There is a village of thatched wooden and bamboo huts just outside a Monywa in northern Myanmar where even the richest family has nothing more than a dirt floor and rickety TV set. One household has spent years of savings on a large red and black Sony stereo system, but other that these electronic luxuries, wealth is measured by heads of cattle and goat.
When I visited Zalone Village, located just outside Monywa, capital of Sagaing Division, in early January 2014, I became the first foreigner to walk into the community within recent memory. This village, a group of farmers and laborers, received me with a reserved state of surprise, a typical welcome in the Myanmar countryside where people are awed by by outsiders, but often too shy to immediately approach them.
This isn’t always the case, however. Occasionally the presence of a foreign interloper conjures up too much emotion to be kept in. The first bamboo hut I came across housed a three-generation family of about six, including three children and their grandmother. Upon seeing me, the elderly woman stretched out an age-pruned finger and began to shriek in a raspy voice, “Foreigner, there is a foreigner here!” I was the first white person she had seen outside of a TV screen.
If a member of this tight-knit community has not been in school during the past several years, chances are they have never used a computer. Here, the lines of communication to the outside are among the most limited in the world; only four people of the 300 that permanently reside here have mobile phones, which require a prohibitorily expensive Myanmar SIM card, valued at around $220 in January 2014 — or over two months’ salary for the average Myanmar labourer. But most of the farmers here don’t make a monthly salary. The work-a-day lives of rural Myanmar people are instead sustained from a barter system; money is only received twice a year, when the seasonal harvests are reaped and sold off to estate owners in the nearby city.
As far as cities go, Monywa is not more than a a collection of drab concrete buildings and Buddhist monasteries that surround a 3-storey clock tower, fitted with the emblematic Burmese-styled roof of stair-casing, golden speared tips. For the villagers, the dusty path that leads to Monywa is the only route to the big city and all its other worldly comforts, a leap forward in time to where mobile phones are sold and restaurants cater to a trickle of outsiders that find themselves here, but, nonetheless, not much more. Four villagers have capitalised on the remoteness of their community, renting out landline phones like pay phones, a common small business in Myanmar. The rates given by different families are always a topic of gossip. Usually, incoming calls to a different household are also charged, leading to involuntary fees that can quickly devolve into heated debates.
If the flat vision of the planet that pre-dates Christopher Colombus was a reality, then Myanmar would be on the corner of the map. But this relegated nation, among the farthest corners of communicational contact, is about to be be connected to our digital world. Ooredoo, the winner of one of the country’s two telecom licenses, next to Telenor, will likely launch its mobile network within the coming week, insiders have said. By providing SIM cards at a fraction of the previous cost, just 1,500 kyat (about $1.50), Ooredoo, Qatar’s national telecom company, will be responsible for catalysing the first wave of a digital revolution, down to the last villager in Sagaing. Thought to have a mobile penetration rate of about 10%, Myanmar could quadruple its mobile penetration rate to over 40% within the next year alone, later reaching approximately 70% by 2016, government analysts have reported.
Domestic companies have been among the first to prepare for the incoming millions of people that will be able to have access to mobile technology for the first time. Mobile banking is set to leapfrog conventional banking, with Yangon-based CB Bank launching its mobile app for banking agents on July 25. In Kenya, the CEO U Kyaw Lynn posed a comparison, mobile banking through a similar phone app carries 1/3 of the country’s GDP. For the cash-based market of Myanmar, where nearly 100% of transactions are conducted in cash, this technology will spur a profound transformation in commerce.
At the end of July, 2014, the typical bank teller in Myanmar needs to be able to lift several kilos worth of 1,000 kyat notes, equivalent to about $1, up until 2010 the highest denomination before the Central Bank began printing 5,000 kyat notes in 2012. A bank teller should also be aware of the less luxurious traits of the job, namely handling rotten bills, stained with betel nut and other substances of unknown origin, and then processing thousands and thousands of pieces through one of many constantly whirring money counters invariably set up behind teller windows in Myanmar banks.
By July 2015, these type of job duties may well be defunct, and to the children of Zalone Village just another example of how far Myanmar has escaped the gravity of its pre-modern past.