YANGON—The UK government’s development finance institution announced this week a US$30 million (45.4 billion kyats) investment in the Myanmar internet service provider Frontiir.
The British CDC Group, formerly the Commonwealth Development Corporation, said the investment will help Frontiir expand across the country to eventually bring more than 2 million people online.
The CDC is fully owned by the government of the UK and operates on a mandate “to build thriving communities that provide sustainable opportunities for all citizens.” The Frontiir investment, the company said, helps them meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal number nine, which deals with “Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure.”
Under that umbrella, the UN goal seeks to “Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020,” UN documents read.
It marks the CDC’s first direct equity investment in Myanmar.
“Frontiir is honored to be the recipient of the first-ever direct equity investment by CDC in Myanmar, an accolade we believe demonstrates that an ethical, fair, and sustainable business model can still lead to great success amidst huge challenges in an emerging country like Myanmar,” Frontiir chairman and CEO Dr. Godfrey Tan, aka Dr. Wai Lin Tun, was quoted as saying in the press release.
While expanding internet access is generally a net good in development and human rights calculations, it is not without its own complications in Myanmar. Article 77 of the Telecommunications Law allows the Myanmar government to shut down internet service in declared emergencies—an authority they’ve recently exercised to widespread condemnation amid ongoing fighting in northern Rakhine State.
As Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB) director Vicky Bowman points out, the MCRB flagged Article 77 as a matter of concern in a September 2015 assessment it published on the information and communications technology sector and human rights in Myanmar.
“Greater investment in connectivity is a positive, so CDC’s investment in Frontiir is broadly welcome,” Bowman told The Irrawaddy via email, but, she noted, “the provisions of Article 77 … present a human rights risk for operators because they provide for open-ended internet shutdowns which reduce the right to information,” which “in turn, with greater dependency on the internet, impacts [people’s] livelihoods, education, health, etc.”
Article 77 states that the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology “may, when an emergency situation arises to operate for public interest, direct the licensee to suspend a Telecommunications Service, to intercept, not to operate any specific form of communication, to obtain necessary information and communications, and to temporarily control the Telecommunications Service and Telecommunications Equipments.”
The MCRB recommends that any service provider “proactively report on the requests received from the Myanmar government (at all levels) for lawful interception, communications data, content removal and website blocking, and requests for network shutdowns, in order to stimulate further transparency,” a response the telecom operator Telenor Group has basically followed in Rakhine, though other providers in the country have not.
The CDC said its investment will allow Frontiir, which already employees more than 1,600, to hire an estimated 4,000 more people.
Frontiir plans to expand its internet service, branded as “Myanmar Net,” to cover lower income townships within Yangon and Mandalay and to eventually cover 22 cities and towns across the country in the next few years.
“CDC’s capital will help accelerate [Frontiir’s] growth, helping it reach further remote regions,” said Srini Nagarajan, CDC managing director and head of Asia.