Yangon, March 18: Executive chairman Eric Schmidt of Google plans to go to Myanmar this week, becoming the first high-profile executive from a technology company to visit the country since the West eased sanctions imposed during decades of military dictatorship.
Schmidt “is visiting several countries in Asia to connect with local partners and Googlers who are working to improve the lives of many millions of people across the region by helping them get online and access the world’s information for the first time in the next few years”, Google said in a statement.
The Myanmar trip, which will be followed by a visit to India, will be Schmidt’s second this year to a country off the beaten track and unaccustomed to Western telecommunications.
Since Myanmar’s military stepped aside and a quasi-civilian government was installed in 2011, setting off a wave of political and economic changes, the country has enjoyed a surge of interest from overseas businesses.
Myanmar, formerly Burma, is the last unexploited territory for businesses in Asia, with untapped markets including the telecommunications sector: Mobile penetration in the country of 60 million is estimated to be a meagre 5 per cent to 10 per cent.
The country’s planned modernisation of mobile infrastructure and the expected boom in cellphone use will pave the way for companies like Google, which could profit greatly through sales of inexpensive smartphones built around its Android platform.
In January Schmidt went to North Korea, saying it was a personal trip to talk about a free and open Internet.
Schmidt is will give a speech at the Myanmar Information and Communication Technology Park in Yangon on Friday before making his way to the capital, Naypyidaw, to meet senior government officials, said Zaw Min Oo, secretary general of the Myanmar Computer Society.
For the Friday speech, “there will be an audience of about 400, comprising entrepreneurs, executive committee members of the computer association and young leaders”, Zaw Min Oo said.
In February the US treasury department issued a general license for four of Myanmar’s biggest banks, two of which are owned by tycoons associated with the former junta, before a visit by 50 US executives that month to explore opportunities.
The delegation, led by the US Agency for International Development and including representatives of Cisco, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Intel and Microsoft , visited Myanmar to look into projects to increase access to the Internet, strengthen transparent government and expand digital literacy, according to a statement from the agency.
Many leading firms in Myanmar are still largely controlled by businesspeople subject to sanctions, but western companies are starting to move in after the implementation of a new foreign investment law. Myanmar is offering two operating licenses for companies to build a new telecommunications infrastructure.
MTN Group, the largest African mobile phone company, is bidding for a license and has said about 90 companies have expressed interest.
Schmidt, who was Google’s chief executive from 2001 to 2011, is becoming more visible on issues involving technology and world affairs. His book, The New Digital Age, due to hit bookshelves in April, was co-authored with Google Ideas chief Jared Cohen, who had previously worked at the US State Department.