Mobile Deal in Myanmar Elicits Anger Over Religion

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The Myanmar government awarded major telecommunications contracts to two foreign companies on Thursday, a milestone in the country's opening up to the world that was immediately tainted by religious hatred.

Hours after the announcement, a monk who is one of the leaders of a radical nationalist Buddhist movement called for a boycott of one of the two companies because it is based in Qatar, a Muslim country.

"Did the government have such little choice?" the monk, Ashin Wimala, a leader of the 969 movement, said in a telephone interview after the government announced the winners late Thursday. "Why did they award this to a Muslim company?"

The company, Ooredoo, won a 15-year concession to build and operate mobile phone networks virtually from scratch, as did Telenor Mobile Communications of Norway.

The networks are crucially needed in Myanmar, where less than 10 percent of people have a mobile phone. That is a startlingly low number at a time when mobile phones are ubiquitous even in the poorest corners of the world. In neighboring Laos, a country with similar levels of grinding poverty, mobile phone penetration is 87 percent.

But in a country that is 90 percent Buddhist and where anti-Muslim sermons and hate speech appear to have fueled rampaging lynch mobs, the award to Ooredoo drew fury.

On the Facebook page where the government announcement was posted, critical comments quickly accumulated. "Why? Why? Why Muslim company omg," said one. "Say no to Ooredoo," said another.

The government stood by its selection of the company, which operates in more than a dozen countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia. "We selected them for a license on the basis of their services: they have a good telecom service in Singapore," U Ye Htut, a government spokesman, said by telephone.

In recent months, the leaders of the 969 movement have called for a boycott of shops owned by Muslims and products that they say are linked to companies owned by Muslims. The movement says the country's Buddhist character is under threat and has proposed banning marriages between Muslims and Buddhists.

Over the last year, Buddhist lynch mobs have killed more than 200 Muslims and forced more than 150,000 people, mostly Muslims, from their homes.

On Sunday, the movement appeared to receive the blessing of President Thein Sein when he issued a statement calling Ashin Wirathu, the spiritual leader of the movement, "a son of Lord Buddha."

How powerful the movement's objections will prove remains to be seen. The telecommunication licenses are a potent symbol of Myanmar's transition from decades of isolation under military rule to newfound freedoms for the country's 55 million people.

The government pushed ahead with the announcement, even though members of Parliament voted Wednesday to delay awarding the contracts until a telecommunications bill currently being debated becomes law. Mr. Thein Sein wants voters to feel tangible results from the country's economic liberalization and democratization before general elections scheduled for 2015.

Three years ago, when Myanmar was still under military rule, mobile phones were the preserve of the rich. The conditions of the license calls for a swift rollout: coverage must reach a quarter of the population within a year. Within five years, half of the population must have access to cellular data services and three-quarters must be able to make voice calls.

Both Ooredoo and Telenor have deep pockets, analysts say, a critical factor in Myanmar where the huge scale of the investment will require billions of dollars.

The chairman of Ooredoo, Sheik Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Saud al-Thani, issued a statement on Thursday saying that Myanmar would "undoubtedly become a key market" for the company.

Eric Pfanner and Wai Moe contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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