The Political Road to Digital Revolution: How Myanmar’s Telecoms Reform Happened

Research output: Working paper/PreprintWorking paper


This study examines the recent overhaul of Myanmar’s telecommunications sector. It explains how, in the context of the country’s transition to democracy and growing international openness, reformers were able to use political savvy, strong leadership and smart institutional design to make reform happen. It details the importance in this process of partnership, ideas and narratives, the politics of accountability, and a pragmatic approach to trade-offs.
The study also highlights the important role of a wide range of international processes and actors: not just donors, but also international rules and standards, foreign companies, embassy staff and specialist consultants.
A ‘digital revolution’ has been one of the profound changes taking place in Myanmar over the last few years. In 2011, only a little more than 2% of the country’s 51 million people had mobile phones, behind even North Korea. By late 2015, that figure had risen to a staggering 60%. Myanmar is now the fourth fastest-growing market for SIM cards in the world.
This rapid transformation came about after the substantial reform of Myanmar’s telecommunications sector, which included partial liberalisation and the introduction of a new law and regulatory framework. The reform has received much attention because of its transparency, its impact on Myanmar’s development, and its unlikely success in the face of considerable political and bureaucratic obstacles. In this paper, we examine how the reform took place, and how reformers managed to overcome the barriers they faced.
The paper’s analysis is based primarily on in-depth interviews with key stakeholders and participants in the reform process, including politicians, government officials and employees of the World Bank, international consultancy firms, telecoms firms and civil society organisations. Most of the interviews were held in Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw between December 2015 and February 2016. The study also draws on media sources and other documents.
The analysis highlights the importance of the following factors:
• The interaction of structures and agents. Myanmar’s broader structural changes – its political transition and changing relationship with the rest of the world – helped provide the necessary space for the overhaul of the telecoms sector. But to achieve effective reform, the various actors involved needed to recognise the changing context, understand the opportunities and constraints this produced, and design and implement a reform strategy.
• Ideas and narratives. A strong reform narrative helped mobilise supporters, sideline opponents and win the battle of ideas. Reformers presented the telecoms initiative as a high-impact ‘easy win’ for the government and the country as a whole – it would significantly benefit the population and boost Myanmar’s economic development; it would be easier to achieve than reform in other sectors; and it would show potential international investors that Myanmar is serious about reform and open for business.
• Close collaboration among diverse actors – from the political and technical spheres, public and private, national and international. This partnership was supported by strong political leadership. President Thein Sein met regularly with the reform team and – with the Minister of Communications and Information Technology, U Myat Hein – provided political commitment and protection from opponents.
• The politics of accountability and transparency. Adherence to a highly transparent and accountable reform process (in designing the reform, selecting the mobile operators, and issuing the licences) helped provide protection from interference from vested interests.
• Understanding of the political context and the acceptance of some trade-offs as a feature of a successful economic reform. The case highlights the need for reformers to acknowledge and engage with potential trade-offs that arise and seek to minimise any negative effects.
The findings confirm much of the current thinking about reforms needing to be politically smart, adaptive and locally led.
Myanmar’s telecoms reform provides examples of how external actors can:
• allow the domestic reform team to come to its own understanding of the policy problem and solution;
• work as part of the team and be able to draw on expertise and experience to respond to policy queries, rather than being only short-term external consultants;
• discuss examples of similar reforms in other countries; and
• encourage policymakers to adapt the reform to their political context – for instance, it was important politically to ensure that the domestic incumbent telecoms operator, MPT, could compete with the new foreign operators.
However, this case also highlights that the international community plays a greater and more varied role in reform processes than is often considered. Thinking about external support for reform therefore means looking beyond donors to the roles of – for example – international rules and standards, foreign companies, embassy staff and specialist consultants.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationBirmingham
PublisherDevelopmental Leadership Program, University of Birmingham
Publication statusPublished - 2017

Publication series

NameDLP Research Paper


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