For Burmese Call Hawkers, Telecoms Shake-up Signals Bad Days Ahead

By Simon Roughneen 26 June 2013

RANGOON — Residents of Burma’s biggest city are accustomed to a few eccentricities in daily life, relics unseen or long-forgotten in towns elsewhere in the region.

Instead of newer cars, the streets until last year were mostly filled with 20-year-old Japanese rust buckets, a legacy of an absurd car import system.

Until just a few months ago, visitors to the country had to bring wads of pristine new US dollars to exchange for kyat, as ATMs did not accept foreign credit or bank cards.

Another visible idiosyncrasy is the spread of streetside landline telephones, where every 60 or 70 yards punters can pay to make calls, seemingly unperturbed by the coughing museum-worthy cars nearby or the yelling hawkers all around.

Aye Maung, a foreman on a building site near Rangoon’s railway station, says the connection on his mobile phone is patchy, so he makes the five-minute walk to the nearest phone station when he needs to make a call.

“I paid 2 lakh [about US$200] for my SIM card,” he complains, “but the mobile line these days seems so crowded, so busy—I can’t get through.”

In a region where mobile phone penetration rates often exceed national populations, Burma is a telecoms outlier due to its expensive and limited-range mobile phone network. Perhaps about 10 percent, probably a lot less, of the country’s 60 million people own SIM cards, though recently the military-backed Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) has been offering cheap SIM cards priced at $1.50 each—much-reduced from the most recent government staple price of about $200.

And with two new foreign licenses due for awarding on Thursday, the communications map of Burma is likely, finally, to change soon enough, going by the pledges made by some of the 11 remaining bidders for the mobile permits, even if a new telecoms law is still in the making.

It could mean the end, in time, for the array of government and private phone operators wedged between old-style teashops and street food stalls on the commercial capital’s streets, or in the case of Ko Kyaw, perched atop green plastic buckets of rice, the white grains selling at between 900 kyat and 1,100 kyat (between 95 cents and $1.15) for each roughly two-kilogram scoop.

“I only make around 2,000 kyat a day with the phone,” he says. “It’s not my main business.”

Selling calls is a more lucrative gig for shop owner Nge Nge, who thinks it could soon be time to give up on streetside landline desks. Her income from selling calls at her shop is down since the supply of new and cheap SIM cards went up—despite the reappearance of the $1.50 SIMs on the black market at sometimes 10 times the price.

“Now I sell between 10,000 and 15,000 kyat of calls a day,” she says. “Before it was more like 30,000.”

But, Nge Nge says, the loss is no big deal, and should rather be welcomed as part of a belated telecoms transformation that her country sorely needs.

She runs an upstairs beauty salon and a streetside shop, where she makes most of her money.

“Most of my business is the salon,” she says. “I look forward to more SIM cards and foreign companies here—it will be better for the majority of people.”

Also hedging against a possible telecoms shake-up is Kyi Ngwe Myint, who staffs a government-run public phone booth. “Maybe the business for these places will stop after the cellphones grow,” she says. “I already applied for jobs at other companies.”

But for the meantime, Burmese will have to rely—in part, at least—on the kitschy-looking plastic landlines and dirt-spattered desk phones on the city streets, while an ongoing dearth of SIM cards on the market prompts some underhand dealings.

“My phone was lifted right from my pocket,” says a glum-looking Thet Paing. His parents stumped up a hefty 500,000 kyat in 2011 for a SIM card for the then 16-year-old student. He believes his SIM card was likely sold on the black market, leaving him to pay 50 kyat per minute to call his friends from one of the three phones run by Kyi Ngwe Myint.

“I think if the foreign companies come here, these businesses will go down,” says Thet Paing. “But for now we still need these phones,” he adds, pulling out the inside of his empty right-hand pocket as a reminder of where he once—carelessly, perhaps—kept his now illicitly peddled cellphone.