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Development, Opportunity, and Racism: Perceptions of Qatar’s Ooredoo in Myanmar

April 11, 2017


Erin McAuliffe

In 2013, the Myanmar government extended two invitations to foreign ICT companies — Norwegian Telenor and Qatari Ooredoo — to develop the infrastructure and services for public mobile data. For the first time, the market liberalized and mobile phones and mobile data became readily accessible and available in Myanmar. Initially, the government’s decision to extend an offer to Ooredoo, a company from an Islamic country, was met with criticism by many groups across the diverse country.

Racism is a persistent issue in Myanmar, particularly against Muslim communities. Leading radical monks and hardline Buddhist activists boycotted the company out of fear that it would “somehow embolden Myanmar’s Muslim minority.” In Northern Shan State, The Committee for the Protection of Religion and Nationality, also known as MaBaTha – a radical Buddhist organization infamously known for its statements and actions against Muslim communities – threatened that the group and its members must never answer a call from any group or person using Ooredoo.

Despite these cries of disapproval and boycotts, the Myanmar government stood behind their decision. As Sithu Aung Myint argued in 2014, “Myanmar is a country seeking to overcome poverty. It is not rich enough to refuse investment from Islamic countries, and the authorities are not crazy enough to try it.” It appears the government was mature in realizing the necessary actions to successfully liberalize and be a competitive state in the world economy; this meant looking past any racial and communal biases for opportunity and development.

Based on the absence of relevant international news sources, the abundance of people using Ooredoo SIM cards, and the continued growth of Ooredoo towers and services in Myanmar, it appeared as if the foreseen problems had been avoided or subsided. However, a research trip I recently took into Myanmar’s Shan State – a territory away from the booming development and perceived opportunity in urban Yangon – showed me that tension does still exist and perhaps contributes to Ooredoo’s lower success than government-owned Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) and Telenor. Here I encountered several individuals who strongly and profanely expressed their hatred for Ooredoo and what it represented. Although it does not appear to have sparked any open conflict recently, this association of Ooredoo with Islam and its visual presence is subconsciously institutionalizing racial discrimination in some communities and internationalizing local communal tensions.

Speaking another language opens up the great, the good, the bad, and the ugly of another world. It can also foster trust – particularly between foreigner and local – that otherwise might not exist. This was certainly my experience in Shan State. Although there are a number of international tourist destinations now in Shan State, these remain relatively isolated pockets; the remainder of this vast territory sees little to no tourism. It was outside the comfort of one of these pockets where I was visiting for research that the Burmese language became my key to trust, respect, and opportunity.

My accommodation had arranged a motor escort for me on my day off to see some of the surrounding areas. As they arrived, their surprised and slightly fearful eyes told me they were not expecting to see a foreigner; however, the lovely staff members were quick to my rescue. “Ya ba deh (It’s okay), she speaks Burmese!” My escort instantly relaxed, tested this statement with a few quick questions to me, and then quickly became an entertaining conversation partner for the next few hours.

While atop a hill overlooking the town and surrounding villages my escort asked me, “what do you study?” Not wanting to dive into the contested and sensitive world of identity politics, I pointed at the abundance of new shiny cell towers in the distance and replied, “I study land, cell towers, and ICTs.”  I started asking about the various cell towers in sight; “How long had they been there, had building them caused any complications for farmers, and whose towers were they?” As we came across a set of Ooredoo’s towers, it sparked an outrage of responses that had little to do with the services Ooredoo was providing and more to do with the contentious ethno-religious politics plaguing the country.

“Ooredoo bad; Muslims,” my escort said to me in Burmese. Their demeanor in our conversation quickly turned from jovial and light-hearted to one of rage. They continued to express their personal opinions regarding how people do not like Ooredoo because it comes from a Muslim country and Muslims were “bad” without any further explanation as to the reasons why Muslims should be hated.

We were then joined by someone passing by. The additional conversationalist reconfirmed the racial stereotypes being described by my escort. The two continued to try and convince me that Ooredoo was a bad company, that very few people in the area use it, and that Muslims were bad people. Whereas I had thought the issues regarding Ooredoo had largely subsided, my conversations atop the hill in Shan State that day reaffirmed that this was not the case.

For the remainder of my time in both this town and back in Yangon, I continued to inquire among locals their perceptions of Ooredoo in the country. In this part of Shan State, I received several other negative opinions regarding Ooredoo as a result of ethno-religious tension. Alternatively, I received very few negative responses in Yangon. In the big city, most folks seemed to look at Ooredoo and Telenor similarly. In fact, many people have a SIM card from each. Opinions in Yangon seem to indicate that both are providing new opportunities for connectivity and have their advantages.

However, in comparison to the other two primary providers in Myanmar – Telenor and MPT – Ooredoo is behind in subscriptions. In April of 2016, Ooredoo had 7.1 million subscribers whereas Telenor had 15.5 million and MPT 19 million. It is quite possible that the company’s inability to secure equal or more subscribers than the other companies is attributed to racial barriers associated with the company’s origin. But, such assumptions are difficult to evidence. Despite lower subscription numbers and strong negative opinions among populations outside of Yangon, the company’s continued growth indicates that development and opportunity are superseding racism in at least urban areas.

Ooredoo has led the way for new and improved services in Myanmar’s emerging ICT market. It was the only company to launch 3G services from the beginning and the first to launch 4G in the top three urban areas (Yangon, Mandalay, and Naypyidaw). In addition, revenues and subscribers have continued to grow each quarter. In 2015, revenue increased from $65 million to $75 million between quarter 1 and quarter 2 and Ooredoo data usage doubled. Furthermore, between 2015 and 2016 the company doubled the number of subscribers.

If widespread racism had penetrated all aspects of the country’s affairs, such development for Ooredoo would not have been possible. Although it lags behind its competitors, perhaps attributed to contentious politics in the country, it appears that, generally speaking, people’s desire for modernity, development, and access to new services have provided a means to look past persistent racism in the country.

Data on the company’s development and the absence of overt conflict seem to indicate on the surface that Ooredoo’s origins are not contributing to widespread problems of racism. In spite of this, my personal encounters in areas outside of Myanmar’s booming and internationalizing cities cannot be ignored.

For some, Ooredoo’s presence provides a further visible symbol of Islam in the country and an indicator of economic success for such communities. Racism and economic advantage are often intertwined and this is certainly the case in Myanmar’s current conflicts between ethno-religious communities. This internationalizes racial perceptions by drawing local ethno-religious tensions into a more global anti-Islam perception and perpetuates ethno-religious racism among some of the nation’s communities less touched by the rapid development and opportunity that has paralleled political transition in the country’s urban areas.

In Yangon, opportunity has likely overcome certain political boundaries as the accessibility and affordability of ICTs have provided amble opportunities for individuals to connect to the wider world and participate in modernity; however, in other areas, like this part of Shan State, development is sparser and economic opportunity more limited. This creates a space for pre-existing political tensions to emerge and spread irrespective of new developments.

Ooredoo, as a leading ICT provider, has a lot to offer these less developed areas and should extend the scope of its focus to the country’s peripheral areas for two reasons: 1) individuals in these areas are awaiting development and can benefit from ICT connectivity, and 2) increased connectivity, accessibility, and affordability of these services in less developed areas has the potential to help soften racial hostility towards religious minorities in the country.

Ooredoo has stated that it attempts to reach out to communities in different ways to help subside racial presumptions regarding the company. Through appealing to these populations with enhanced accessibility and affordability of ICT services, the company can ease racial stereotypes by bringing widespread opportunity and modernity to areas of the country awaiting the benefits of Myanmar’s long awaited opening up.

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.