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For American IT Giants, A Mission to Burma

BY Julia Wetherell | Wednesday, March 6 2013

After nearly 30 years of U.S. government imposed sanctions, several American information technology firms sent delegates on a trade visit to Burma (Myanmar), for the first time in the Internet age.  Facilitated by USAID, the US companies – including Google, Microsoft, HP, Intel, and Cisco – convened with the Burmese Chamber of Congress during an economic conference in Rangoon on February 25.  With Burma’s bid to join the Open Government Partnership looming, the meeting raises questions of a military regime’s ability to foster government accountability and transparency.

Burma’s regime has been known over the past several decades as one of the most repressive in the world, for its brutality towards citizens, severe limitations on freedom of speech, and oppression of minority groups.  Yet a series of human rights reforms in 2011 and 2012 – including labor and press reforms and the freeing of political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest in November 2010 – saw the easing of US trade restrictions last September. 

The relaxing of sanctions paved the road to Burma for the American IT giants. On the agenda was strengthening the country’s tech infrastructure and industry. As techPresident reported in September, Burmese Internet and mobile penetration remains remarkably low for the developing world.  Only 0.2 percent of the population is currently online, and one in 100 people have mobile phone access, although the country has taken steps to expand the mobile network.

A press release from the USAID on Monday said that an additional goal of the visit was “strengthening transparent and efficient government.”  Burmese President Thein Sein pledged to join the Open Government Partnership by 2016 before US President Barack Obama visited the country in November, a statement that Obama supported.

Yet The Irrawady reported that OGP co-chair Francis Maude, a member of the British Parliament who was in Rangoon last week, cautions that Myanmar has a long way to go in spite of the reforms:

“There are important changes which need to be implemented in order for this country to join OGP, including budget transparency, disclosure of assets for senior public officials…[and] an access to information law.”

Maude noted that the Burmese reforms have resulted in a free media law.  Yet that legislation – which is currently being debated in Parliament – is seen as counterintuitive by many critics.  It includes provisions that prevent journalists from printing information that contradicts the Constitution, or that could spurn public outcry in any form.  If entry to the OGP is on Burma's agenda, the government is going to have to tow the line to 2016 and beyond.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.