Google’s globe-trotting Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt became the latest high-profile figure to endorse reforms in Burma on Friday as he touched down in Rangoon with the promise that the internet would transform the country.
Following a controversial trip to North Korea two months ago, Schmidt told IT entrepreneurs and students that the internet would mean newly won freedoms in Burma could not be reversed following half a century of military rule.
“I believe something extraordinary is going to happen in Myanmar [also known as Burma],” he said, speaking at an IT park near Rangoon’s university. “Your government has made an incredibly important political decision.”
Just a few years ago, Gmail was blocked in Burma and Google searches were heavily censored by filtering software. But following a sham general election at the end of 2010, the military has given itself safeguards in a new parliamentary system and the confidence to move away from day-to-day politics.
A year ago, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi won a landmark election and became a member of parliament paving the way for the removal of Western sanctions which barred the likes of Google from doing business here.
During his Friday speech, Schmidt announced a host of new Burma initiatives including a new local-language Google subdomain, the unblocking of Android Play apps as sanctions are eased and in the longer term, Google maps.
“For now, [Google’s] highest priority is getting more information into the country,” he said ahead of a meeting with President Thein Sein.
In the short time, Burma’s biggest challenge is to develop a dilapidated and woefully insufficient telecommunications infrastructure, said the Google chief.
Internet users in this country of 50 million-plus people are believed to number just a quarter of a million, while there are less than six million mobile subscribers, making Burma among the least connected nations in Asia.
The government has opened bidding for two new telecoms licenses as it aims to raise mobile phone ownership by more than eight-fold in just three years. But critics say it has failed to introduce legislation to protect what would be multi-billion-pound investments.
“The government has to make it possible for the private sector to build telecommunications infrastructure,” said Schmidt.