Sectarian clashes between Muslim-minorities and Buddhists in Myanmar have allegedly angered the Islamic militant group, the Indian Mujahideen, and the Buddhist population and monasteries in India are at risk, according to intelligence sources.
India’s National Investigation Agency on Monday alerted the North Indian state of Himachal Pradesh about a possible terrorist attack on Buddhists and monasteries across the state, according to the Indian media.
After Bodhgaya in eastern India, where Lord Buddha attained enlightenment, was attacked by the terrorist group recently, the security at Dalai Lama temple in Dhramshala in north India has been noticeably tightened.
The National Investigation Agency has reportedly sent a communiqué to the northern Indian state police, cautioning them about possible terrorist attack on monasteries, especially in Dharamshala, the exile seat of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Plans to attack the monasteries in North India were exposed by Obedu Rehman, an operative of the India based terrorist group, according to the Hindustan Times.
Earlier this month, a series of eight blasts occurred in and around the Buddhist shrine in Bodhgaya, injuring two monks- one Tibetan and one Myanmar.
The blasts took place a day after the birthday of the Dalai Lama.
The Tibetan spiritual leader described the attacks as “very sad” while noting that it could be an act of “few individuals” and “shouldn’t be considered serious.”
“We are thankful to the Central Government and the Government of Bihar for the security provided at the Mahabodhi Temple and express our full faith in the ongoing investigation of the serial blasts,” said Lobsang Sangay.
The Dalai Lama has sent a letter to the Myanmar opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi urging to find a way to end the sectarian clashes in the country.
Suu Kyi tlll date has taken no stance regarding the clashes. She recently expressed her wish to contest the 2015 presidential election. Many people hope that If Suu Kyi wins the presidential election; she might be able to end the clashes in the country.
Buddhist monk Wirathu in Yangon, Burma. The 46-year-old has been blamed for inspiring sectarian violence
Radical buddhist nationalism is sweeping Burma, and at the forefront of the movement is a group more commonly associated with peace and tolerance: monks.
The most prominent among them is the controversial cleric U Wirathu, who gives passionate sermons from his Mandalay base calling on Buddhists to stand up against the “Muslim threat”.
“I believe Islam is a threat not just to Buddhism, but to the [Burmese] people and the country,” says the monk, whose boyish face and toothy grin belie the name his critics have given him: “the Buddhist bin Laden”.
The 46-year-old has been blamed for inspiring sectarian violence, which began in the long-volatile western state of Rakhine bordering Burma’s mostly Muslim neighbour, Bangladesh, but has spread to areas unused to such tension.
Hundreds of Muslims have been killed, mosques burned and many thousands driven from their homes.
Burma’s president, Thein Sein, will face demands to rein in anti-Muslim violence when he arrives on an official visit to Britain on Sunday. He has been invited by David Cameron to reward the gradual moves towards restoring democracy to Burma that began with the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, in 2011.
The former general, once a part of the military junta that ruled Burma for almost 50 years, has been criticised for allowing the ethnic attacks to continue. He will also be questioned over official tolerance of outspoken figures such as Wirathu who are blamed by many for whipping up hatred against Muslims.
It is an accusation Wirathu denies, instead blaming all the religious violence on Burma’s Muslims, who make up 5 per cent of the population.
In the leafy courtyard of the New Masoeyain monastery, where he lives and teaches, billboards display gruesome images of butchered and burned monks and of Buddhist women raped and killed – alongside pictures from around the world depicting Islamist violence.
A woman walks past a burnt out area in Sittwe, Myanmar, where dozens of Rohingya families used to live until fires destroyed the homes (GETTY)
He insists he does not believe in, and has not encouraged Buddhist attacks such as the riots a year ago in Rakhine that left 200 people dead and up to 140,000, mainly Muslims, homeless. Nor, apparently, has he joined those monks who have reportedly taken part in attacks.
He has, however, previously compared Muslims to “mad dogs” and called them “troublemakers”. Monks hold considerable sway in Burma, so when they condemn a single ethnic group at a time of political upheaval and uncertainty, critics say it is hardly surprising if violence flares. The solutions Wirathu offers to the perceived threat to Burma’s Buddhist majority are certainly provocative.
“I don’t know how you tame a wild elephant in your country,” he told The Sunday Telegraph, when asked what exactly he means when he says Buddhist Burmese should “stand up for themselves”, “but here the first thing you do is take away all their food and water. Then when the elephant is starving and weak you give him a little bit of water and teach him one word. Then you give him a little bit of food and teach him some more. That’s how we tame the elephants here.”
This is his metaphor for the imposition of economic sanctions on Muslims, who are also known as Rohingya, an ethnic grouping in the northwest that has long been denied Burmese citizenship. Buddhists, he insists, should not shop in Muslim stores, nor sell land to Muslims. This principle is being promoted by a movement, which he started in conjunction with other monks from southern Burma, known as 969.
Those figures are said to represent Buddhist virtues. In the form of a logo, however, they are a badge used to help supporters identify businesses as Buddhist-run.
It adorns videos distributed by the group showing scenes of destruction and violence supposedly caused by Muslims. It is also appearing increasingly at rallies, such as one held in Rangoon last week to protest against a front cover of Time magazine which described Wirathu as “The Face of Buddhist Terror”.
Wirathu has also proposed a ban on marriage between Buddhists and Muslims. “Women should not get married to Islamic men. If one Buddhist woman gets married to an Islamic man, it’s not just one less Buddhist [because Islam requires her to convert], but they will have one more and they will have lots of children so the population balance can change quickly.”
The poet and artist Soe Wei, who was a political prisoner of the Burmese military junta for two years, says that like many Burmese he finds it difficult to criticise a monk, though he does not share all of Wirathu’s opinions. Pressed on whether he sees Wirathu as a figure of terror or a man of peace, Soe Wei shakes his head then smiles wryly.
“I don’t see him as a man of peace. I’ve never seen anyone in authority really willing to have peace in Myanmar.”
Come Thursday, we’ll know whether O’Brien’s background impressed the Naypyitaw government more than the stolid, faceless managers of China Mobile.
A woman waits for customers at a “public call office” in Yangon on May 27, 2012. Just a few million out of Myanmar’s 50-plus million population have mobile phones and access to an as-yet extremely limited system
The biggest and most colorful collection of telecommunications companies assembled in years is waiting for the decision bell to ring in Naypyitaw this week on one of the world’s last untapped mobile phone markets.
Twelve international telecom businesses and consortia are on a government shortlist, out of which only two will be awarded contracts to build networks for potentially more than 50 million new telephone customers.
The decision on Thursday will pave the way to propelling Myanmar into the 21st century, at least in telecommunications terms.
Just a few million out of Myanmar’s 50-plus million population have mobile phones and access to an as-yet extremely limited system.
After years of tightly restricted mobile phone ownership through extortionate prices, the government of President U Thein Sein wants wireless telecommunications to be available to up to 80 percent of the population by 2016.
Some of the world’s biggest telephone network companies and some of the most obscure are on the short list, whittled down from about 90 firms.
They are China Mobile Limited and Vodafone Group in a partnership; Singapore Telecommunications; Bharti Airtel of India; MTN from Dubai; the Irish-owned Digicel Group; KDDI Corporation of Japan; Sumitomo Corporation, also from Japan; Malaysia’s Axiata Group; Telenor of Norway; Millicom International Cellular of Luxembourg; Qatar Telecom; and Vietnam’s Viettel Group.
The world’s two biggest mobile phone service operators, China Mobile and Vodafone, have 1.14 billion subscribers globally between them. They have teamed up to make the most powerful bid.
But probably the most colorful is the joint venture put together by the small Digicel, which operates mostly among the small Caribbean islands, although it is owned by an entrepreneur from Ireland.
Digicel’s joint venture partners in the license bid are Quantum Strategic Partners, owned by American billionaire speculator George Soros, and Myanmar’s Yoma Strategic Holdings, owned by noted Rangoon businessman U Serge Pun.
“The challenge for the winners will be recovering the cost of building and maintaining mobile phone networks in one of Asia’s very poorest countries,” said an industry executive with a large Bangkok-based phone company who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Burmese are just about the lowest paid people in the region and so although the price of SIM cards and phones has become more universally affordable in recent months, the unanswered question is how will these people pay for phone services?”
SIM card prices have plummeted dramatically from US $250 just over a year ago to a mere $1.70 today. But they are not yet widely available. About 350,000 cards were issued in April, many on a lottery basis, and similar numbers will be issued in the coming months.
Can the chosen network franchise holders recoup their investment?
“The opportunity is tremendous, but not without risk,” Nomura Securities’ chief of Asian telecoms Sachin Gupta told Bloomberg. “There are 60 million users potentially, but that needs a lot of network investment.”
Other foreign telecommunications companies are waiting in the wings to offer ancillary services once the network licenses are issued.
Avaya of the US, which specializes in video conferencing and data networking, has teamed up with local firm First Myanmar, which is also in U Serge Pun’s business stable.
“We believe that we are uniquely positioned to offer affordable first-class communications to the people of Myanmar and are looking forward to having the opportunity to do so,” Digicel owner Denis O’Brien told the Irish Independent, which he also owns.
Unlike some of the other bidders which have kept a profile as they quietly lobby behind the scenes to promote their credentials to government ministers and officials, Digicel has pursued a high-profile public image in support of their bid.
The Jamaica-based firm, ranked only 65th in customer size in the global telecoms market, has been sponsoring Myanmar sport, promoting brand awareness among people who don’t yet even have a phone, and surveying sites for transmission aerials across the country.
“The low mobile penetration rate in [Myanmar] presents a significant opportunity for telecoms firms, but the Digicel consortium will face some stiff competition for licenses,” commented the Irish Independent newspaper, pointing out that O’Brien’s telecommunications forays into the Caribbean islands in the past 10 years have made his fortune.
Not bad for someone who started out on his business career selling horse medicines for his father.
The Digicel joint venture is up against the might of the world’s biggest mobile phone service operator, China Mobile, a state-owned enterprise with 97 percent of the colossal Chinese market and over 700 million customers. But perhaps the recent backlash against China’s strong business influence in Myanmar will influence bid decision-making.
Come Thursday, we’ll know whether O’Brien’s background impressed the Naypyitaw government more than the stolid, faceless managers of China Mobile.
Rohingya: the world’s most forgotten people
This is what the Bangladeshi authorities don’t want you to see: 300,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar living in makeshift camps alone the Bangladesh border. Officially, Bangladeshi authorities do not recognise their existence, but in reality Rohingyas are tolerated and are known as unregistered refugees. Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Hague reports
via The Contact.ie Daily.
Digicel, who is also in the running, is already accepting applicants.
“We now started accepting job applications for our company
They seem pretty confidant that they will receive a licence
Competition between foreign telecom companies intensified as many begin recruiting local employees less than a week before Myanmar‘s government is due to announce the winners of two lucrative operating licenses.
Experts say that this is one of the most competitive international bids in what is regarded as one of the world’s last untapped mobile markets. The government is expected to announce the two winners on June 27.
“We will employ local and foreign workers fifty-fifty at the beginning. Later there will be more local employees at our company but monthly salaries for them will be according to the national rules,” said Andy Chong of Axiata Group, one Asia’s biggest telecom companies.
Although many foreign companies in the bidding for the two mobile licenses have started recruiting, qualified professionals in Myanmar are scarce. Digicel, who is also in the running, is already accepting applicants.
“We now started accepting job applications for our company. We will choose those who meet our required qualifications,” said an official from Digicel.
Singapore‘s Singtel, who has teamed up with Myanmar partners KBZ and M-Tel, are also seeking employees. Though other bidders have yet to start recruiting, many companies have been promising jobs for Myanmar workers.
And the winner will be the one who can deliver the biggest brown envelope
I am putting my money on Digicel to get a license
Competition has intensified between the remaining telecom companies who are competing for a lucrative license to operate in Myanmar. Many have recently announced how much they intend to spend should they win the bid and are busy advertising their services in local media.
“We have more than 195 million users in 22 countries. The selection committee will see that we can provide an important service in Myanmar if they review our proposal and background history. Some countries we have worked with are rather similar to the Myanmar communication market,” said Mr. Simphiwe Cele, General Manager at MTN, one of the contending companies.
Another contender, Digicel has said they plan to invest US$9 billion if they win the license while France Telecom Orange has announced that they plan to invest US$1 billion in installing communication towers. Upping the stakes, Ooredoo, formerly known as Qtel, has said they would invest US$15 billion to expand their telecommunication services across Myanmar.
Most companies acknowledge that they will have to spend a large amount on infrastructure as Myanmar currently lags behind its ASEAN neighbours in the mobile phone market due to the restrictions placed on telecom communication by the military government in the past. Less than 10 percent of the population currently use mobile phones and experts predict that the market has potential to grow rapidly in coming years.
The Norway based Telenor said they are confident about winning the operator license because they have 35 percent of market shares in Thailand which is a comparable with market in Myanmar. They believe that they have enough experience to win the license.
Many Myanmar citizens are hoping that services provided by the mobile providers will be better if the competition between the companies is intensified. Eleven overseas telecommunication companies are currently waiting for the government to announce the two remaining operator licenses. The announcement is expected on June 27.
In an effort to improve its telecommunications coverage, Myanmar had announced its intention to grant two mobile licenses in January of this year, and received 22 application bids from 18 international mobile providers. Last month, Myanmar’s telecom ministry reduced the initial list of approved bidders to 12, which included the Vodafone and China Mobile consortium.
In advance of the June 3 deadline to submit formal proposals for one of the two 15-year licenses, the Vodafone-China Mobile consortium has decided “not to proceed with the process as the opportunity does not meet the strict internal investment criteria to which both Vodafone and China Mobile adhere,” the company said. The consortium’s decision to withdraw from the bidding process follows a review of Myanmar’s final license conditions released on May 20.
According to the announcement, Vodafone and China Mobile will, “continue to watch Myanmar’s progress with interest and will give due consideration to any future opportunities that would meet the companies’ investment criteria.”
Deep-seated prejudice, radical Buddhist monks fuel violence against Myanmar’s Muslims – The Washington Post
LASHIO, Myanmar — When a huge mob of Buddhist thugs crawled on the roof of Ma Sandar Soe’s shop, doused it with gasoline and set it ablaze, the Buddhist businesswoman didn’t blame them for burning it to the ground despite seeing it happen with her own eyes.
Instead, her wrath was reserved for minority Muslims she accused of igniting Myanmar’s latest round of sectarian unrest.
“This happened because of the Muslims,” she declared, sifting through charred CDs in the ruins of her recording studio.
As Myanmar grapples with its transition to democracy, its Muslim minority is experiencing its perils in vivid, bloody fashion. Hundreds have died since last year as victims of sectarian strife.
In the country’s latest round of Buddhist-Muslim violence, swarms of Buddhist men roamed Lashio’s crumbling streets this week, armed with rocks and sticks and machetes. Before police and army troops stepped in, anarchic crowds had torched scores of Muslim-owned shops, sending plumes of black smoke into the sky. By the time it all ended, at least one person was dead and the town’s Muslim community cowered in their homes in fear.
Ma Sandar Soe’s studio fell victim because it sat in the shadow of the mob’s main target — Lashio’s mosque. As orange flames leapt from the ashes, she explained her rationale for pointing the finger at Muslims: The Buddhist mob was provoked by reports that a Muslim man from out of town tried to burn a Buddhist woman alive. The woman survived, badly burned, and the man was arrested.
But the roots of anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar, also called Burma, are far deeper and more complex than any single incident in any single town.
“There is a deep, underlying prejudice there. Even when Buddhists say they have Muslim friends, they call them ‘kalar’ and other derogatory terms,” said Mark Farmaner of London-based Burma Campaign UK, a democracy promotion group. “That prejudice is easily exploited, and it’s a cancer that is now spreading.”
“Successive military regimes have implanted the dislike of Muslims in the mind of the general public and enacted ad hoc and de facto discriminatory restrictions,” said Sai Latt, a doctoral candidate at Canada’s Simon Fraser University who has written extensively on Muslims in Myanmar.
Myanmar society has been in a state of flux since a nominally democratic government came to power in 2011 after almost five decades of harsh military rule. A liberalized economy has accompanied the political changes. And the advent of democracy has enabled hate speech to flourish.
“There are so few sanctions now on those who provide contrarian or critical or indeed radical ideas about how society should be structured,” said Nicholas Farrelly, a research fellow at Australian National University. “There is this awakening of different sentiments; some of those are very progressive and democratic, in other cases they are profoundly reactionary and or authoritarian in spirit.”
Into the breach has stepped a phalanx of well-organized Buddhist monks. Aside from their religious standing, their credibility derives from historically playing a vanguard role in politics — once upon a time against British colonial rule, in more recent decades against military dictatorship.
Describing themselves as nationalists, their sermons no longer target the powerful, but instead play on deep-seated fears of the darker-skinned outsiders, Muslims of South Asian heritage who allegedly pose a threat to racial purity and national security.
Preaching all over the country, even in areas with no discernible Muslim populations, monks belonging to the radical Buddhist movement called 969 urge Buddhists to boycott Muslim businesses and not to marry, sell property to or hire Muslims. They accuse Muslims of rape, terrorism and other depredations. The group’s graffiti, T-shirts and stickers are seen everywhere — including Lashio.
“Many within the government and those close to the government share anti-Muslim sentiments and fears,” said Sai Latt. “Many believe 969 is only an economic nationalist movement. They don’t seem to see that 969’s economic nationalism is actually a crime — spreading hate messages — that is implanting hate that prompts deadly clashes.”
Some suggest the anti-Muslim campaign has covert official backing, perhaps from hard-liners seeking to weaken President Thein Sein and his reform agenda.
“The violence is well-organized and appears to be a continuous campaign to spark fires across the country, creating instability, which would suggest it has the backing of political forces,” said Benedict Rogers of London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which promotes religious tolerance.
“However, conspiracy theories must not be used as an excuse to ignore the deeper issues within society,” he said. “If there was no prejudice within society, it would be much harder to orchestrate this violence.”
Muslims are not major power brokers in Myanmar, but in any given town, some strike high commercial profiles, and they are often seen by many Buddhists as members of a wealthy merchant class. One of Lashio’s most prominent hotels, for example, a six-story building that sits on a hilltop, is owned by a Muslim businessman who also runs cinemas and other shops that were ransacked this week by mobs.
The violence against Muslims first erupted a year ago on the distant southwestern coast, but it has since spread to the country’s central heartland, to the outskirts of the largest city, Yangon, and now, with the riots in Lashio, to the hilly northeast along the Chinese border.
Not all monks have taken part in 969, and some say it is only a small and extremist element that doesn’t represent Buddhist religion as a whole. Some prominent monks, including Gambira — who helped lead the so-called Saffron uprising against the military in 2007 — have also openly criticized the movement.
In Lashio, where more than 1,200 displaced Muslims are taking shelter in one of the city’s main Buddhist monasteries, monk Pannya Sar Mi says the mobs who attacked Muslim shops this week were “terrorists.”
“What happened here isn’t about Buddhists or Muslims,” he says. “It’s about bad people doing bad things.”
However, Pannya Sar Mi pointedly refused to criticize 969, saying he doesn’t know much about it.
Thein Sein’s administration has been heavily criticized for not doing enough to protect Muslims, but in Lashio the army’s intervention appears to have stemmed further violence, indicating authorities may have learned from past riots. They deployed trucks of troops throughout the city and security forces cracked down hard on mobs. At least 25 men were arrested, one of whom was dragged from a checkpoint by his hair.
Muslims here have been shocked that the attack on one Buddhist woman by a Muslim man from out of town could spark such violence. The government issued a statement saying the assault was not religiously motivated, and there is some evidence suggesting the man suffered from mental disturbances.
Nu Nu, a 19-year-old Muslim woman who was helping her brother load salvaged television sets from their charred electronics shop, said the hatred was hard to comprehend since there had been no open animosity before.
“Most of this violence is against Muslims,” she said. “But we don’t understand it. We didn’t do anything to them.”
A 29-year-old sister of the woman who was burned said she felt horrible that the attack on her sibling spurred citywide unrest. She declined to be identified for safety reasons.
“I feel sorry for them,” she said of Lashio’s Muslim population. “Only the criminals should be punished. There should be no more victims. I don’t want any of the good Muslims to be hurt.”
But, like Ma Sandar Soe, she said she understood the Buddhist outrage.
As smoke rose from the wreckage of an entire corner of downtown, including the blackened hulk of a three-story building just a few steps from the surgical ward where her sister was recovering with severe burns across her face and body, she said, “In our country, the problems are always started by the Muslims.”
The Irony of this story is that most of the drug trade is controlled by state officials
YANGON – Myanmar has delayed by five years its deadline to eliminate drug production within its borders, a senior official said Monday, as the impoverished nation struggles to stem a growing narcotics crisis.
Authorities are “very concerned” about a rebound in poppy cultivation over the last six years in Myanmar, the world’s second-largest opium producer, while amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) are also surging, said deputy police chief Zaw Win.
Due to “threats posed by ATS” and to achieve a reduction in poppy cultivation, Myanmar’s narcotic control board has “extended its drug elimination to 2019”, he said at the opening of six nation talks in Yangon. The previous target was 2014.
He added that Myanmar’s authorities were “doing our best” to help stem the flow of drugs in the region.
Officials from China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have gathered in Myanmar for days of talks on a worsening drugs crisis, which the United Nations has warned poses a threat to public security.
A ministerial-level meeting in the capital Nya Pyi Taw on Thursday is expected to produce a regional declaration on the issue.
Zaw Win told delegates that it was “crystal clear that (the) methamphetamine problem is growing rapidly”, adding that “more and more international drug syndicates are becoming involved”.
“Illicit drug production and trafficking are closely linked to instability, human security and insurgency at the border areas, which creates serious challenges to the ability of law enforcement agencies,” he said.
The drugs trade is closely linked to Myanmar’s long-running insurgencies in remote areas bordering Thailand, Laos and China – known as the golden triangle – with ethnic minority rebels widely thought to use drug profits to fund operations.
As part of its reform drive, Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government has reached tentative peace deals with most major armed ethnic groups.
But Gary Lewis, regional representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, in December said the ease of production of methamphetamine in small laboratories, along with distrust between the rebels and authorities meant that some groups could decide to “hedge their bets”.
Around 5.9 million methamphetamine pills were seized in Myanmar in 2011, almost double the figure for the previous year, the UN said in a December report, although seizures are likely to represent only a fraction of the amount produced.
Myanmar was once the world’s largest producer of illicit opium until it was replaced by Afghanistan in 1991. But after years of decline, poppy cultivation again began to rise in 2007.
Cellular operator Digicel Group Ltd jumped into Myanmar early and big, hiring staff, funding local sports, negotiating land deals for thousands of cell tower sites and signing up hundreds of partners for retail outlets.
The strategy helped propel it onto the shortlist for a mobile license in one of the world’s last mobile frontiers, putting an operator that ranks 65th globally in terms of customers up against giants such as Vodafone Group
Whether its strategy pays off or not, industry insiders say, Digicel, largely unknown outside the Caribbean and some Pacific islands, has shaken up a usually conservative industry.
“They have been a disruptive force,” said Roger Barlow, a Hong Kong-based telecommunications consultant who has worked in Asia for more than 25 years. “Some of the big guys tend to look down their noses at them but they shouldn’t because they’re becoming a credible player.”
Myanmar this month short-listed 12 consortia for two licenses it plans to grant foreign operators in late June. The government wants to expand mobile penetration from less than 4 percent to up to 80 percent by 2015-16.
While Digicel is up against behemoths such as Vodafone, China Mobile Ltd and Telenor ASA, several other big players failed to make the list – among them South Korea’s SK Telecom Co Ltd and Egypt’s Orascom Telecom Holding SAE.
It’s a vindication of sorts for Digicel’s long-term approach. Business development director Frank O’Carroll led the charge into Myanmar in 2009. In early 2012 he persuaded the company to commit funds to build a local brand and prepare the ground so that if it did get the go-ahead it could roll out a service in a matter of months.
That entailed deploying hundreds of workers across the country to negotiate thousands of leases for base station sites, months before the government had even begun the tender process.
“There’s not one square inch of the country we haven’t been in,” O’Carroll said in an interview in Singapore.
Its sponsorship of the national football federation has built brand awareness – of sorts. Lots of locals have heard of Digicel, O’Carroll said, though at least initially they were as likely to think it’s a brand of battery as a cellphone operator.
It’s a strategy, he said, that Digicel has been pursuing in much smaller markets for more than a decade.
“What we are doing in Myanmar is not unique to Myanmar,” said O’Carroll. “The first country that Digicel as a company looked to get a license was Trinidad and Tobago. We did very the same thing. We were there, we leased the land, we rented local offices, we started a local team, sponsored big sports.”
SMALL AND NIMBLE
Digicel has since set up shop in 31 markets, gaining 13 million customers. While none boasts a population above 10 million people, the company has taken on some major rivals, including America Movil SAB, Vodafone, Telefonica and Cable & Wireless.
“I don’t think there’s any fantastic science to it, but I do think it’s our ability to move fast because we’re small, we don’t have this complex machinery that takes months and months to make decisions,” said Vanessa Slowey, Singapore-based CEO of Digicel Asia Pacific, in an interview.
Making those decisions is Digicel owner Denis O’Brien, an Irish billionaire who first focused on small markets in the Caribbean after noticing that spectrum was being auctioned off in Jamaica. Eventually the Pacific beckoned.
Telecoms executive David Borrill recalls meeting O’Brien in his office after three years working for the incumbent operator in Samoa. “He went straight over to his library and opened the biggest atlas he had, turned to the Pacific and said, ‘Tell me about this, where would you put an office here?'”
A few weeks later Borrill was back in Samoa, this time working for Digicel. The company bought out Telecom New Zealand’s stake in the incumbent operator in 2006, and within six months had more than doubled its customer base.
Last financial year the company reported revenue of $2.5 billion, year-on-year growth of 14 percent and EBITDA of $1.08 billion, up 13 percent. It has 87 percent market share in Haiti, at least 75 percent in Jamaica and 92 percent of Papua New Guinea, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
“Digicel is very astute in selecting the markets it enters,” said John Hibbard, an Australia-based telecoms consultant. “It has to be convinced it will win a reasonable market share.”
When it isn’t, it’s prepared to abort. In East Timor, for example, Digicel went so far as building cell towers, and assured the government that if granted a license it could cover more than 90 percent of the population within four months.
But, Digicel said, the government dragged its feet and ignored advice to issue only one license. So when it did eventually win one of the two on offer last year, Digicel turned it down. “Why would we invest $50 million to compete with two other operators, for the 40 percent that is left? It’s crazy. So we handed our license back,” said O’Carroll.
Digicel sold its assets to the other licensee Telin, a unit of Indonesia’s PT Telkom. The company broke even on its Timor investment, said Digicel’s Slowey, without giving details.
Such an approach is at odds with the industry’s more conservative approach, where investment decisions must be highly rational and based on certain outcomes.
“Digicel doesn’t have the institutional memory of other telcos,” said Rob Bratby, a Singapore-based telecoms lawyer with Olswang LLP. “It’s an example of a company with a different mental framework.”
Digicel, however, has not had a free ride in Myanmar. The government turned down its proposal in 2012 to set up a joint venture with the incumbent operator, Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications, in favor of an open tender.
That has meant facing the diplomatic and financial muscle of some of the world’s biggest and best-connected operators, prompting Digicel to take on its own partners: Yoma Strategic Holdings, owned by Serge Pun, a powerful businessman who, unlike many tycoons in Myanmar, isn’t entangled in Western sanctions. The other member of the consortium: Quantum Strategic Partners, owned by financier George Soros.
The Soros-funded Open Society Foundations have long worked with exiles, refugees and dissidents, according to its website. Last year Soros said he would set up an office in Yangon.
Digicel shrugs off criticism that it lacks the experience of working in big markets like Myanmar, arguing that it’s harder to work in lots of countries, whatever their size. Among the shortlistees, only France Telecom SA matches Digicel in the number of markets covered.
“Whether it’s the smallest country in the world you deploy in or the largest, it’s still the same building blocks, still the same issues that you must go through,” said O’Carroll. “A lot of those same things, whether it’s Nauru’s 9,000 people or Myanmar’s 60 million, we think are going to be identical.”
Another Fallen Angel
Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to condemn attacks on Muslims in Myanmar has dimmed the Nobel laureate’s lustre among global rights campaigners, but observers say her reticence will do her no harm with voters.
Nearly a month after religious riots killed 43 people in central Myanmar, the former political prisoner turned lawmaker finally voiced sympathy for Muslims targeted by violence that saw mosques and homes razed.
But Suu Kyi again failed to clearly condemn attacks against Muslims—who represent an estimated 4% of the population—or hate speech by some extremist Buddhist monks.
RANGOON — According to Burma’s government, the Rohingya do not exist. Denied citizenship by an internationally criticized 1982 law, the stateless “Bengali immigrants” have in the past faced pogroms, persecution from the Burmese government and more recently from other Burmese.
Thousands of Rohingya have fled to countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand over the past year, giving Burma’s neighbors and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) an ostensible stake in addressing the Rohingya crisis.
But despite launching a new human rights body at the most recent Asean summit in Phnom Penh in November 2012—including a surprise clause acknowledging “universal” human rights norms—the group has largely stuck to its non-interference mantra.
Since June 2012, over 220 people have died in what has widely been described as sectarian fighting between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma, with most of the deaths in Arakan State in the country’s west, where most of Burma’s estimated 800,000 Rohingya live.
In Arakan State last June, mobs of Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya clashed after the May rape and murder of a young Arakanese woman, a crime for which three Rohingya men were arrested. Arakanese retaliation quickly spread to Myanmar’s other Muslim groups, with ten pilgrims lynched by a Buddhist Arakanese mob in June—a crime for which nobody has been charged.
There were more Arakanese-Muslim clashes in October 2012, and in March this year, 43 were killed—some gruesomely and most of them Muslims—in central Burma, after which the sole arrests, to date, have been 3 Muslims who were involved in a shop row at the outset of the violence.
What at first looked like local sectarian fighting later took on the form of a vicious anti-Rohingya and then anti-Muslim campaign, with rabble-rousing monk Wirathu at the forefront. Burma’s current government has not only not done enough to prevent or stop the violence; it has been complicit, according to some.
The Rohingya say that they have lived in what is now Burma for generations. The Burmese government says they are illegal immigrants. Many Burmese, including senior members of the long-feted opposition National League for Democracy, men who themselves spent years in jail as political prisoners, also regard the Rohingya as illegal immigrants.
Asked last October whether the Rohingya should be granted Burmese citizenship, Tin Oo, a senior NLD figure, said that “those who are not legal citizens of this country cannot stay,” adding that it was difficult to establish how many Rohingya could be entitled to Burmese citizenship.
“This is a difficult problem to solve,” he said. “When I was a young man, there were no Rohingya in Burma.”
Tin Oo’s party colleague, the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has been criticized for her apparent reluctance to discuss anti-Muslim violence in Burma.
Breaking this silence in Japan last week, Suu Kyi called for a revision of the citizenship laws.
“There is discrimination among citizens in our country,” she said. “We should also determine if certain laws are a hindrance to equal rights among citizens in the country, and revise them if we can.”
Mentioning a meeting she had recently with Burmese Muslim leaders, she lamented the state of inter-faith relations in Burma, saying that “this is a very sad state of affairs. We must learn to accommodate those with different views from ours.”
There has been scant regional pressure on Burma to treat the Rohingya in a more humane way. Asean’s two biggest Muslim-majority member-states—Indonesia and Malaysia—have raised the Rohingya issue with the Burmese government and have sent diplomatic and humanitarian missions to Burma and to Arakan State. But they have for the most part shied away from blunt public condemnation, as is often the way in dealings between Asean countries.
However, the bloc as a whole has been reluctant to single out Burma. Speaking at the most recent summit in Phnom Penh last November, then-Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said that member states told the Burma delegation that “if the issue is not handled by the Myanmar government, there is a risk of radicalization and extremism in that region.”
Speaking on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Vientiane on Nov. 6, a spokesman for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak expressed unease about the plight of Muslims in western Burma.
“Malaysia remains extremely concerned about ongoing tensions between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State of Myanmar,” he said.
For the most part, that is as far as Asean or its member states have gone in public, with the one exception being Indonesia. Foreign Minister Marty Natelagawa told The Irrawaddy at the ASEM summit that “one core issue in resolving the conflict is citizenship, and this is a matter the Myanmar government must address in the future.”
However, Burmese President Thein Sein told the Democratic Voice of Burma recently that the law would not be changed.
If they were of a mind to, the Burmese government could issue some sharp “heal thyself” type retorts to Jakarta or Putrajaya, in any case. Indonesia has been accused of letting anti-Christian and anti-Ahmadi sentiment get out of hand. Malaysia’s governing parties have dabbled in some sectarian brinkmanship in the run-up to the May 5 election. Hardliners linked to the government threatened to burn Bibles in an unwitting parody of the Rev. Terry Jones, that Perkasa, the group involved, said was in response to a row over whether Malaysia’s Christians should be allowed use the word “Allah” in their literature.
The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has been much more assertive than Asean with Burma over attacks on the Rohingya, which the OIC deems “genocide.”
Both Indonesia and Malaysia are part of an the OIC’s 11 country “Contact Group,” which has pushed Burma for greater humanitarian access to the roughly 100,000 Rohingya stuck in fetid camps in Arakan State.
The other nine members of the group are Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Djibouti, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Turkey, some of which have a torrid history of human rights abuses directed at ethnic and religious minorities.
Burma will, for the first time, chair Asean in 2014, another factor that will likely restrain the bloc’s members from tackling the Rohingya issue head on. Burma had to forego its turn as chair in the past, as Asean feared this would affect the groups’ relations with Western countries.
Next year will be a crucial one for Asean, the final year before it is scheduled to form a regional economic community, and arrangements for Burma’s role as Asean chair will likely take precedence over political or human rights concerns.
In late March, a United States-Asean meeting, looking ahead to Burma’s chairing of the association, gave the Burmese government every encouragement possible.
US Ambassador to Asean David L. Carden said: “I have every confidence Myanmar will be a leading contributor to Asean integration, including economic integration. We are pleased to see the government and private sector are focused on the road ahead and that other Asean member states are showing strong support.”
Digicel have been quietly angling for a license in Myanmar since early 2010, back in the days when Aung San Suu Kyi was still shut in and the junta was jailing people for dissent. Since then, up to a dozen Digicel officials have been staying at the luxury hotel and working out of an unmarked office in Yangon’s Sakura Tower. They are reportedly providing technical assistance to MPT and even sponsoring a local soccer team—an attempt, says a Yangon-based former consultant to the company, to get into the same room with regime cronies and government officials.
Well now we know as of the 3rs Feb Digicel Group has officially thrown its hat in the ring to be considered for a telecommunications licence in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The company said that it submitted its expression of interest in a bidding process, which is expected to yield two new licenced operators within the next five months.
What the selection committee will use to decide who gets the licences are still not clear, but the country will require the winners of the two nationwide telecommunications licences to “meet or exceed specified population and geographic coverage targets”.
What is clear to me is Myanmar is one of the most corrupt countries in the world and to do business in that country you must grease some palms.
However if short on manpower he can always call on Bert the Drumcondra drunk for assistance or else get the Bonox to lobby Amnasty International and Suu Kyi, to help him out with a slice of the cake….
Singapore’s SingTel, Norway’s Telenor, Malaysia’s Axiata Bharti, and India’s Airtel are also named among the bidders.