myanmar, for many years technology of any description was simply not an option for most people. And now that the public finally have access to connectivity, they are simply not bothering with desktops, laptops and feature phones and instead are going straight to smartphones for their internet provision.
Many households in Myanmar would rather have two or more smartphones on hand than owning a desktop or laptop. This contrasts with some underdeveloped areas in Asia, such as areas in India, Indonesia and Vietnam, where feature phones are still common and so full mobile internet access is correspondingly scarce – although interest in feature phones is rapidly declining everywhere in Asia due to the falling prices of smartphones.
Leapfrogging to ecommerce
It's a similar story in the evolution of retail in Myanmar. In many countries, the traditional ways of buying and selling via local markets and small stores have been challenged by shopping malls and supermarkets - which are now in turn feeling the heat from online giants such as Amazon and eBay.
However, in Myanmar, the development of large retail parks and aggregated shopping experiences is only just beginning, and it is possible that they may never quite catch up. As Kiren Tanna, former CEO of APACIG, Rocket Internet’s subsidiary group in Asia Pacific, put it recently:
“Most countries go from traditional trade to modern retail to ecommerce. We could jump over that. Instead of opening malls, Myanmar could leapfrog directly to ecommerce.”
And it is not just digital and telecoms. Infrastructure investment in other sectors is soaring too, with China leading the way with a series of breathtakingly ambitious projects, such as the Myanmar-China oil and gas pipeline. This opened in 2015, and runs for a staggering 2400km across hilly jungle terrain to connect the two countries and provide China with a much-needed alternative supply line.
So what's in store for Myanmar? The current strength in technology and consumer confidence is undoubtedly a direct consequence of the political reforms of 2012.
So as long as Myanmar continues to open up, welcome foreign investment and make economic progress, then in many respects the future for this dynamic and vibrant country looks bright, with excellent prospects for higher living standards, improved healthcare and better education.
But of course, the elephant in the room when discussing Myanmar is the fate of the Rohingya people, whose widespread displacement has caused a deepening humanitarian crisis that continues to make headlines around the world.
After years of colonial rule and a subsequent military government that followed a policy of isolation and repression, it is clear that Myanmar's complex and turbulent history continues to cast a long shadow.
Myanmar is a fledgling democracy that has taken its first tentative steps, but if it is going to walk tall and take its place centre stage, then alongside its dizzying economic progress it is going to need to tackle some of the major challenges that remain. These are the challenges that are likely to fall to the next generation of Myanmar's youthful, outward-looking and increasingly tech-savvy population.
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